The default way of thinking about flying drones is one of freedom. Its exciting to get an aircraft up in the air and via proxy have the freedom to zip around in all dimensions unbound for a few minutes by the pull of gravity. Flight is great, the feeling of flying a UAV with a camera is so liberating that its almost a drug.
Its easy however to get a little carried away with the freedom of flight sensation and go straight to an Icarus situation where we fly a little too close to the sun, our wings come undone and we tumble back to Earth in an ungraceful and often risky fashion. The sun in this metaphor could be flying out sight and losing orientation, flying in a congested area- try under a jungle canopy some time- or coming to the realization that our own binocular vision/depth perception only works at relatively close range and once the aircraft gets to be a certain not so far distance away, we’re flying without true knowledge of how close we are to other objects in the environment. Flying a camera on a drone is initially exciting, but shortly thereafter the realization sets in about what can actually be accomplished photographically while flying both the aircraft and the camera at the same time. The reality is that IF one is obeying the FAA rules while flying a drone, maintaining eyes on the aircraft and not depending on the video feed as a proxy for “eyes on the aircraft”, then far less is possible. Things like range of operation where you can have unaided eyes on the aircraft become quickly much smaller than what on-line drone videos would have you think.
Which leads me to the idea of actually doing useful photography with a UAV which is what initially drew me to using UAV’s in the first place. Once the initial excitement of flying a camera wears off, the need to confront doing some useful photography sets in and then adjustments in how to fly need to be be made.
So I started thinking about UAV’s as if they were dolly track in the sky, obviously more flexible dolly track than that made by Matthews and requiring zero grips, wedges and levels, but never the less track of a sort. When you set up a dolly move there is a start and an end in mind, some framing compositions to make along the move, combined with timing of events in the frame. When using a UAV to photograph controlled events I’ve found that what DJI calls intelligent flight modes are very useful in aiding by constraining the aircraft flight path so that less attention can spent on the minutiae of flying and more attention placed on making the photography.
Intelligent flight modes are Course Lock, Home Lock, Follow Me, Point of Interest and Waypoints.
Take for example Course Lock which is an aircraft course heading (course lock is the same a compass heading) determined by the pilot, which the aircraft will fly in either direction. While being locked into flying the heading the aircraft can climb or descend while flying the heading, rotate, or make a lateral move while flying the locked course. While the degrees of freedom are just a few they can be used to great effect especially while doing repeated takes of a shot or situation. The aircraft heading is locked in and the other variable like speed along the course, altitude, direction the aircraft is facing, are all variable by the pilot so there is fine control over timing of aircraft moves within events while being locked to a particular course heading.
Point of Interest is another useful intelligent flight mode. This mode allows the pilot to establish a GPS point around which the aircraft can orbit in either direction, While flying, the pilot can elevate or descend, close or expand the radius of the orbit while flying the aircraft, making it the same as course lock except with a circular path.
Follow Me is sometimes useful. An example for this was I needed to create a shot of a person on the back of a ferry, with the UAV following behind. Follow me is perfect for this situation, because it puts the aircraft on an imaginary tether of variable length to the controller. While while flying, the length of the the tether is variable as is the vector of the tether relative to the controller.
Intelligent flight modes can lift a weight off the pilot when it comes to moment to moment flying of the aircraft and free up attention to devote to flying the shot which is especially key when flying single control mode without a second operator. An added plus is that the pilot can bail out of intelligent flight mode at any time just by switching out of ATTI mode on the controller and regain total control of the aircraft in a fraction of a second.
Since exploring intelligent flight modes and the possibilities included within those flight envelopes, I’ve started the mental exercise of framing my thinking about executing any given shot within the options available within intelligent flight modes before free flying a shot. Used correctly, intelligent flight modes are a path to less stressful flying and achieving better photographic results simultaneously