Introduction to Radio-Controlled Aerial Photography


We’ve come a long way from a few years ago when nobody outside the RC model aircraft world knew what the heck a quadcopter was. Today, I think it’s fair to say most of us have some concept of a quadcopter, or drone, or UAV, or preferred nomenclature. Thanks to innovations in compact embedded computers, motion sensors, and other technologies, RC flying is no longer a niche hobby, but is available to the masses. Drones come in all shapes and sizes, of course. The features they tend to share are multi-rotor propulsion, intelligent flight controllers with at least some degree of automatic functionality, and very often a camera. Apart from that, they range from miniature tech toys to robust professional tools. 

In the old days, RC model aircraft where typically fixed-wing planes or even motor-less gliders or helis (model helicopters). While it might be tempting to conflate a heli with a multi-rotor, they are different. A heli is styled after a manned helicopter with one main rotor (sometimes actually two stacked) plus a tail rotor to keep the fuselage from spinning wildly out of control. In either case, you as the pilot are pretty much directly in touch with the flight surfaces—like driving a car with manual transmission. The key to mutli-rotor drones—what makes them revolutionary—is that a computer mediates control input in a non-trivial way. True, many are still flown using regular dual-stick transmitters. But control happens at a higher level of abstraction. Your stick input gets interpreted and a response is rendered, which factors-in data from various sensors, or even vetoed altogether if it could cause loss of stability.

Intelligent Flight Control

Since you have this level of mediation, the flight control computer can take over and help keep you out of trouble. Obviously, the more second-guessing the computer has to do, the more you will take a hit in performance and maneuverability. This is why you will almost always have several modes to choose from: beginner modes, which will do everything they can to keep you in the air, to performance modes where the training wheels come off and all comes down to your skill as a pilot.

In addition to a computer, many drones employ some form of navigational aid. These may include GPS/GLONASS, compass, and vision positioning. GPS provides the most precise navigation and enables fixed hovering even in somewhat windy conditions. It allows the drone to fly fully autonomously, either to return home automatically or to track a pre-planned route. Vision sensors map out the ground and in some cases, the surrounding air space, enabling navigation where GPS is unavailable and sometimes helping the drone steer clear of obstacles.  


Not just computers, but cameras have gotten tiny, too. Most—though not all—drones have some form of camera. On some, it’s there simply give you a live video feed for FPV (first-person view), flying, but many also record. Quality can range from SD up to 4K. Many drones will accommodate third-party cameras, including action cameras and even cinema cameras. Whether you just want to share the action with friends or need something ready for Hollywood prime-time, there will be something out there for you.

For high-quality image capture, a gimbal is essential to stabilize the camera. So-called “gimbal cameras” combine gimbal and camera into one unit. Other gimbals work with third-party cameras such, as GoPros.

Feiyu MiNi 3D 3-Axis Aircraft Gimbal for GoPro

YUNEEC CGO3 4K 3-Axis Gimbal Camera


The traditional way RC aircraft have been operated is with a “transmitter.” This is the proper technical term for the iconic dual-stick controller. It is so called because its primary function is to transmit a control signal to a receiver located somewhere within or mounted on the aircraft. It is true that advanced transmitters many have receivers for telemetry data or a video feed, often on a separate frequency. To ensure that you control just your aircraft and not someone else’s, there is a binding process to link the transmitter and receiver. Typically, the binding only needs to happen once and is saved in non-volatile memory. With many transmitters, you will be able to save multiple aircraft/other RC models so that you don’t have to rebind every time you take out a different toy. In most cases, “ready-to-fly” bundles—which come with the transmitter (if one is required)—will have been pre-bound for you.  

Since mobile devices tie in to every facet our lives these days, many drones can be controlled or have supplemental features accessed via a smartphone or tablet. The app software may provide a virtual rendition of a real transmitter or it may offer more intuitive flying methods, such as tilting or tapping the device to maneuver. If there is a camera, you can probably get the image from it beamed straight to your phone to live-stream or share even quicker. Some drones even offer gesture and voice recognition, helping you get the perfect aerial selfie.


Spare propellers and batteries are essential. Let’s face it, you are going to crash from time to time and usually it’s the props that bear the brunt of the collision. Batteries extend your day in the field. Drones are becoming more efficient, but because the motors are spinning all of the time, they burn through power quickly—7 to 25 minutes per battery is the range most fall into these days. Obviously, the more intense your flying and the stronger the wind, the sooner you are going to run out. Virtually all drones receive power from lithium-ion polymer batteries. As a type of lithium battery, these are subject to air travel restrictions. Consumer drones mostly charge from USB, while hobby-derived model use generic RC chargers that involve a bit of a learning curve and may require a DC power source. Prosumer imaging drones increasingly have smart AC chargers, letting you just plug the battery in and walk away. 

