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Although professional aerial photography has been around for years, the new consumer market is now rapidly expanding. Radio-controlled aircraft are not a new phenomenon, nor is the concept of mounting cameras on RC aircraft. What is new and exciting for videographers and photographers who wish to add aerial images to their portfolios is the introduction of budget-friendly aerial technology—in particular, computerized flight controllers. This new technology is taking to the mainstream a field that traditionally has been relegated to professionals or a niche hobby market.
FPV and Aerial Photography
The original impetus for mounting cameras to RC aircraft wasn't so much recording as it was the ability to capture a truly immersive first-person point of view—or first-person view (FPV)—while flying. Because of a number of limitations, the use of unmanned aircraft to capture photos or video has remained out of the reach of just about anyone other than top-tier professionals. Lightweight cameras weren't considered of high enough quality, and wireless video transmission was cumbersome, unreliable, and expensive. Lack of stabilization meant the footage would have been unusable and shaky, due to the high vibration inherent in motorized systems, not to mention the high skill level required to pilot aircraft, whether remote controlled or not.
Well, that has all changed. The GoPro and competing ultra-compact cameras have proven themselves to professionals and amateurs alike. Wi-Fi now offers the bandwidth and range to transmit video at reasonable quality and minimal latency. Motorized gimbals, like high-quality cameras, have been miniaturized, and computerized flight controllers have diminished the pilot learning curve.
Multi-Rotor Design, Quadcopters, and Computerized Flight Controllers
Because they can stand and hover, or capture slow, sweeping shots, helicopters—as opposed to fixed-wing airplanes—are the preferred platform for FPV and, especially, aerial video and photography. The problem is that helicopters are notoriously difficult to fly, especially the multi-rotor or quadcopter configurations preferred for aerial photography.
The introduction of computerized flight-control systems has arguably been a game changer. But then, what does the flight controller do? The short answer is: it manages everything that occurs during the flight, from relaying user inputs sent to the receiver (RX) to affecting the appropriate movement response in terms of throttle, pitch, and yaw to factoring GPS, gimbal, compass, and sensor data to determine flight attitude and make appropriate assisted-flying adjustments. The flight controller is literally the brains of the aircraft, though the sophistication of these brains can vary.
The DJI Naza-M system, in particular, is currently at the advanced end of the flight controllers' spectrum. It takes GPS, compass, gimbal, and altimeter data and uses that information to provide full autopilot redundancy, if required. Perhaps the most important feature that GPS-based flight controllers offer for beginners is Return to Home Failsafe. Return to Home is the quadcopter’s ability to automatically fly back to a pre-specified “home point” if contact with the transmitter (TX) is ever lost. More basic flight controllers that lack GPS data, on the other hand, might only provide basic stabilization safeguards.
In addition to Naza, other multi-rotor systems, such as the Blade 350 QX, feature assisted flying systems that perform much of the same functionality. In the case of Blade, SAFE technology is behind their intelligent flight control system. Whether GPS is available or not, these systems all rely on a multi-axis gimbal and other instruments to provide the flight attitude data needed to maintain a stable flight configuration, as well as override potentially dangerous user inputs that could otherwise send the aircraft into a crash.
Of course, advanced pilots will probably choose to forgo assisted-flying modes, opting for the additional maneuverability that turning those off enables. For beginners, however, safe operation mandates the use of assisted-flying modes as well as—where applicable—careful GPS calibration and pre-flight setup. Remember, as sophisticated as the technology is getting, RC helicopters rely on embedded computers that are essentially as complex as your desktop machine.
Selectable Flight Modes
RC helicopters generally feature two or more flight modes that define the level of maneuverability relative to assisted-flying intervention.
For aircraft with GPS, the simplest mode, known as GPS Mode on multi-rotors featuring DJI's Naza-M flight controller, provides full redundancy against pilot error. In addition, it uses GPS coordinates to hold the aircraft in a fixed horizontal and vertical spatial position, as much as possible, whenever the pilot releases the controls. This mode is the best for beginners, and is often the favorite for shooting video. It will compensate for the effects of wind—up to the aircraft's maximum horizontal velocity—and will prevent inertia from causing it to drift, ensuring something close to a fixed camera position for video shots where camera movement isn't desired.
The second Naza mode is GPS Attitude Mode. GPS Attitude Mode doesn't try and hold the helicopter in a fixed spatial position, but it does use GPS and gimbal data to help maintain a stable flying condition. A similar mode on helicopters without GPS, such as the Blade 180 QX, is Stability Mode. In the case of Blade, this feature is part of SAFE (Sensor Assisted Flight Envelope) technology. The SAFE systems uses attitude awareness to limit the bank angles, restrict movement, and make the quadcopter easier to fly. Since there is no GPS signal to rely on, the helicopter is unable to maintain a fixed position and may start to drift, but it can still use gimbal and other data to keep the helicopter in stable flight in spite of overzealous pilot inputs. Stability Mode offers two settings: a “low-angle” setting that imposes the greatest restriction on movement and is therefore the safest to fly; and a “high-angle” setting, offering more maneuverability and therefore a measurably increased risk of irrecoverably losing control.
