It used to require a helicopter to capture a sweeping vista or overhead shot of any subject or landscape below. But high-tech drones have made aerial filmmaking more accessible and adaptable. As a result, they are increasingly becoming an important component in the toolboxes of filmmakers and cinematographers.
Hobbyists may prefer flying drones that are relatively straightforward with little upkeep, but the models blurring the line with commercial applications are different. It’s big business for operators shooting footage for a film, project or just b-roll.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates drone flight throughout the country, and it has rules for commercial aerial flight. So there is definitely some red tape to cut through. But for professional cinematographers as well as would-be filmmakers, it’s worth it.
Improved optics and flight coordination are making drones better at getting images that would otherwise be hard or expensive to capture through traditional means. Let’s take a look at four drones that are designed to do all of that and more.
A Sample of High-Tech Drones
DJI Inspire 2
DJI doesn’t overtly market the Inspire 2 as a purely commercial model, opting instead to straddle it as both a prosumer and commercial unit. Its versatility is partly centered on the upgradeable Zenmuse camera. Compatible with the X4S, X5S and X7 cameras, the Cinecore 2.1 image-processing system can record video at up to 6K in CinemaDNG/RAW and 5.2K in Apple ProRes when shooting with the X7, in particular. Pilots can save footage in both H.264 and H.265 codecs.
The various flying modes can help set up and automate the route a shot takes. Spotlight pro mode tracks and locks onto a subject, rotating and sticking to the scene continuously with the 360º gimbal. Though DJI had said its two main intelligent flight modes, point of interest and QuickSpin, would be “coming soon” to the Inspire 2, they have yet to make it to the product.
There is, however, built-in two-way obstacle avoidance, allowing the drone to sense objects in its flight path up to 650 feet away, even when automatically flying back to its takeoff point. DJI calls this FlightAutonomy, noting that it provides obstacle avoidance and sensor redundancy in two directions.
Moreover, DJI’s LightBridge technology for the video downlink is enhanced to a maximum distance of 4.3 miles. Broadcast mode can beam a signal directly from the drone at 1080i or 720p at 60 frames per sec. All a pilot has to do is connect the Inspire 2’s controller to the satellite truck. Battery life depends on which camera is on the gimbal. The X4S will enable 27 minutes of flight time, while the X7 cuts it down to 23 minutes. MSRP: Starting at $2,999.99. dji.com/inspire-2
DJI Phantom 4 Pro
While not as deep and adept as the Inspire 2, the Phantom 4 Pro is more cost-effective for those starting out in filmmaking or cinematography. It features the same autonomous flight features, like TapFly and ActiveTrak, which utilize imaging and sensory technology to navigate a flight path in lieu of GPS.
The onboard FlightAutonomy system has dual rear vision sensors and infrared sensors to cover obstacle avoidance in four directions. The camera uses a 1-inch, 20 megapixel CMOS sensor mounted on a 3-axis gimbal. This gives it better optics than before but still limits its range of motion because of the landing gear flanking it. More often than not, the Phantom 4 Pro has to be facing the subject to capture the best footage. The larger sensor does at least help get better quality, with the drone supporting 4K resolution in H.264 at 60 fps or H.265 at 30 fps with a 100Mbps bit rate.
The same flight modes as before are here, including draw mode, where pilots can draw a route on the screen for the drone to follow. Within that, there are two ways to fly. Forward has the drone follow the route at a consistent speed, shooting whatever is in front. Free is more manual in that the drone only follows the route when told to, allowing the camera pilot to orient the drone in any direction. Starting at $1,499.99. dji.com/phantom-4-pro
DJI Matrice 600 Pro
If the Inspire 2 and Phantom 4 Pro don’t afford enough flexibility, the Matrice 600 Pro is made for serious filmmakers who want a greater level of control over the camera. Rather than have its own camera onboard, the hexacopter is rugged and sturdy, capable of handling nearly a 14-pound payload.
While compatible with any of DJI’s Zenmuse cameras, the gimbal is designed to accommodate a wide variety of cameras. If cinematographers shoot with the Red Epic, then they can do that easily here. The gimbal also has room for Micro Four Thirds cameras. However, it doesn’t seem to be open enough for high-end DSLRs. The landing gear retracts to give the gimbal full range of motion, so the drone can shoot in 360º.
The battery system is also somewhat complicated. The gist is that there’s a built-in redundancy where all six batteries will turn on or off when one of them has. If one fails for any reason in mid-flight, the drone will land back at its takeoff point. The charging hub can recharge all six at once to speed up preparation.
DJI’s own LightBridge 2 connectivity should deliver professional broadcast-quality signals. It provides high frame rates and live HD at 720p at 60 fps or 1080i at 50 fps. The transmission range is also up to three miles away, assuming there’s no interference. Flight time does depend on payload weight and the camera attached, but it can go up to 38 minutes, whereas a Red Epic would drop that down to only 16 minutes. $4,999.99. dji.com/matrice600-pro
Yuneec Typhoon H Plus
The Typhoon H is perhaps Yuneec’s most visible drone because of its retractable landing gear and 360º gimbal. Those features have since become more common with competing brands now. So the key to improving this hexacopter was in camera performance.
With the Typhoon H Plus, Yuneec is going with a 1-inch, 20MP image sensor capable of shooting 4K resolution at 60 fps. The company also claims better low-light performance because of the larger sensor. However, it doesn’t elaborate on how much improvement pilots can expect.
It does reportedly fly 40% quieter than its predecessor. Plus, the drone will be available with or without Intel’s RealSense technology onboard for smarter obstacle avoidance.
Moreover, intelligent flight modes include Orbit Me, where the drone flies a circular path around the subject with the camera focused on them. Point of interest mode can essentially do the same thing. With PoI, pilots can choose a subject or area the drone circles around, regardless of whether it’s shooting or not. Journey mode automatically elevates and reverses up to 295 feet away from the subject. In addition, Follow and Watch Me simply tell the drone to stay with a moving subject. Pilots can also use the curve cable cam mode to program an invisible route of preset waypoints with full camera control.
Yuneec redesigned its ST16 remote controller with an integrated 7-inch display. Moreover, it says the display functions and looks better during flight. It will take a live stream from the Typhoon H Plus and show it in 720p. $1,799.99. us.yuneec.com/typhoon-h-plus