Other accessories depend more on the drone and the use case. Custom-fitting cases and backpacks abound. For aerial imaging, gimbals and mounts are available for specific cameras. Supported cameras range from GoPros up to DSLRs and cinema cameras. Ensure that the gimbal/mount is compatible with your aircraft and that the total payload weight will not exceed the drone’s limitations.

Landing pads help ensure you don’t kick up potentially destructive dirt and debris on landing and takeoff.

There are training videos and flight simulators to help you brush up on your skills.

Drones that lean toward the hobbyist end of the spektrum—er, spectrum—can typically be completely rebuilt by the end user. Each part is available separately, though replacement may require soldering and getting your hands dirty. Consumer and image market drones are increasing following laptops and tablets in being tightly integrated making it hard for the end-user to service internal parts. Removable external parts including gimbals and camera can usually be replaced, though.

Compliance/International Use

Since many B&H customers hail from abroad, a note about international use should be made. Unless otherwise noted, the radios used in drones carried by B&H are FCC compliant, meaning they are suitable for use in the US. However, they may employ frequencies or have transmit-power ratings that are restricted in other countries. In addition, some video transmitters for hobby and racing applications, while FCC compliant, require the user have an Amateur Radio operators license (aka “HAM license”). Please see our “Drones and the Law” article for more on some of the legal and compliance issues relating to drones.

Spinning Bladey Things

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you have probably at least heard of a drone. Over the last several years they have gone from something of a ghostly novelty to a feature of everyday life, frequently in the news. So you probably get the basic concept. It has spinning bladey things and buzzes around. But you might have questions. How are they controlled—Is it automatic? Radio controlled? What is the point of them? Are they hard to fly? And so on. While I can’t promise to have answered all of these, I hope at least to have given you food for thought as you continue your aerial journey.

Since there are so many options out here, a great next step is the visit the Drone Landing Page. Post your questions or comments in the Comments section, below.


Hello everyone. I am searching drone with multi band sensor or camera same as satellite data. Is there such kind of drone? If yes how much is the price?

No unfortunately, there are not any such type of drones on the market to offer you.  I am sorry about that. 

dji product really good and massive. i would like to learn aerial photography. any one of you suggest a book or article or camera.

This was a very poorly written article. Learn the proper terminology and functions before advising others.

I am retiring after 36 years of digital mapping (ArcGIS) with the state of Florida.   These aerial photography and survey drones interest me.  How accurate is the GPS?   Does it post processs?  It can't be RTK can it? 

The DJI Inspire 1 is the most accurate to use satellite imaging and GPS location along with a developing program for digital mapping. The GPS is very accurate as it relies on multiple satellite signals to triangulate it's position however it cannot use RTK as it is not measuring the waves itself.  For more information, feel free to email our Aerial specialists at [email protected].

There is lots of good info in this review of photo aircraft. I enjoyed reading and learning more.

Thanks for posting this article Timothy! Drones are really a great factor in making aerial photographs and mapping that can lead us to a new developed aerial imagery on which it gives us a lot of help in terms of dynamic and interactive locations or even three-dimensional image. Kudos to you Timothy!

Daniel - TerraServer

What a nice drones (UAVs) you got there! i could've agree more that drones are very useful nowadays. I was amazed with your drones with it's specification especially with your Sensor Assisted Flight Envelope (SAFE) to ensure that the drone is flying safely. The design of your drones (quadrocopter) was also nice that it can go back-and-forth as well as in sideways and this maintains a stability to the drone not only to the drone but also in capturing videos and photographs (aerial). Drones are also useful in mappings, survey, search and rescue, agriculture and etc. but not advisable in illegal actions).Keep making cool drones! God Speed!


RC flying devices are definitely my area of interest, but aereal photography seems to be a cool thing to do as well.

I'm familiar with the Parrot AR Drone 2.0, and I was amazed by the quality of images that it can stream to a mobile device, however, the DJI Phantom 2 brings a whole new and better way to do this.

I think it is cool the type of images you can get with this last one, and if you consider the price at which you can get it compared with the cost of building your own drone, the transaction is very cost/effective.

Thank you very much and I look forward to learn more from you.

Blessings :D


Super,the best very nice,thank you. Will

* * *
If one needs to get up that high, why not go to the top of the building and fly it from there. . .?


operate out a window from the side of the building where the shot is required. . .
and the GPS has a better chance of staying connected from up higher to start . . . no?

