Still Photos From The Air

Camera drones are becoming quite notable for their video capabilities, and rightfully so. Even modest machines can capture previously impossible or very complicated shots with ease. And the ability to fly state-of-the-art cameras with high precision and low cost is not news anymore.

But as a photographer whose roots go deep in the world of traditional still photography, I occasionally launch one of my machines with the sole purpose of capturing individual, carefully-composed still photographs.

I recently modified my Freefly Systems MōVI M5 gimbal to use a Futaba radio system similar to that which my ALTA copter uses. I did so because I was having difficulty with range on the Spektrum radio that it came with, and the Futaba not only has better capabilities, but has additional radio channels. I used one of these channels to connect a shutter release for my Canon 5D Mark III. Instead of using a system that simply fires the shutter every few seconds, I decided I’d prefer to be able to compose individual shots. The ALTA’s GPS position hold is sturdy enough for me to “park” the copter in a location and switch to the MōVI’s transmitter to frame and fire a shot. I usually work with a separate camera operator when we’re shooting video, as camera movements are usually too complex to trust to a single operator. But for stills it’s very different.

Tonight I saw some tell-tale signs of an impending sunset of some quality, so I took the ALTA rig down to the beach and got some wonderful photographs. Here are a few samples. Enjoy!

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Magic Road Trip!

I was part of a film crew on a ten day journey in an RV from Michigan to California through some of the prettiest places in the USA. And we planned to film the heck out of these places with a dozen cameras and rigs, including my Freefly ALTA drone.

Our road trip has now successfully concluded. Here is some numbers for your consideration:

  • I flew 35 flights across 7 states (from Michigan to California) over 9 days
  • My longest flight (2×10000 mAh LiPos, M5, GH4) was 22 minutes
  • My highest altitude of operation: 12,000 feet ASL
  • My lowest temperature of operation: 21°F
  • I flew 4 flights in light snowfall
  • I calibrated compass only after at least 500 miles traveled…GPS PH was spot on at every location

And here are a few photos of our operations. It was an amazing adventure!

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Freefly ALTA First Impressions and Technical Q&A

When I arrived at NAB 2015 in Las Vegas, I went straight to the Freefly Systems’ booth to have a look at their new Freefly ALTA multirotor. I had high expectations, as I am very familiar with Freefly’s high standards and attention to detail. The first public details about ALTA had just been pushed to the web hours before the official beginning of NAB.

I was able to spend almost a half hour with two members of the Freefly staff. One is an experienced multirotor pilot and camera drone expert who is largely responsible for testing their platforms, and the other individual I spoke with is a member of the technical staff, and he was able to answer some of my more detailed questions. Finally, I also talked with Tabb Firchau, Freefly’s President, and he helped me clarify the answers to some of these questions.

altaFreefly have announced that the retail price of the ALTA is $8,495 in the USA. This price includes the ALTA and custom carrying case, but no radios. ALTA’s pre-order (refundable $1000 deposit) is now available (Freefly store preorder :: Quadrocopter store preorder).

Full disclosure: I paid the deposit and I am on the preorder waitlist. I did not receive a discount or any consideration for this purchase (or any other). This is an unbiased and professional review, and has not been influenced by anybody.

Here are some of my questions, and (paraphrased) the answers I got. Much of what I asked was outside the scope of what’s already been posted, so I’ve skipped over anything that’s already been addressed in marketing literature.

