In a Tight Spot – Port Talbot from the Air

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The rules can be restrictive, but with good planning the seemingly unachievable can become achievable.

For a current affairs special on BBC ONE Wales the challenge was to show the Port Talbot steelworks in the context of the surrounding urban area. After all, the Port Talbot works really are IN Port Talbot.

So what are the rules? For our sub-7kg rig it comes down to a simple requirement:

[An unmanned aircraft] must not fly ‘within 50m of a person, vehicle, vessel or structure that is not under the control of the person in charge of the aircraft’ (Air Navigation Order Article 167)

And when you measure out 50m it’s a surprisingly long way.

But in this case all was not lost. Thanks to the Aberavon Wizards we managed to get access to their perfectly placed rugby pitch, right in the middle of the congested area. Instantly this gave us the 50m separation we needed.

The other tool at our disposal was lens choice. The DJI Inspire’s MFT camera system offers a wide range of compatible lenses and even the 25mm option narrowed the field of view right in to the adjacent houses.

It’s a good reminder that when the rules act as a prompt to find an imaginative safe solution they justify their existence very nicely.

Michael Sheen: The Fight for my Steel Town is broadcast at Wednesday 8 June 2016 at 8pm. Also available on the BBC iPlayer.

Have drone, will travel (up mountain) – The DJI Inspire Backpack

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Drones may be small but most operators, me included, are generally guilty of turning up to a job with endless flight cases. After all, how can we possibly travel without our cones, chargers and kettle?

But for BBC ONE’s Countryfile that wasn’t an option. The task was simple, and daunting: carry everything needed for a broadcast-quality shoot on a 4-mile round trip up and down the Tryfan mountain in Snowdonia. And single-handed.

The DJI Inspire was definitely the tool for the job but its width makes it tricky to house in a conventional rucksack. There are some options out there for carrying the complete case but they really don’t look fit for purpose. Instead it was a good chance to try the soft DJI Inspire backpack.

In this configuration, batteries, controller, filters, cards and any other accessories travel in the main compartment with the Inspire held by strapping on the back. It’s much like a baby carrier really, with arms and legs shooting out of the four corners. Do fit some weather protection though as the motors are all exposed. And, whatever you do, don’t fall over because the Inspire will cop it first.

The shoot itself had plenty of challenges, mainly because of a desperate shortage of flat areas to use as landing points. Flat(ish) rocks and narrow patches of gorse were the best options, making for some high-pressure landings as the wind steadily increased. But, 10 flights later, a tally of zero crashes was a good result.

Verdict after 6 hours on the mountain? A big success for the backpack. No back ache, not even a stiff neck. Plus some great shots and plenty of amazing memories.

The Countryfile Children in Need Ramble is on BBC ONE on 1 November 2015

20% Off your First Shoot

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We’d love to meet you, and for you to see if Leaping Wing is the right option for your shoots.

So until 16th October new clients get 20% off their first booking. Just quote DRONE20 when booking.

The small print:

  • strictly one booking only per client
  • single or half-day bookings only
  • 20% discount on the shooting fee only. Does not apply to travel expenses
  • bookings must be made before 16th October and completed before 31st October

New Inspire Camera – A Broadcaster’s First Look

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So the Inspire 1 just got a new camera. And thank goodness for that. The X3 we’ve been using until now has done a decent job but the limitations on bit-rate and codecs are a real pain.

Enter the X5 and X5R, just announced by DJI. How do they measure up, especially when it comes to broadcast? Having worked the last 18 years in the BBC I was interested to find out.

Initial verdict: a cautious thumbs-up.

First, the good news. A bigger (micro-four-thirds) sensor means much greater dynamic range. And interchangeable lenses mean that even if the glass in DJI’s own offering is not the best then we can opt for something else. The RAW capability on the X5R should be fantastic too, although it’s a bit annoying to have to use a proprietary SSD (presumably because of mounting issues on the aircraft?). The follow-focus option could be fantastic for those who like to operate close to the subject too.

But no optical zoom? That’s a disappointment. I know many will say ‘just fly closer to the subject’ but that’s not always practical or safe. A zoom really would be a useful asset to have, although perhaps the Zenmuse gimbal just couldn’t cope with the camera’s shifting centre of gravity.

There’s one big unknown too, namely the bit rate on the X5’s H264 recording. We do have a figure, 60Mbps, but that’s listed as a maximum. With the X3 average bit rates were found to be markedly lower. Clearly the X5R will solve the problem but most of the time we don’t want to be inflicting massive RAW files on our post-production colleagues. It really would be good to know that the H264 recordings on the standard X5 will be pumping at reasonable rates, unlike the existing X3.

That said, the new Inspire camera is massive news. It’s also, it would appear, a kick in the teeth for Blackmagic who are on the verge of launching their own specialist aerial camera. Or are DJI sourcing some of their components for the X5 from Blackmagic? Either way, the X5 looks to be the current best option for anyone who wants a professional aerial camera option at keen prices. I’m definitely getting one.

New DJI flight modes and why I probably won’t use them

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After months of begging, DJI Inspire (and Phantom 3 series) owners finally got the so-called ‘Intelligent Flight Mode’ options this week. Well, mostly, in the case of the Inspire.

So are they any good? Well, kind of. But for TV work I’m not sure I’ll be touching them. And here’s why.

(Firstly, a confession. I haven’t actually done the upgrade yet. But thanks to Elliott at Aerial Academy we can see how they work in his video)

  1. Point of Interest
    Arcing around a subject is a common task so I was excited about this one. And actually this one looks pretty decent. However, it’s not a particularly hard pattern to execute manually. More importantly, in anything but a benign environment there’s a real danger of colliding with trees or other obstructions on this one. If there is a benefit here it’s the ability to concentrate on varying altitude while the aircraft takes care of the yes. So a half thumbs-up at least.
  2. Follow me
    This hasn’t actually arrived on the Inspire yet, but even when it does I doubt I’ll touch it. Reason: there’s hardly any situation when I don’t want to leave space for a moving subject to move into. In Elliott’s demo the aircraft always lags behind the movement rather than anticipating it. That’s a big no-no unfortunately.
  3. Waypoint
    The ability to repeat a move precisely has some initial appeal. However, the trouble with real life is that it never repeats exactly. I’ve never worked with a presenter or actor who moved at the same speed, in the same direction, and on the same cue in take 2. Sure, waypointing will be fantastically useful for survey work, but that’s where it’s likely to stay for me.

I’ll update my thoughts once I’ve had a chance to test properly for myself, but for now that flight mode switch is likely to remain away from the ‘F stop’ for the next few shoots at least.