* * *

which also raises the question about balloons. . .
not the party type. . .
smaller, high quality, and sorta puncture-proof type. . .
put three on an aluminum triangular-shaped mount and control the yaw with three guide wires to each corner, no...?

filling them with only enough helium (a small cannister from a party store) to make the slightly lighter than neutrally-bouyant. . .?

lightweight cable or high-strength fishing lines might work for control lines... no?


Aside from missing the legal discussion, this article was very thorough and a great primer on what's available today. The viewer comments were great in terms of summing up the current legal situation. Whether you fly legally or illegally, slow down and be safe. Your crash may not only hurt people and your career but you are also affecting all of our ability to use this technology in the future. The new technology is great to allow one of these to maintain position while we focus on composition of the shot, but that technology also enables amateurs to fly. But we have to respect that this can be a very dangerous device in the air if you don't know how to handle the exceptions. Sure, everyone can quickly learn to "make it fly". But you must also learn what to do in adverse and surprising conditions. On Friday I watched a guy fly one into a tree 50 feet away from us as he was taking off. We all laughed but he could have just as easily flew it into our crowd.

Keep in mind that all this GPS redundancy can still fail. I've worked on 4 paid shoots with RC helis and I've seen this in person.

We were in downtown Chicago, operator was asked to climb to 550 ft / 170m above ground level. Around the target altitude, he completely lost signal due to radio interference. Also, the GPS wouldn't work, we assumed to the same kind of interference.

At that moment the RC heli (quad rotor) fell approximately 450 feet in complete free fall. The operator re-gained signal about 100 feet above ground and, miraculously was able to stabilize the craft and land it safely. I give him a ton of credit for doing so.

A crowd of approximately 40 onlookers watched and applauded when he regained control. Surreal. The operator looked the client and said, "we're done, we're not going to take the risk again".

No footage, no photos, no pay.

Not a happy ending, considering we'd crashed a different, single rotor into a lake only 2 days before, on a client shoot at the U. of Notre Dame. Destroyed a brand new 5DmkIII and 25-105 lens, as well as most of the helicopter.

Thankfully the client had insurance and didn't even curse at us. However, the rest of our working day was cancelled and the director said, "we've been told not to hire RCs anymore after this."

"This stuff is not for the faint of heart", the RC owner said. I was there for camera gimbal operation.

I really don't care what the laws are. I won't fly in the wind or over peoples heads or property. But if I need some shot and the conditions are good, I'll happily risk an eight minute flight. Catch me if you can.

There is debate on whether the FAA's policies on uav photo and video is actually an enforceable law or just what they hope will be a law. There is a case in process now which hopefully will define things.
Personally, I would prefer to stay on the side of compliance with the FAA policy and would urge everyone to do the same. These machines are not toys and can do very real damage to property and people. I have been flying RC for almost 25 years and have been an instructor for both fixed wing and helicopters. As easy as the new breed of multi rotor vehicles are to fly, things can go wrong very quickly and without warning. All the government needs is one serious incident where somebody dies to shut this whole activity down. And I do plan to add aerial video and photography to my business but want to do it safely and legally.

Please join the AMA, get some basic instruction and practice at a sanctioned flying field. This will not only make better pilots but will provide basic insurance for mishaps and keep the FAA happy til the laws are set in stone.

Amazing gadget that would allow an individual to fly over any area literally under the radar and avoid most means of detection. I can see uses in my profession acquiring field data and validation quickly and accurately performing RF site surveys. Using multi band digital spread spectrum would create a surveillance machine hard to reckon with within a tactical time frame. I can see these flying devices being required some type of radio transponder squawking some sort of ATC surveillance radar frequency but at a low altitude the existing system would be pretty much useless. With a decent altitude and selective transceivers on board a rather healthy control and visual signal could easily operate a device over 10 plus miles away. The FCC, and the FAA is again challenged by technology.

I have been into radio control flying for more than three decades and this is the most usable design that a hobby can contribute into the real world.....possibilities are endless such as aerial photography to survey the condition of corals along the shoreline or the monitoring of mangrove growth. Please e-mail me asap when the system is available.

This is an enlightening report which has helped me make a decision about the RC quadcopter and extras I want Santa to bring me. As a general aviation pilot, I do understand the technical ramifications of aircraft dynamics, although I don't think any of that is needed for my chosen Christmas gift.

Thanks so much for publishing this elaborate report!

