Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Q&A #6: BGSU adds Quadcopter to its storytelling toolbox

 The Doyt Perry Stadium taken with a GoPro Hero camera mounted on a DJI Phantom 1 Quadcopter. (Photo by Craig Bell)
Craig Bell
   I was standing in the balcony at BGSU's Sebo Athletic Center on Saturday, ready to shoot the BGSU football players as they entered the field from the tunnel, when I spotted a peculiar white object hovering over the band.
   Attached to the flying contraption was a GoPro Hero camera, and it was recording images from the sky. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen drones flying over an event or subject, and it definitely won’t be the last. But I was nonetheless intrigued.
    At the time I didn't know who was controlling the flying camera, but I was delighted to find out at halftime that it was Craig Bell, a BGSU photographer. I had found my next Q&A subject!
    This new vantage point of aerial photography is the next biggest thing, or is it?
    Craig, a Van Buren resident who has been shooting for BGSU since 1998, said that when he told the BGSU athletics department about the drone, he was actually surprised how enthusiastic they were about adding the flying toy to their storytelling toolbox.
    Though he's only flown it twice, he is already realizing a few pros and cons of using the Phantom flying saucer.
    I appreciate Craig's willingness to share his experience in this Q&A forum for the benefit of other photographers who might consider buying one:
Q: First of all, why did you think the drone would make a good addition to your camera collection? Who actually owns it?
A: The first time we considered using this type of technology for photography came at the request to get aerial photos of Bowling Green State University for an article in the BGSU Magazine. I knew it was not possible to get the specific desired angle and low altitude with an airplane, helicopter or hot air balloon. Plus, factor in the FAA restrictions of flying over campus, and the logistics and cost associated with renting a plane, and it was evident that we needed to look at other options. That was when I started researching the DJI Phantom 1 Quadcopter. The University had purchased the remote control unit back in the summer of 2013. We already had a GoPro camera, so it was a sensible and cost-effective step toward getting aerial photography and video.
Q: Is there a big learning curve to using it?
The flying Phantom (Photo by Lori King)
A: The Phantom Copter is a relatively easy craft to pilot. There's always a learning curve with any new technology, and since I had no experience flying RC aircrafts, I spent time in my backyard in the country flying and practicing. The copter uses GPS, and connects with satellites during the pre-flight setup and compass calibration. You go through this process each time you fly or insert a new battery into the unit. As a safety precaution, if you were to lose connection with the remote control, you can enable the“Go Home” function on the remote and the Phantom will return to its point of origin and land itself. Although I'm no expert, and my flying is far from fancy with no extreme maneuvers, I have never lost connection or had what others refer to as a “fly away.” Of course, it can be tricky when flying around groups of people or when it's windy, and I am very cautious not to fly very low or directly over people during campus events. I always make sure I have a relatively large area to land the copter in case a situation were to occur.
    The unit is very light, and is pretty easy to use with the small GoPro camera. There are a lot of blogs concerning interference from cell phones and other transmissions, like the Bluetooth signal from the GoPro camera. Although I've experienced some minor GPS interference when flying too close to large structures, I have yet to experience any major loss of transmission or connection that affected the copter's flying or my ability to land.
Q: Where have you used it so far? What are some of its benefits?
A: I've used the Phantom to photograph a campus image of University Hall for the BGSU Magazine, and a few others stills around campus. Recently, I used the copter to photograph during the BGSU football game against Indiana. I was able to capture some really nice shots of the team running onto the field, as well as an aerial photo of the stadium. These are angles I would not be able get from a conventional hand-held DSLR.
Q: What are a few of the major drawbacks?
A: The stigma associated with the copter being called a “drone.” Also, at its highest setting the GoPro camera shoots a 12-megapixel file, and a more fish eye focal length. The file size is even smaller when trying to take video and stills at the same time from the GoPro. It would be nice to have a larger copter that would actually hold a Canon DSLR and shoot RAW files.
Q: You mentioned you don't like the term drone. What else would you call it, and why?
A: Yes … you may have noticed I use the term RC, or remote control/radio-controlled aircraft. I personally dislike using the word drone and believe it misrepresents how we use the technology as photographers. When I think of a drone I have in mind images of warfare or high-tech surveillance aircrafts. This is far from how I use the new technology for photography, and the university is in NO WAY engaging in surveillance photography when we use the copter. Rather, we're looking to capturing aerials and interesting angles of the campus that are not possible with a conventional photography/video.
Q: What advice would you give photographers who want to use it for their photography business?
  • Be honest about your budget and the practical use of the copter. The Phantom and the GoPro camera are inexpensive ways to get started.
  • Practice, practice, practice before attempting to fly it around crowds.
  • Do your homework on the newer Phantom copters and upgrades available before purchasing.
  • If you plan to do video, then a Gimbal/stabilizer is a must. We recently purchased a Zenmuse H3-2D Gimbal System for the Phantom 1 and are excited to get it installed and start using for seamless, 'shaky free' video.
  • Most important, let everyone around you know that you plan to fly and record stills/video. Before I flew the copter at the BGSU football game I first contacted the Athletics Department at BGSU for approval, and then understood the NCAA rules for operating the device at athletic events.
    I was not allowed to fly during actual game play. I also contacted the BGSU Campus Police, Student Affairs, and even the Wood County Airport to inform them of my intentions, and to explain that I would be flying the RC copter/drone during the game.
   Inside the stadium, I chose to fly during pre-game and when the band was on the field. Outside the stadium I was permitted to fly during the game, and made sure I did not enter the stadium and any FAA airspace restrictions. And, yes, the Phantom will fly pretty high!
   And lastly … this is not a toy. Having a definite respect for the technology and understanding my limitations is vital!
View of the BGSU campus. (Photos by Craig Bell)
The Doyt Perry stadium during the Indiana Hoosier's game.

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