With the ubiquity of camera-carrying drones at trade shows like CES and NAB, the question doesn't seem to be whether the drone industry is set to become huge, but how huge it will become, and how long it will take to get there.
Image-stabilization has improved and prices have come down to levels where unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are no longer a speciality item, at least on the low end of the market. Drone cinematography is still in its early stages, but enterprising shooters have gotten some amazing footage by flying tiny drones into situations that would be too cramped or unsafe for a helicopter pilot. The recent documentary Going Clear was a case study in effective use of drone footage, flying a UAV low and slow over Scientology headquarters in Los Angeles to capture footage of the rooftop where, according to director Alex Gibney's interview with one of the film's subjects, she used to sleep on a wet mattress. On an everyday basis, they're becoming a mainstay of event videography, where they can easily take in aerial vistas from vantage points that would have been difficult or impossible a few years ago.
But you don't have to rely on anecdotal evidence. Chinese drone-maker DJI recently raised funding that pointed toward an $8 to $10 billion valuation for the company. What does all this mean for cinematographers? We asked some experts in the field to fill us in on what the hot technology is, how customers are making the best use of what's available today, and what might be coming down the pike in the future.
According to a Reuters report, DJI claims a 70 percent share of the commercial drone market worldwide, making it dominant in the market. A representative of B&H Photo & Video in New York tells us the retailer has sold thousands of DJI Phantom-style copters every month for close to two years, making the brand a sizable and reliable source of business for the company. Moreover, the market for DJI's products goes beyond professional video to encompass the fashion industry, real-estate, architecture, farming, and any other business where people own valuable property they might only be able to inspect properly from the air.
As the market expands, the marketplace is changing. "Everybody and their mothers are starting to build drones," Lewis Arthur, who sells for Adorama in New York, told us. "It used to be an enthusiast's market, but it became more entrenched with pros when DJI pushed the envelope with the [Phantom 2] Vision + and now the Phantom 3 and the Inspire 1. The DJI Spreading Wings line will be a little more affluent, for guys who do indie projects and documentaries. And now there are some me-too guys, with the same type of concept—even us. We have the Aries Blackbird X10. It's maybe not as affluent as DJI's technology, but it holds its own."
DJI Phantom 3 Professional
Those are all affordable rigs — perhaps surprisingly so, given how widely they're employed by pro users. DJI's Phantom 3 Professional, with an integrated 4K video camera and three-axis stabilization, sells for $1,259. The 1080p60 Phantom 3 Advanced goes for $999. Stepping up, DJI's Inspire 1 is a bigger, more capable model with better flight specs, as well as the option for dual-pilot operation, and the camera mount is removable, suggesting that upgrades to the camera and/or the mount may be offered in the future. And the next step up in the DJI product universe is the Spreading Wings line-up, which starts at around $3,400 and is meant to carry heavier, DSLR-style payloads. A Spreading Wings S1000 tops out at $4,500 in a Sony A7 configuration.
DJI takes great pride in having been described (by tech pub The Verge) as "the Kleenex of consumer drones." It will only need to get out the tissue if one of its competitors manages to leapfrog it in features or pricing or both. Adorama's Aries Blackbird X10, for example, is aggressively priced at $599, where it competes on price against the Phantom as well as other up-and-comers like the Parrot Bebop Drone ($499 with no controller).
And Arthur notes that one of the most anticipated new products of 2015 is the just-released Solo from 3D Robotics (3DR), which sells for $1,000 by itself, or for $1,400 with a three-axis gimbal for a GoPro. "They've made an item that can be flown by anyone," he says. "They've taken durability into consideration, and it's more waterproof, so if it hits the water, it won't get hammed out. And by using a GPS provider that is placed onto the flyer themselves, they don't need another person. They can do their own flying. A snowboarder or a skateboarder shoots this thing into the air, and has this GPS contraption on, and they're good to go. So the technology is becoming more mainstream."
What does the proliferation of drone manufacturers chasing consumer and prosumer dollars mean for professional users? We asked Sinclair Fleming, director of engineering at Radiant Images, whether he foresaw a push by camera vendors to make their systems more drone-friendly. He was doubtful. "People are getting ridiculously good footage out of $1,000 Phantoms," he said. "Realistically, camera manufacturers are probably not racing to adapt or customize or fit the particular needs [of drone-based cinematographers]. But there is a gap between the $500 GoPro and the $50,000 camera, and it's interesting there isn't much in that mid-range. There is no $5,000 or $10,000 option somewhere in the middle, for wedding videographers or ENG folks in small markets."
Transitioning to the High End — A Few of the Options
So what is shaking on the high end of the drone market? Fleming cited the customizable Aerigon platform, from a Swedish company called Intuitive Aerial that maintains an office in Woodland Hills, CA. "That thing's downright incredible in terms of its lift capacity and endurance, and it's all carbon fiber. You pick it up and there's the shock of 'Hey, this thing doesn't weigh anything." Watch this video from Brain Farm to see an Aerigon UAV flying a heavy Vision Research Phantom Flex4K.