The final DJI Naza mode is Attitude Mode. This is equivalent to Agility Mode on Blade quadcopters. Both Attitude Mode and Agility Mode are almost entirely manual—as close to manual as multi-rotor designs can get—depending almost entirely on the skill of the pilot to keep the helicopter safely in the air. Because the safeties have been removed, these modes should only be used by expert pilots.
What “Ready-to-Fly” Really Means
Since most of the terminology you will encounter carries over from the RC world, much of the lingo may be unfamiliar to those with photography or video backgrounds. Naturally, this can make things confusing for the neophyte. One phrase that can trip people up is "ready-to-fly." It is important to understand what ready-to-fly does and doesn't mean.
Since RC modelers are accustomed to building everything from scratch, in some cases, they might purchase a kit that includes most of the required hardware. But quite often they will just purchase a basic airframe and build on that, adding the motors, flight controller, receiver, compass, FPV transmitter, and so on. When one encounters the term ready-to-fly, it is meant to be understood from this perspective: all of the required hardware for basic flying is included in the box, and that most of the assembly is done for you. Protrusions such as landing gear and rotors typically still need to be attached, but what assembly there is can be accomplished with basic household tools and doesn't require soldering. Ready-to-fly means that the aircraft isn't a model. It is totally, or almost ready to fly, out of the box.
But remember, just because it weighs a couple of pounds and may look like a toy, your new helicopter is still an aircraft. Professional pilots spend years training. Learning an RC helicopter, on the other hand, shouldn't take years, but it does still involve—like any new technology—something of a learning curve. And what you need to know starts before you even turn your new quadcopter on.
In contrast to ready-to-fly, you may encounter the term Bind-n-Fly, often abbreviated “BNF”. Bind-n-Fly refers to a transmitter/receiver system that is designed to be universal among RC vehicles. It is featured on many Spektrum transmitters, such as the DX6i, as well as receivers found on many Blade quadcopters, including the 350 QX. With BNF-compatible hardware, a single controller can potentially be used to operate an entire collection. For this reason, aircraft sold as “BNF” versions typically require the transmitter to be purchased separately. Please note that to operate some features, such as an FPV camera, a minimum number of channels may be required (typically between 4 and 6), so it is important to consult the manual for any aircraft you intend to use first to ensure the transmitter you pick up is fully compatible.
XProHeli XP2 Quadcopter
The XproHeli XP2 is the "big boy" of the current B&H aerial lineup. It features 10” props and provides a suitable platform for lightweight cameras including GoPros, “point-and-shoot” style cameras, and even mirrorless cameras weighing up to 14.1 ounces. Apart from the payload capacity, perhaps the most notable feature of the XP2 is its aluminum frame. Using aluminum makes the aircraft sturdier and more crash resistant compared to smaller, plastic competitors. But this frame also means that a crash has the potential to cause more damage to any property or people—therefore, the XP2 should only be used outdoors in a suitably open space.
The camera mount on the XP2 offers small degree of damping, helping to reduce some of the worst vibration, but does not provide perfect camera stabilization on its own. To this end, the XP2 is compatible with XPRoHeli's own large XPG Brushless Gimbal. The XPG Gimbal is recommended for videography applications where extremely smooth footage is required, in particular when shooting with a GoPro or similar action camera that lacks image stabilization.
The XP2 uses the same DJI Naza-M flight controller as number of the DJI helicopters, including the Phantom Quadcopter with GoPro Mount.
DJI Phantom and Phantom 2 Vision
Arguably the most well-known series of RC multi-rotor craft to those coming from outside the traditional RC market is the DJI Phantom Quadcopter line—in particular, the original DJI Phantom with GoPro Mount and the Phantom 2 Vision. Both use a quad-rotor configuration, currently the most common configuration found among smaller RC helicopters. And both feature a ready-to-fly design, meaning they only require basic assembly and no soldering to get up and running, unless you want to add accessories such as a gimbal.
The original DJI Quadcopter, the Phantom with GoPro Mount, includes a mount to hold a GoPro HERO action camera. Although it comes with everything you need (except the camera), users often find that a number of accessories are really desirable to get the full experience they seek. The most popular add-on is the Zenmuse H3-2D Gimbal, along with the Zenmuse H3-2D Upgrade Kit, required to integrate the gimbal system with the flight controller. Because installation of the Zenmuse H3-3D Upgrade Kit requires soldering, B&H offers kits that feature in-house installation and testing of the upgrade kit and gimbal before it ships to you.
