A drone – quite literally – allows a camera to go where it has never gone before, and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has recently ‘cut for red tape’ for drone operators.
Southern Right Whales in Byron Bay, captured with a Sony a7r II and 16-35mm lens f4 attached to the Freefly Alta 8 using a brushless gimbal.
As a photographer’s tool the standard consumer drone can capture artistic aerial footage, shoot commercial photos, and assist industrial operations and scientific research.
Recent changes to CASA regulations give photographers more freedom to shoot from some potentially superb aerial angles.
Now any commercial operator flying a drone weighing less than 2kg will need only to give CASA a heads-up of their plans, and follow carefully the mandatory operating conditions.
This includes flying only during the day in visual line of sight and below 120 metres; keeping more than 30 metres away from other people; flying more than 5.5km from controlled aerodromes; and not operating near emergency situations.
These rules are similar to what exists for recreational drone operators, who don’t require any licensing or contact with CASA. The distinguishing difference for CASA is whether money changes hands.
The rules haven’t been amended since 2002 ““ in a time when the technology was known as a Remotely Piloted Aircraft and had little mainstream consumer appeal. There was a tonne of information for the authority to consider.
‘We were looking at the level of risk posed by the very small remotely piloted aircraft ““ the under 2kg ones ““ and the study concluded that the level of risk is far lower with these drones than with larger ones,’ said Peter Gibson, CASA corporate communication manager. ‘Our logic was to match the regulation with risk.’
Analysis determined the light weight class of drones, which pose a minimal safety risk. It has consumed a huge amount of CASA resources.
But the reality is that it’s also virtually impossible for CASA to catch anyone flying a drone against regulation unless an accident occurs or is reported. There are no drone police. So the new rules effectively allow an unlicensed rogue commercial operator to fly within the rules.
‘It’s not a carte blanche to do anything you want, but for those people who these arrangements will suit, it’s a lot less restrictive than the current rules,’ Gibson said, adding there’s still a raft of rules to closely follow.
Softening the rules will please DJI, the Queen Bee of drone manufactures – its future success is entirely dependent on aviation regulation.
This is possibly a core reason why the Phantom IV, DJI’s latest lightweight model, is of course ‘new and improved’ performance-wise, but also has upgraded safety features.
Gibson said DJI (and other manufacturers) had no involvement or persuasion in the review process.
However reports of drones falling from the sky, gory propeller accidents, and interrupted emergency service procedures is enough bad press. Safety has become paramount for DJI, the industry leader with 70 percent market share.
The Phantom IV, a ‘flying camera’ with 4k video at 30fps (1080p at 120fps), has five optical sensors which can detect and avoid potential obstacles in front of it. The control will beep to warn the operator of an approaching obstacle before coming to a complete stop. The drone can also route itself around obstacles, track moving objects, and find its way home if it disappears from sight.
The advanced artificial intelligence is not quite perfect. The senses cannot detect objects to the left, right or from behind. This stops nothing or no one from smashing the $2400 toy into a brick wall, tree branch, person, or plummeting it into the ocean. It may also struggle to detect finer objects, like thin tree branches.
At the end of the day it’s over to each operator to minimise risks by acting responsibly and knowing the limits.
Surfers Shadows: Taken in Byron Bay, Australia. Captured with Sony a7r with a 55mm f1.8 prime lens, on the Tarot drone and Servo Driven gimbal. At around 2pm in May the sun creates a symmetrical shadow.
Craig Parry, an award-winning nature landscape photographer from Lennox Head, agrees. His business has grown several branches thanks to his use of drone aerial photography, recently working on assignments for Qantas and Discovery Channel.
‘It’s a pretty new form of photography, especially that straight down symmetrical style aerial photography, which is an extremely difficult angle to achieve in a helicopter,’ he said. ‘I try to think about textures and compositions before I get up there. Even now I surprise myself. Photographing dolphins and whales with no human intrusion, I’m seeing behaviours from these marine species I’ve never seen before, it’s beautiful.’