Dave Benner
La Quinta, California

First off I am a licensed pilot with many years and hours of aerial photography both still and video. My business is documentary photography. I work out of fixed wing and helicopters. For those of you who have expressed an interest in using the RC helicopter in business.I would think you would want to look at the downside FAA and local rules. The ability of the craft to operate in wind. To the real estate broker please think about how many rules you would break in gaining much of any altitude above roof level at the most.Don't forget you are in a thickly settled residential area. The liability would be staggering. B&H is right on the money when they talk about the damage a crash could do. The FAA owns the air space so better get their blessing. As far as James wanting to use it for his photography business, there have been a lot of RC copters and fixed wing craft over the years and none have proved satisfactory. James I wish I could talk to you about this, but just give a lot of thought to the cost and just what is the final product going to be. Is it going to be worth it and yes you can count on losing one once in a while. I'm not saying B&H is selling something that is not what they say it is. Just talk to a few RC people and research the feasibility and cost benefit. I have tinkered with RC craft it is fun and you spend a lot of time patching them up. For those who want to do some recreational RC flying be careful and have a lot of fun it's well worth the effort.

Drones, Legality, Liability, etc.:

AMA stands for Academy of Model Aeronautics. This is a well established organization, which provides support for remote control aircraft hobbyist. They also advocate for the hobby, and interact with the government. Up till recently, it was not much of an issue, because flying RC (remote control) aircraft required long practice, and line of sight to fly them. With built in GPS, and POV (Point of View) systems, etc. aircraft like the DJI are closer to "drones" than "hobby" aircraft.

The AMA has become very active in advocating with the government to prevent our hobby being regulated to the point that we can't fly for the pure pleasure of it. The following link provides as much detailed information as most people would need regarding legal issues about flying aircraft such as the DJI.

I would strongly urge anyone who buys any of these aircraft to become a member of the AMA. Membership will keep you informed of FAA NOTAM's (Notice to Airmen), new regulations, etc. They also provide you with liability coverage for accidents caused by your aircraft. Your homeowner's policy may not cover damages if you are flying away from your home.

If you keep the UAV, drone or RC aircraft within your sight, stay below 300 feet and away from airport traffic patterns you should be good for now. The 2015 regs may change all that. Many quadracopter type UAV's have ducted props that shouldn't pose as much danger of being sliced and diced if you're hit by one.

Please, update the image of the DJI Phantom Vision 2. It's showing an original DJI Phantom carrying the camera that belongs to the Vision. Thanks.

The article has an error when explaining the 3 basic flight modes. The first two are correct but the third calls the mode with flight restrictions removed Attitude Mode and it is actually called Manual Mode. Attitude mode was explained in the paragraph before.

Unfortunately, as I understand the situation in the U.S., flight of UAV's (unmanned aerial vehicles) is prohibited in open air space except for permitted government agaencies and will remain so until at least late 2015. I also understand from comments made by FAA personnel that, when such flight is permitted for non-government entities, only pilots licensed by the FAA for such flights will be allowed to operate UAV's. For all intents and purposes, FAA considers UAV's to be regulated aircraft with all its onerous implications.

The correct name is the Academy of Model Aeronautics.

Very comprehensive article with two glaring omissions:

Exposed rotating props are like spinning razor blades. Stick your finger into one and it will cut you to the bone. Fly one into someone's face, and you can't imagine the damage it will do. These aircraft are not toys, and it takes skill to pilot them. The bigger they are, the more danger.

Second is insurance. Better check your homeowner's policy. There is an organization called AMA, American Modeler's Association, that provides information and insurance.

Interesting article. I am very interested in using these in my professional work but my understanding is that use of these is illegal on any public land and also on private land over a certain altitude. Can you please elaborate on the legality of these for video/photo use.

We run a certified CASA FAA equivalent UAV filming business here in Australia and can not believe that such a reputable company like B&H would write such a comprehensive story and exclude the legalities. I think it need addressing in this article. A UAV could be considered a deadly weapon in the wrong hands and the operation of it needs a comprehensive skill set and governing it is not just a toy.

could you do an additional piece related to risk, liability, and what companies or government agencies might need to do while waiting for 2015 FAA rules? I work for a local utility and would like to use it for construction projects but worry about insurance and risk. any advice would be greatly appreciated.

I am a real estate agent who produces video tours for his listings. I was excited about the prospect of using a drone to get aerial shots of not only house, but the community in which it is located, as well. Unfortunately, I learned that it is currently illegal to use a use video from a drone for commercial purposes until the FAA comes up with regulations by September 2015.

Hey sir have you had any luck on getting licensed?