The other piece of hardware many regard as essential is a wireless video transmitter. Because the GoPro's internal Wi-Fi operates on 2.4 GHz, the same as the Phantom's transmitter, interference may cause the quadcopter’s transmitter to stop working correctly. In addition, the wireless live-view feature of the GoPro HERO only works while the camera is in standby mode, and is disabled while recording video. A wireless kit, such as the DJI Video Link Kit, allows pilots to get a full first-person view (FPV), giving them a true 'copter's-eye view of the action. And it allows videographers and photographers to monitor what they are recording remotely.
In order to make life easier for those of us less interested in the modeling side and more interested in the flying and shooting side, DJI released the Phantom 2 Vision. The Phantom 2 Vision differs from the Phantom with GoPro Mount in that it incorporates its own FPV camera. The Vision camera shoots full HD 1080p video and takes 14MP JPEG and RAW photos, which it records to a MicroSD card. The Vision camera is, overall, very comparable in performance to the GoPro HERO3 Silver Edition. It broadcasts live view video using 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi to avoid conflicts with the transmitter (TX) at an FCC-approved range of up to 984'. The transmitter features a detachable mount to hold a smartphone, allowing it to act as a "heads-up" display. Operation of the Vision camera is controlled remotely using the Vision App, which is available as a free download for iOS and Android mobile devices. Not only is the camera capable of recording to a MicroSD card, but from the Vision App it is also possible to grab video or stills directly into your smartphone, allowing you to share your aerial adventures on Facebook, Instragram, Youtube, or other social media sites while the quadcopter is still in flight.
The mount that holds the Vision camera in place features rubber damping and is able to tilt between 0 and 60 degrees. For many—in particular still photographers and FPV enthusiasts—this design is probably adequate. However, even with damping, the mount doesn't provide the degree of isolation that a motorized gimbal does. Therefore, videographers who want Steadicam smoothness in their aerial footage will be better served using the Phantom with GoPro Mount, XproHeli XP2, or similar platform that supports the installation of a motorized gimbal.
Parrot AR.Drone 2.0
The AR.Drone 2.0 from Parrot is an entry-level, compact quadcopter that features a 720p flight camera. It is most comparable to the Blade QX 180 HD. Video can be recorded to a USB flash drive that connects to a USB port on the quadcopter. The AR.Drone 2.0 does not have integrated GPS, but supports an optional Flight Recorder module that adds GPS functionality and features 4GB of built-in flash memory. Adding the Flight Recorder unlocks a number of interesting features, the most notable being Control by Map. Control by Map is an autopilot mode that allows you to plot a course ahead of time using waypoints. Waypoint parameters include altitude and velocity, as well as heading. Using the AR.Freeflight mobile app, it is possible to update these parameters at any time during the flight.
Batteries, Chargers, and Sundries
Since hobbyists—the ones who originally drove the market forward—are accustomed to building RC models from scratch, as we already mentioned, interchangeability is typical. Batteries, chargers, props, and most other serviceable parts are standardized, meaning there are usually third-party alternatives that replace, and in some cases improve upon, the hardware the original manufacturer supplied.
Flying requires a great deal of power. Most quadcopters flying with recommended payloads are able to stay in the air between 7 and 15 minutes. At the upper end, the DJI Phantom 2 Vision promises up to 25 minutes; a few mini copters may only have enough stamina for 5 minutes. This means you probably want a lot of spare batteries on hand before you head out to fly your quadcopter. The most common batteries found in RC aircraft with electric motors are 11.1V lithium-polymer. Because of size and weight variations between different helicopter models, the batteries themselves may not be interchangeable. However, in most cases, the chargers are. The DJI Phantom Charger and the DSLRPros Quantumpro Q1, for example, will both recharge the same batteries.
It is important, when using universal Li-Po chargers, to ensure that the charger is set to the correct chemistry and amperage setting for the particular battery. And it is also important to connect a secondary “balance” lead in addition to the DC current lead to ensure proper charging. As with lithium-ion batteries, due to the risk of fire, common-sense precautions must be taken when handling Li-Po batteries. They should not be dropped or exposed to excessive heat, and if, for some reason they do start to overheat while charging, should be disconnected immediately.
One notable exception, with respect to battery interchangeability, is the Phantom 2 Vision. In the interests of user friendliness, DJI have opted for a clip-in battery design that doesn't require the connection of clumsy DC leads when placing it in the quadcopter. And, to simplify charging, it features its own internal power management, eliminating the need for a separate balance lead to worry about. For this reason, the Phantom 2 Vision Battery can only be recharged on chargers specifically made for it, such as the Phantom 2 Vision Replacement Battery Charger.