He just returned from a week at the Daintree National Park in Northern Queensland, where he captured aerial footage of creeks, crocodiles, and the rainforest.
‘I used the Phantom IV for close proximity flying. The system enabled me to fly in tight situations, under foliage and close to creek beds without disrupting much of the leaf litter and water,’ he said. ‘I turned the safety off ““ it’s too sensitive and stops me from getting very close reveal shots. For instance I was flying it up a stream about a foot off the water, and it wouldn’t go that low with the safety on.’
Parry is CASA certified and has flown unmanned systems for seven years. The training that came with certification was valuable. Despite not being his most powerful tool, he flies the Phantom IV an hour a day to maintain orientation skills and technique.
Parry’s introduction to unmanned systems was with a custom-built remote control helicopter. It was cheaper and more efficient than hiring a helicopter, but a single slip-up can end in disaster. In 2013 a freak accident led to a 19-year old New York man killing himself after losing control of a remote control helicopter.
‘I’m glad I got away from it. It was a stepping stone but they are extremely dangerous ““ there have been recorded deaths in the past from the machines. So four years ago I was introduced to my first drone.’
This was a high-end custom-built drone, using a Tarot frame from China and a Photo Higher mechanical gimbal from New Zealand with a Canon 5D Mark III and 16-35mm lens attached.
‘Generally I was my using my drone only for photography, so the shakes weren’t too bad for that,’ he said. ‘Video could work if I spent enough time in (Adobe) Premier – it was far cheaper (costing around $4000 to $5000) than a ready-to-fly high-end drone.’
Last December Parry upgraded to a Freefly Alta 8, a serious eight rotor drone built for cinematography and capable of hauling 9kg of camera gear off the ground. A Sony FS5 motion picture camera or A7r II is typically attached to the system with a Freefly Movi M5 gimbal. In terms of functionality, performance and appearance it’s about as professional as a drone can get.
But it’s a heavy investment. The gimbal alone costs more than standard professional-grade DSLRs ““ the drone itself is upwards of $25,000.
So it’s hardly a surprise to learn that Parry views the Phantom IV as a toy – even though it does serve commercial purposes.
The NSW Department of Prime Industries (DPI) recently hired Parry for a shark monitoring research project around Lennox Head and Byron Bay, where there’s been an increase in attacks. He records a four kilometre stretch of coast, which DPI utilises to learn about the animal’s habits and behaviour.
Lost: Taken in Byron Bay on the a7r with the 16-35mm at 16mm, and the Tarot drone.
National Parks also had Parry 3D map forest area in Northern NSW to detect the growth of Lantana, a ‘debilitating invasive weed’ which impacts agriculture, the environment, forestry management, recreation, and transport.
He flew the drone over a set of coordinates while taking photos, which are examined to determine if action is required.
This kind of work, along with TV and commercial productions, is Parry’s most profitable business branch. Although he’d rather be photographing whales and dolphins from above and in the ocean, every project landed from the relatively new style of photography he’s taken on challenges him both creatively and technically.
‘I’m off to South Africa next year ““ the delta river systems over there are fantastic with different interactions, textures, and patterns of sand colours,’ he said.
‘I’ve learnt that sun angles ““ when directly above the drone ““ isn’t optimal, although I originally thought it would be. At 45 degrees the sun creates really vibrant water colour and interesting shadows.’
But he reiterates that operating a drone is high-risk. They can and do fall out of the sky, and all professionals experience maintenance issues – the highest cause of mid-flight mechanical failure.
‘The Phantom lV is by-far the safest and most advanced beginner system. Not only that but it is a really good tool for understanding orientation and even for professional drone operators they serve a purpose,’ he said. ‘Plus, the quality of stills and video is getting better and better.’
Just be careful. It can fly at more than 70km/h!
Article by Will Shipton, editor of www.ProCounter.com.au
Excerpt from Photo Review Sep-Nov 2016 issue
All images by Craig Parry. See more of Craig’s photography at www.craigparryphotography.com or Instagram @craigparryphotography