And B&H has started working with xFold, which sells a customizable platform that comes in multiple configurations that can hold up to a fully-rigged ARRI Alexa with a serious lens. "This would be for a heavier payload," the B&H rep told us, estimating that an xFold Dragon system could price out at more than $30,000, depending on the configuration. "You contact xFold and have a conversation about what your payload is going to be, and they will suggest which parts you can pre-order. There are not too many in-one-box, ready-to-go solutions for that sort of thing."
What kind of cameras do pro users want to fly? "Smaller, lighter and faster is really important," Fleming told us. "By the time people get to lofting things with PL lenses, we're talking weight optimization. Things like the carbon-fiber Red Dragon and fast, high-quality though incrementally lower-weight prime lenses tend to be the key differentiators there. They have to be able to hit a balance point on the gimbals, which is not easy with a 10-pound lens extending 20 inches from the camera."
How about the Alexa Mini, which was clearly designed with an eye on Red's compact Epic form factor? "Inevitably, it will [be used on drones]," Fleming told us. "Being new, it hasn't been integrated into the market yet, but I fully expect we'll get calls for it. But most people who make the jump from prosumer cameras on UAVs use the Red Dragon more than anything else."
Of course, DJI may eventually make a push into the same market, building systems that can carry heavier cameras. "Being carbon fiber, the Spreading Wings S1000 is lightweight enough that the cinema guys want to be able to use it, and DJI understands that," Arthur said. "You can only push the envelope so far in the enthusiast market, and I think DJI will push the envelope and start making larger products for the big boys, designed for Hollywood filmmaking."
Getting the Picture: Droneography Challenges
We asked Fleming about camera acessories that are important to ensure a successful drone shoot, and he said monitoring is an important aspect of the technology. "After the initial amusement of 'Hey, I can fly a camera through the sky!" there is 'Oh, wait, I need to actually see what I'm shooting,' and then there is, 'Oh, wait, I need to see it at a high-enough resolution with low-enough latency to make sure I'm getting what I need.'"
Popular solutions at Radiant Images include HDMI-based Teradek wireless transmission systems such as the Teradek Bolt Pro as well as the IMT/Nebtek MicroLite HD RF video downlink, which he described as high-powered with long range. "It's old-school, but the distance is pretty remarkable," he said. "And not having your shot break up in the middle is pretty important." DJI introduced the Lightbridge long-range HD downlink to bring similar low-latency full-HD monitoring options to users of DJI systems, which come out of the box with only lower-resolution live video streaming options.
Another challenge is the learning curve. "You don't take it out of the box and start flying," Arthur assured us. "I purchased one of these with an event five weeks away, and I had a crunch time where I had to learn to fly. And you have to be very careful, because these things are $1,300 and they take a bump and, boom, they're gone. When they first came out, the warranties would cover accidental damage, but those are few and far between now because the enthusiasts didn't know how to fly them right out of the box."
To explain the degree of planning that can be necessary, Arthur described his own planning process for a recent shoot. He used a wedding by using PVC pipes to recreate the space where the live shoot was planned to take place, then brought in his family to double for the wedding party. It allowed him to simulate the actual event and make sure he knew where and how he was going to shoot in that space before the big day. "I was charging the guy five grand for a money shot, so I wasn't going to play around," he says.
Fleming said the combination of inexpensive drone technology with the evolving legal certification process can make for unusual circumstances. (See our related interview with Bob Gonsalves for more on the current legislative situation.) "The industry is getting its head around not just the deregulation, but also the circumstances where the surfer kid who just bought himself a drone is not the guy who has a pilot's license and follows the correct processes," Fleming told us. "[Certified operators] have a very different approach to things. They have checklists. They treat flying a drone like they're flying a plane. And they know that federal investigators will show up if they crash."
Where does the drone market go from here? Virtual reality is one area. "The most unusual thing we're doing is putting a lot of VR camera rigs on drones," Fleming said. "We did one for Brain Farm on the Aerigon platform, lofting a whole array of cameras for an immersive VR shoot. The classic problem for the VR camera is you have to hold it up somehow. If you suspend it underneath a drone, you can get into areas without having the support in the shot. And some of the VR cameras have come down in size and weight to a weight class that the mid-size drones can actually handle."
No matter what emerges as the killer app, the industry seems sure to diversify, with companies like 3DR challenging DJI's presumed supremacy. And at least one camera manufacturer is moving directly into the UAV industry, as word is out that GoPro is developing its own drones to make sure it isn't left behind by DJI's built-in camera systems. It will be an uphill struggle, though. "3DR has all these different peripherals and features they're putting on their copter, but DJI is holding on at the head of the pack with the Phantom Vision 3," Arthur said. "The GoPro was a popular camera a couple of months ago, but now, because 4K is involved—and that's a big buzzword—the Phantom Visions are making a big, big footprint."
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