Hayden Griffith is a virtuoso of the skies. A photographer for close to ten years and a drone pilot for three, the young gun from the South Coast of NSW has been called by the likes of Red Bull (and Vodafone!) to shoot game-changing scenes from snowy back-country trails to idyllic beaches and even an archaeological dig site in Utah, USA.
When you’re in the air, a flight time of four minutes sounds too good to be true; just not when you’re flying a drone. Griffith remembers with a laugh two years ago when the first drone launched with a battery not big enough to power a five-minute flight, making videography pretty challenging.
Since then, drones have followed the typical technology curve – their function has improved exponentially and prices have dropped considerably: we found one model for less than $200! These days, people have used drones for videography, photos, delivery, and even illegal sausage sizzle retrieval.
Best drone for your buck
The first drone Griffith bought set him back $3,000, and he admitted that “it was a pretty terrible piece of gear. So many things went wrong.” For mucking around in the park, any cheap model will do. The next step up is the DJI Phantom ($2,000), “fine for capturing videos of overseas adventures or sports.” However, similar to how upgrading from a digital camera to a DSLR is essential for any serious photographer, commercial or professional grade applications will need higher quality drones. “The DJI Inspire range are industry standard, and they start around $3,400. Above that, custom drone builds can cost from $30,000 and above, which will allow choice of frame, battery, and attachment to serve whatever purpose you need your drone for.”
And what should prospective drone buyers look for? “The battery is crucial. Look for battery life of at least 12 minutes. Once you’ve decided on that, check the drone’s competency in weather conditions. A lightweight model is fine for calm days, but any wind will require a more powerful model.”
Drone uses: The mundane to the far out
Photography and video are the obvious choices for consumers with drones. Griffith first started as a real estate videographer. Now, drone footage is used in professional and amateur movies, video clips and sports clips.
The opportunity to achieve shots previously only achievable with helicopter is only one of the various uses for drones. Amazon is currently experimenting with drone delivery in its much-publicised Amazon Prime Air experiment that began in 2013. And goods aren’t the only thing being transported by drones. Chinese drone company Ehang has designed the first drone taxi, capable of carrying a single person from air pad to air pad (for the 23 minutes the battery lasts).
The different perspectives that drones offer give the ability to survey buildings and generate realistic 3D models from 2D photos. They can also capture 3D data about prospective mines by mapping hard-to-access sites and slopes, and even measure the weight of ore on-site: “You can place a 1x1m square on the ground, then send a drone up to measure the stockpiles of coal in a mine. It’s reasonably accurate, to about the nearest tonne.”
Drones can also be used to benefit public safety. The NSW Government is trialling the use of drones in shark and sea life detection (resulting in some pretty terrifying footage). DJI just announced the M200, a heavyweight drone for serious applications. Attach a thermal imaging camera to it and a drone becomes a powerful search and rescue tool in spotting missing hikers or surfers. A fleet of drones can cover far more ground than a helicopter operator, and in treacherous weather, keep the people controlling it safer. “The more people you can take out of the air, the more effectively and safely you can conduct rescue operations.”
So now for the fun stuff.
Rules and regulations
Under 2 kilograms, 400 feet.
Memorise those two numbers. CASA (Civil Aviation Safety Authority), the regulator of airspace in Australia, allows drone flight without certification as long as your drone weighs less than 2kgs, is flying recreationally, and abides by these safety rules. The drone also can’t fly more than 400 feet above ground (about the height of a 30 story building), as to avoid collisions with commercial aircraft. “This is not the point from which you launched the drone, but the ground directly under the drone at any time. So, if you launched it on top of a cliff, then flew it over the edge, you would have to drop altitude.” You also need to keep the drone 30 metres away from any person not involved with the flight.
If you plan on flying for commercial gain, simply notify CASA if your drone is under 2kgs. Depending on your employer, you may also need public liability insurance. If the drone is over that weight, you’ll need an RPA operator’s certificate and a remote pilot license , which can be obtained from an RPAS training provider.
Photographing and filming from the sky
Let’s talk photography and video. When asked, Griffith replied with a grin that he wouldn’t give away all his secrets. However, when talking photography, he emphasised the importance of composition. “A lot of people are excited by drones because it’s a new angle. But for the best results, you need to approach it like any other photo.” In regards to light – “light is a whole different beast when you’re shooting from a drone. Things will always look different from above, so it’s worth experimenting, but morning and afternoon provide the best light. Keep in mind that at midday, the light will be reflected straight back into the lens. Shooting over water is pretty much impossible then.”
When capturing video, one needs to make sure to keep the motion smooth, to ensure the gimbal (camera stabiliser) keeps the camera steady and the footage doesn’t make the viewer nauseous.
Griffith’s excited by the improvements in drone technology and what they allow. “25 minutes of battery? There’s a lot less panic when I’m shooting, that’s for sure. And if I have a car inverter to recharge battery packs, I can just about shoot all day.” As batteries become lighter, motors more powerful, and frames lighter, the sky is not the limit for applications of drones.
5 Minute Read