A Guide to Unmanned Aerial Filming
I will use the term UAV throughout this article but you may find them online under different names and acronyms. This is because there is no standard term for this kind of equipment. The common names are:
UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle)
UAS (unmanned aerial system)
SUSA (small unmanned surveillance aircraft)
ROV (remotely operated vehicle)
RPA (remotely piloted aircraft)
Multirotor (tricopter, quadcopter, hexacopter, octocopter)
This list is not exhaustive. While there are fixed wing operators out there, the majority of these are not used for filming, therefore this guide will focus on multirotor and helicopter use as these are becoming most commonly used.
Why use a UAV?
Recent advances in camera, flight and battery technology mean that UAVs are now capable of obtaining footage at a quality comparable to that achieved by manned aircraft. Combined with the fact that UAVs can be used closer to the ground and nearer to people than manned aircraft, this means that they are becoming an incredibly versatile tool for filmmakers across a wide variety of genres. UAVs have been used to replace dolly and jib shots in awkward locations and can be used for dramatic lift and zoom shots.
The majority of UAV operators will be significantly cheaper than hiring a helicopter. The ability to monitor the footage from the ground allows for directorial input to the flight team and immediate review of the footage. Control methods vary and include traditional transmitters, tablet and laptop control. The control method employed will be dictated by the type of filming required.
What about the legislation concerning UAVs?
If a company or individual is operating their UAV commercially (which the Civil Aviation Authority defines as getting any kind of valuable consideration for your work) then their aircraft must be registered with the CAA and have a permit for aerial work. Any reputable company will be able to show you their permissions document for the aircraft they are going to use. This clearly shows the conditions they can fly under. The conditions vary slightly for different aircraft. If a company is operating without a permit for aerial work then it is possible that the pilot’s experience is questionable and it is unlikely that they are insured.
What qualifications do I look for?
Aside from checking the permit that allows aerial work, the CAA requires that pilots demonstrate a level of skill when they register their aircraft. Until recently it was possible to obtain a permission for aerial work with a British Model Flying Association Helicopter A certificate. New registrations are now generally required to complete a BNUC-S qualification, which is administered by a company called EuroUSC.
This BNUC-S qualification consists of a theory exam and flight exam. The aim is to show that the pilot is knowledgeable about their own aircraft and how they can use it in UK airspace. The qualification is type specific so if, for example, a pilot is qualified only to use an octocopter, they should not be flying a helicopter for aerial work. All operators who have completed the BNUC-S should be able to show you their certificate, which should tie in with the details on their permission for aerial work.
What are the limitations?
In order to make sure UAVs and manned aircraft are working in separate airspace, there are a number of limitations placed on UAV use.
These are the main ones to keep in mind:
• The maximum altitude is 400 feet (120 metres)
• The maximum distance from the operator is 500 metres
• The minimum visibility needs to be 5 km
• UAV must be flown in line of sight of the operator
• UAVs cannot be flown at night without special permission
• Permission must be obtained from the owner of the take-off point
• UAVs cannot be flown within 50 metres of structures, vehicles or people that are not under the control of the person in charge of the aircraft.
This final point may sound very limiting but the key phrase here is “…under the control of…” It is perfectly acceptable to fly close to buildings and actors, for example, as long as permission has been obtained and the actors have been briefed about the use of the UAV. It would be highly irresponsible to fly over or near members of the public who are not aware of the purpose of the flight.
How to get insurance
There are specialist UAV insurance companies that are able to provide cover for UAV operations. As a bare minimum, the CAA recommends that the company or individual should have public liability insurance. Some insurance companies will not cover UAV use in high-risk areas though so do check this beforehand.
Most operators will have cover for their own equipment or cameras, but if you ask the company to use your cameras, their insurance will not normally cover your equipment. Flying hired cameras may be possible, but it is advised that the hire company is informed of this as their insurance may not cover UAV use.
Which size camera do I need?
The type of UAV and the size of a camera are closely linked. The size of the UAV will generally dictate the camera payload. The type of camera mount or gimbal the UAV uses is also very important.
Most individuals start off with a small quadcopter that is probably capable of carrying a small compact camera or something like a GoPro. There are octocopters and helicopters that are capable of carrying cameras such as the Canon C300, RED Epic or Sony FS700.
Most operators will have a camera that they have set up for their equipment. This will normally mean they have gone for a compromise between weight and quality. There is some very good quality Panasonic GH2 footage coming through as an incredible new gimbal has been produced specifically for it.
Generally, the bigger the camera, the shorter the flight time. With the larger cameras, flight times may be limited to 4-5 minutes per battery pack. However, in filmmaking, shot sequences are usually very short so this isn’t a major problem. Don’t be afraid to ask companies for samples of previous work and references.
Camera gimbals are generally servo stabilised but some are better than others. Again, it is worth asking for a demonstration or sample footage. Some operators use a single pilot and camera operator setup, while others have a separate pilot and camera operator. This may affect costs as well as the quality of the final product. Costs of UAV hire, at present, tend to vary considerably but are generally proportionate to the video quality that the operator can achieve.
This guide was compiled with the help of Elliott Corke of HexCam; UAV imagery, equipment and training.