  1. Why a hex and not an octo?
    Freefly wanted to be able to run larger props (the ALTA uses 18” props) than you could run on an octo.
  2. How about redundancy? What if you lose a motor?
    The Synapse flight controller can compensate for the loss of a motor to a certain degree and you may be able to fly and land safely. Maneuverability is compromised, especially for yaw, but the copter can theoretically fly on 5 motors as long as the payload is not to near the max. Stated another way, this is not perfectly clear at this time.
  3. What kind of motors/ESCs does ALTA use?
    Both are custom, proprietary designs. And both are optimized to significantly reduce noise. The props are still noisy when pushing air around, but everybody says it’s the quietest multirotor they’ve ever flown. Interestingly, the ESCs are integrated into the motor housing at the end of each boom, significantly reducing heat buildup. The LEDs on each boom are actually part of the ESCs.
  4. Whose props does ALTA use?
    ALTA’s foldable propellers are completely custom Freefly products.
  5. How much power can the ALTA push?
    Each ESC has been tested up to 60+ amps each at 6S. In its full payload configuration, the ESCs are pushing 25-30A each (for a total of 150-180A). With a small camera (like a GH4) and a MōVI M5, it’s closer to 20A each motor. Freefly have done extensive lab testing of these ESCs and believe they are the best performing ESCs ever flown in a multirotor.
  6. Is there any power isolation with the dual batteries?
    No, the two batteries are run in parallel to independent inputs on the power distribution board, but they’re not isolated from one another.
  7. What about any other type of redundancy?
    The ALTA features dual diversity SBUS inputs to the Synapse from the flight radios. You can put two RC receivers (such as Futaba or Spektrum) on the Synapse, and it will automatically choose the cleaner signal based on packet error data. There are also redundant bus signals run from the power distribution board and the Synapse to the ESCs so that if there is a signal disturbance on the bus the copter can still control the ESCs and motors.
  8. How does the GPS work with the MōVI top mounted?
    Freefly says the boom-mounted GPS-antenna location is far enough out from under the gimbal that it gets a full complement of satellites even with the gimbal on top.
  9. What about telemetry and/or OSD?
    Full OSD functionality (SD, not HD) is built into the Synapse. You route your FPV camera through the Synapse and it overlays a full (and customizable) complement of in-flight data on the way to your vTX.
  10. Does Synapse do Mikrokopter-style data logging?
  11. How does the live configuration work?
    Through Bluetooth and (probably) wifi to a tablet or laptop on the ground. Range is quoted as “a couple hundred feet” and provides the ability to live-tune flight parameters in the air. Freefly reiterated that the reason there was never an iOS MōVI app was the incompability between Freefly’s Bluetooth hardware and iOS. This is why they’d like to do Wifi for ALTA to give iOS compatibility.
  12. Is it weatherproof?
    Freefly describes the ALTA as “weather resistant”. The folks I talked to said they routinely fly it in a light rain and snow. The power components are all isolated, protected, and properly coated to avoid issues with moisture.
  13. What kind of batteries does it use?
    ALTA is a 6S machine, and can use industry standard SUAS 6S (25V) LiPo batteries. However, given the power demands ALTA puts on the batteries, it’s best to run two batteries in parallel, and to make sure that the pair can supply adequate current to the copter’s power systems.
  14. What is the flight duration?
    The Freefly staff I spoke to said they did virtually all of their testing with matched pairs of Freefly’s 9000 man 6S LiPo batteries (apparently now discontinued). They said they have not done extensive flight duration testing, but with “smaller cameras” such as GH4 and A7S on a MōVI M5 they get in excess of 15 minutes, and that “larger cameras” such as a RED on a MōVI M10 (near ALTA’s payload limit) they get roughly 10 minutes. These times will vary according to many factors and are not definitive yet.

Lastly, I have some photos for your perusal. These machines are all pre-production models, so they may differ in some ways, but I was assured that they’re nearly identical to the final version.

This article is Copyright © 2015 PerspectivAIR LLC – All Rights Reserved

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Video interference issue fixed with DragonLink UHF

I was having problems at long-range with my ground station’s video cutting out. I read up on the problem and found out the issue was with the cheap video receivers I was using. I replaced them with a couple of much better Lawmate video receivers, and now my DragonLink does not interfere with my video.

Next Generation FPV Ground Station

I’ve been wanting to cobble one of these together for a long time
I finally assembled the pieces and did it. It uses a Pelican 1600 case.