Once you start to get the hang of flying your multi-rotor copter, you might want to consider upgrading to carbon fiber props. Carbon fiber props are designed to improve stability and reduce vibration compared to the typically standard plastic ones. In addition to stability, they offer more precise control of the aircraft when using manual flight modes. DSLRPros offer a replacement set of 8” carbon fiber props for the DJI Phantom with GoPro Mount. Note that these props are suitable for the original incarnation of the Phantom, the version that features two clockwise (CW) and two counter-clockwise (CCW) rotating prop nuts. Newer versions of the Phantom feature self-tightening attachment. The two versions can generally be distinguished by the color of the prop nuts. The CW/CWW version uses silver nuts and the CW-only version uses black nuts. Prop guards are available for the Phantom, and are recommended when using carbon fiber props, as carbon fiber is more rigid and therefore has the potential to cause more damage were an accident to occur.
One thing your new RC copter won't come with out of the box is a case. A range of hard cases with custom foam interiors is available, most notably, waterproof hard cases from HPRC and Go Professional Cases.
HPRC have released two aerial-specific variants of their 2700 series case line, the 2700PHA and the wheeled 2700WPHA. Both cases feature custom-cut foam interiors that will hold the DJI Phantom with gimbal and GoPro HERO attached, extra props, a variety of GoPro mounts, FPV goggles, the transmitter, and nearly anything else relating to the quadcopter you might want to take along.
Go-Professional Cases offer two waterproof cases for the DJI Phantom and GoPro HERO camera. The XB-DJI-FPV is a more compact, hand-carried design, while the XB-DJI-FPV-W is larger and features wheels and a retractable handle. Both hard-shell cases provide enough space to hold a fully assembled Quadcopter, including rotors up to 9”, and they provide additional compartments for all of your accessories.
To get the best performance from your quadcopter, it is important to ensure your props are balanced. To this end, Du-Pro offers the Tru-Spin Prop Balancer. The Tru-Spin Prop Balancer places the prop on a suspended axle and will quickly show you if your prop is unbalanced. Fortunately, if a prop does turn out to be unbalanced, it can usually be remedied. Because different props are constructed from different materials, typically wood, plastic, or carbon fiber, you should consult a tutorial relevant to the particular kind of prop you are using to learn the best tricks for balancing yours.
As noted, multi-rotor RC helicopters have embedded computers that run the flight controller. To configure and update the flight controller requires assistant software such as DJI's Naza Assistant Software and a desktop computer to run it—in most cases a desktop computer running Windows.
Ready-to-fly means the flight controller will ship pre-configured to factory defaults appropriate for the helicopter model in which it is installed, and can typically be used without any additional configuration by the operator. However, as with any piece of software, there can always be bugs, and to remedy bugs means updating. It is therefore an essential part of the maintenance of any RC aircraft that you be prepared to periodically connect the flight control module to a computer and run the assistant software to perform any necessary firmware updates as well as diagnostics.
Once any software updates and configurations are out of the way, there is a series of pre-flight steps one must follow to ensure the aircraft flies as expected. What these steps entail varies from model to model. Quadcopters with GPS systems will require GPS calibration as one of the first steps, and will usually need to be in range of at least four satellites for GPS navigation to operate correctly. Just like a normal pilot, you will want to get in the habit of carefully going through the pre-flight checklist outlined in the owner's manual or video tutorials every time you fly. Failure to do so can result in a crash or loss of the aircraft.
Finally, it is important to consider that piloting multi-rotors doesn't always come instinctively either. Unlike a car, which has throttle, steering, and a reverse gear, an aircraft operates in three-dimensional space. Typically, multi-rotor aircraft use dual joystick transmitters. The exact configuration will vary, and can usually be reconfigured in software. However, the basic controls are throttle, yaw, nick (pitch), and roll. During manual flying you will be responsible for all four of these parameters at any given time.
And—to make things more confusing—multi-rotors are effectively symmetrical. Unlike a fixed-wing planes which can only fly forward and steer, RC helicopters can fly in any direction with respect to their nominal nose. This can cause rudder orientation to quickly become confusing for beginners. For example, if the nose gets flipped around so it's facing you, pressing “right” on the transmitter now causes the aircraft to move left (from your perspective). Fortunately, designers of flight controllers have considered this.
To make flying easier on the beginner, DJI quadcopters incorporate so-called Intelligent Orientation Control (IOC) as an optional mode that can be unlocked using the assistant software, while Blade quadcopters offer a similar feature known as Safe Circle. In Safe Circle, the flight controller keeps the “tail” roughly pointed toward the pilot so that rudder controls remain intuitive, left moving it left and right moving it right. As with other assisted-flying technologies, the trade-off is more limited maneuverability. But the pictures will be worth it.