In recent years with the continued development of high performance electric motors and batteries, using RC aircraft for professional aerial photography has become extremely popular. From the drones used by the US Government to local RC hobbyist, the applications seem to be unlimited.
Stephen Born is the owner, operator and pilot of AerialSkyCam, (aerialskycam.com) a philanthropic enterprise specializing in aerial photography. Stephen is a HeliProz team pilot, and a member of the Radio Control Aerial Photography Association. We had a chance to chat with Stephen recently and here’s what we learned about his interesting business and pastime.
Stephen, tell us a little about your company.
I have always been passionate about my RC helicopters and my photography. It seemed like a perfect match of technologies and so, I started AerialSkyCam in 2009. It takes two individuals to successfully run an aerial photography camera ship. One flies the helicopter with one radio and the other person operates the camera gimbal and to take the pictures with a second radio. Following the AMA’s guidelines, either the pilot or the camera operator has to have an unobstructed, direct, line-of-sight view of the aircraft all the time. In our applications, I fly the helicopter with direct line-of-sight and my camera operator manipulates the gimbal and is able to see what the camera sees.
In 2010, Cristin Gudgel joined my company and she had plenty of knowledge and experience with photography and videography to produce optimal results. Safety has always been at the forefront of all our aerial photography missions. We perform a complete control and systems check prior to each flight.
Tell us a little about your equipment.
The use of RC helicopters as a platform for photography is extremely flexible and I believe it’s the most accurate form of aerial photography. My application enables the pilot the ability to take aerial photos and video from exclusive angles that full-size helicopters just cannot match. There are many options in which type of aircraft can be incorporated as an aerial platform. Choosing the right electronics for the right job is of the upmost importance.
My helicopter of choice is the stretched T-Rex 800 electric. I use the Xera 400KV motor which allows for an efficient 1,450 rpm main rotor head speed. My main blades, which are 800mm asymmetrical Maxi Joker’s, weigh 250 grams each. If I have to low of a head speed, I would not be able to auto-rotate if there was an electronic failure. If the head speed is too high, the weight of the blades will destroy the main rotor head. I am using a high voltage Kontronik 160 Power Jazz electronic speed controller. The ESC internal sensors will activate a cooling fan if it reaches high fluctuating temperatures or becomes unstable. All cyclic movements are controlled by the Align DS610 metal gear servos and an Align DS650 metal gear tail servo. As far as the receiver, I went with the HeliCommand HC3-SX with two Spektrum DSMX satellites. The HC3-SX receiver has a horizontal function which allows for ultimate stability. I use a hot glue gun to secure all servo connectors to the receiver for added security.
There are two types of camera mounts, the front tube system and the underslung mount. The underslung mount is connected to the skids of the helicopter, which can create a pendulum effect during maneuvering. The front tube system allows the gimbal and camera to be mounted on the front of the helicopter. I chose to incorporate a front tube system as the camera gimbal mount. I have a full 360 degree pan and tilt of the gimbal which is gyro-stabilized, allowing me the versatility to capture photos no matter which way the helicopter is facing. Shock springs are filled with a vibration absorbing material which consists of liquid and solids. This particular solution greatly minimizes or eliminates high frequency vibrations caused by the helicopter. In addition, I utilize the same material solution around the camera for additional vibration measures.
What about the Cameras?
My cameras include the Canon t3i and Cannon 5D which are great for both shooting stills and video. While shooting still photographs, setting the lens to infinity allows the camera to capture the images with clarity. My favorite camera is the Panasonic 3CCD high definition motion picture video camera.
Due to the inherent vibrations with RC helicopters, it is important that vibration reduction is at the forefront of our camera systems. We implement an advanced Optical Image Stabilizer for our video, which dramatically reduces the blurring effect caused by high frequency vibrations. This allows for pure optical quality.
Why do you use electric power?
There are many reasons I choose electric. Nitro or gas engines can have problematic consequences with aerial photography. Engines fumes can be captured in the picture, and burning fuel can lead to residue build up on the camera lens, distorting the quality of the pictures or video. Also, engine vibration causes the helicopter and camera to shake. In the end, it is all about the quality of the photos and video.
What about FAA Regulations?
It is very important to note that there are regulations for aerial photography applications using RC aircraft for compensation. Under AC 91-57, it is prohibited for any UAV to take aerial photos and charge for them. The rules state once you receive compensation, you are no longer flying as a hobbyist and are considered a commercial enterprise. The FAA allows UAV operators to apply for a Certificate of Authorization (COA), which allows UAV operations for experimental or training purposes. COAs are used by the military, universities, and law enforcement agencies. As far as the AMA is concerned, they have set their guidelines following the FAA protocol as federal regulations override state. The AMA always follows the FAA established guidelines.
Do you have any advice for people wanting to improve their aerial photography?
I have learned through my experience that a great picture can paint a story and good composition is the key to taking great photos. I can appreciate the techniques that are involved for that perfect shot. The most desirable time to take pictures is in the first or last hours of the day when the sun is low on the horizon. Structures in photos taken during these hours will heighten shapes due to the shadows produced by the sun’s angle.
Using a helicopter for aerial photography can be a rewarding experience, as it is versatile and can be used for many applications. If you have an interest in helicopters and aerial photography, or questions about my set-ups, please feel free to visit our website at www.aerialskycam.com. I will answer any questions you might have, as this hobby is all about helping others.