It has two 1.3GHz video receivers feeding either two displays (heavy lifter), or a diversity controller to pick the best signal (long distance quad) plus a 5.8GHz video receiver for my little FPV pod racer. I have a DVR to record what the ground station sees. There are two antenna hookups, and a current-limited DC power supply (Kickstarter project). Zeiss Cinemizers can run off of any video channel, too.

It all runs off a 4400mAh 3S (12V) LiPo. Not sure how long the battery will last. I’ll know more after I use it a bit. But I have a few of those batteries. I could run them in parallel, I guess.


Another Charming NRA Initiative: “Bear Arms Against Drones”

Screen-Shot-2014-12-28-at-8.55.39-AMreprinted from here:
(paywall in place, but free registration available)

Right to shoot drones would be perfect NRA cause

The National Rifle Association lately has been having its way with the Florida Legislature — think Docs & Glocks, which forbade doctors from asking patients about gun ownership. And despite the furor over Stand Your Ground, no significant rollback in that doctrine is coming.

In case the NRA is running out of things to ask for, here’s a new doctrine: Bear Arms Against Drones. The doctrine is simple. It would enshrine in law the right of people whose property or personal space is invaded by drones to shoot the things down. Here’s the argument for it:

We’re in the midst of a drone invasion. Some of the snooping, dangerous craft will be operated by individuals and businesses. Some will be operated by crooks. Some will be operated by terrorists. In all cases, individuals should have the right to protect themselves.

In 2013, Gov. Rick Scott signed a law that limited police use of drones. Cops can use them only if they have a warrant or their use is justified by “imminent danger.” It’s a safe bet that “imminent danger” will be an elastic standard.

The Federal Aviation Administration also has rules covering the use of drones, or as they call them, “Unmanned Aircraft Systems.” But those are inadequate. The FAA and drone makers, noting that the craft were hugely popular Christmas gifts, just announced an attempt to better educate the public – including the web site

Drones are becoming too readily available and affordable. And too many people and businesses either won’t know about the FAA rules and/or won’t care about the FAA rules — or anybody’s rules.

What will this drone invasion look like? Camera-equipped drones are perfect for surveillance. They’re in use at ports and along U.S. borders and to monitor traffic jams. Police can use drones for the same purpose. Firefighters can use them to see what they face during conflagrations engulfing buildings and forests.

But other uses are not so pressing for the public good. Real estate agents want to use drones to take pictures of properties and neighborhoods. Entrepreneurs are offering high-flying videos of weddings. Private detectives surely see drones as an opportunity to capture pictures of cheating spouses. Amazon is exploring the idea of delivering packages using drones.

But lots of people are going to obtain and operate drones just for the novelty of it. And this will turn into a hazard. Imagine Jerry from next door, a little buzzed on Bud, dispatching his drone to buzz his neighbors for a joke. Then imagine his wayward drone smashing into you, your spouse, your kids, your car, your house. In short, it will be a menace.

Then there are the thieves who will use drones to spy on your house, see what’s inside, note when you’re away and then use drones to watch for the cops while they loot your home.

Then there are the pervs who will send drones to hover outside your kids’ windows.

And then there are the elements who will see drones as more than Unmanned Aircraft Systems. They will see them as Unmanned Weapons Systems. Gangs could use bullet-firing drones to attack rivals, with innocents caught in the crossfire.

Drones can be modified to drop explosives or spray toxins. It is a certainty that terrorists eager to retaliate for the U.S. military’s effective use of drones abroad are plotting ways to use drones against civilian and military targets within the United States.

The possibility that drones can be turned into radio-controlled guns raises an interesting question: Does the Second Amendment guarantee individuals the right to keep and bear pistol-packing drones?

Regardless of the answer, a drone that enters personal space or property without permission should be subject to shoot-down. Just as Stand Your Ground abolished the duty to retreat in the face of attack, there should be no duty to retreat from drones. And note that blasting a drone — which is not alive — is less drastic that Stand Your Ground, which allows homicide.

Yes, there is the possibility that people shooting at drones could unleash stray shots. But that’s a possibility with every exchange of gunfire. The drones are coming, and Floridians should be empowered to Bear Arms Against Drones.

Hmmm. Maybe the case for Bear Arms Against Drones is better than the arguments for many things the NRA and Legislature have done. Is this BAAD idea a bad idea?

Jac Wilder VerSteeg has covered state, regional and national issues for three decades. Contact him at

Copyright © 2014, Sun Sentinel

Dancing in the fog

I am flying a second copter these days, a big quad that I assembled out of leftover parts (including a chinese clone Cinestar frame) and a NAZA-M V2. I recently added a DragonLink V2 UHF system, which is a real game changer. This copter is mainly a toy, but like all my toys, it serves a higher purpose. Right now it just has a cheap Tarot 2-axis gimbal and flies with a GoPro. Here’s a video I shot on the coastline near where I live. I think you will enjoy it.

DragonLink powered!

My big quad is now DragonLink V2 powered! I’ve been waiting for some time to get all the pieces together to allow me to increase this copter’s range. The previous 2.4 TX/RX I had barely made it to 500-600 meters before encountering dropouts and other issues. But the DragonLink has no such issues. I have seen many other drone guys push these to ridiculous distances. At the speed this quad flies and considering its battery capacity, I figure I’ve got 3km+ of range now. Today, I flew it on a tour of our local beaches. I went about 1.6km north then back to where I started, and then another 1km to the south.

Another cool thing is the GoPro HD Hero3+ footage is super smooth, thanks to the Snake River Prototyping BlurFix Air with ND8/CP Filter. As you can see, it was a super bright, sunny day today, and normally you’d see a lot of rolling shutter in GoPro footage. There’s none! I also have one of their ND8 filters, but I needed the CP, too, because it was so bright today. The video is not stabilized BTW. Just removed a bit of the GoPro fisheye effect in Premiere with Red Giant Looks.

Lastly, some info about my copter:
– Cinestar center hub with 400mm booms and custom battery tray in the bomb bay
– NAZA-M V2 with iOSD mini
– KDE 35A ESCs
– Avroto 3515 motors
– 14″ CF props
– DragonLink V2 12 channel UHF receiver
– Tarot 2-axis gimbal
– Generic CCD flight cam with video switcher

Aerial Mapping with Software Magic

I just did an aerial survey of 10 acres of land with a friend using my supercopter. I processed dozens of high-resolution photos using some very sophisticated and specialized mapping software that gives me a completely browsable 3D view of the resulting area. The applications for this are amazing. I can’t wait to apply this in other projects, too.

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ALS Ice Bucket Challenge with my X8 copter!

I did the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge with my X8 copter today. 10 pounds of ice water dumped from the air on my head. It wasn’t easy, but it sure was fun! Hopefully I can whip together a “Making Of…” if I have some time this week. It was quite the adventure!

My challenges were my own personal safety, protecting the copter from damage from an admittedly inappropriate UAV application, finding a way to adequately capture this on film in a way that would tell the right story. I also didn’t want to waste any water, as we’re suffering from a serious drought here in Northern California. I was fortunate that my friends Colin Snow and Charlotte Ziems (newlyweds!) were generous enough to come out and help me. Colin’s an experienced UAV pilot, and was one of my mentors when I got started. And Charlotte is a newly-minted enthusiast and helped film the whole thing from the air with her Phantom Vision 2.

We nearly lost the daylight after an electrical issue grounded us for a half hour after some water got inside the copter and caused some anomalous behavior. But I got it sorted out and when it came time to do this, all systems worked perfectly. It was actually quite thrilling. I love it when something works as well in real life as it did in my imagination!

Here are a few photos showing what my day looked like as I prepared for this.

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