The rise of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, drones) in broadcast
< Back to News

The rise of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, drones) in broadcast

Drones are on the up.

Also known as unmanned aerial vehicles – or UAVs (and sometimes referred to as small unmanned aircraft (SUA), unpiloted aerial vehicles or remotely piloted aircraft) – drones are quietly rising above the competition based on cost and flexibility and have already successfully been used on a range of productions including news, movies and top-level sports.

With film-makers able to get closer to their subjects – and shoot from innovative angles – the popularity and future of drones look assured.

Indeed, at 2015’s NAB show, held in April in Las Vegas, dozens of aerial robotics companies, a flying cage, demonstration area with seating and daily sessions all featured in a new Aerial Robotics and Drone Pavilion. And later this year, Amsterdam’s annual broadcast convention, IBC, features its first Drone Zone – claimed to be a “very large flying cage” – to be used by exhibitors to show off their UAVs.

The legalities of operating drones

Here in the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) regulates commercial aerial photography and is responsible for licensing and authorising qualified drone pilots, who must be skilled not only in their equipment’s operation but also, of course, photography and filming.

The CAA stipulates that UAVs must only be flown…

  • Within the direct, unaided visual line of sight of the pilot
  • No higher than 400 feet above the surface and no further than 500 metres from the pilot
  • At least 150 metres from congested events and not within 150 metres of an open-air assembly of 1,000 persons or more
  • Not directly overhead (at any height) or within 50 metres of persons, vehicles, vessels and property, unless those persons are ‘under the control of the person in charge of the SUA’

Furthermore, images of identifiable individuals collected via the use of a drone are subject to the Data Protection Act.

Until now…

Aerial photography and filming have generally been restricted to costly helicopter flights, cranes and inflexible cable-suspended cameras.

But that’s changing – drones are impacting the broadcast industry

There’s no doubt that UAVs’ versatility and relatively low cost have opened things up.

Drones are quieter and cheaper than helicopters and more flexible and mobile than cable-suspended camera systems. They can also reach heights that cranes struggle with.

Film-makers, too, can get much closer to their subjects, meaning we, the audience, feel closer to those subjects – be they birds in flight or skiers at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, where a drone was used by Olympic Broadcasting Services, which provides the official world feed of Olympic Games.

Of course, when film-makers and broadcasters succeed in heightening their audiences’ emotions, everyone wins.

A year before the Sochi Games, Fox Sports claimed to deliver the world’s first rugby league broadcast live in full HD with drones:

How do they work?

Drones are remote-controlled, multi-rotor devices equipped with HD cameras to provide a live video feed for broadcast.

A transmitter is attached to the camera, clearly adding to the total weight and restricting flight speed. Even so, some drones – ‘Octocopters’, to name one – have been known to fly at up to 40mph while transmitting live HD footage.

Octocopters have legs that hold rotors and a flight deck containing a control system: GPS for navigation, sensors and receivers. The camera can be mounted in the middle or suspended below the flight deck.

Drones can be used to shoot from interesting angles – for example, not only filming from above but also tracking shots, as the equipment is able to follow subjects – such as Olympic skiers – along a course or run.

Other drones include the 3D robotics Solo drone, which features two onboard computers and is pitched at camera operators be they “first-time pilot or a long-time pro”. The French company, Parrot, manufacturer of drones, produces some of the industry’s top-of-the-range UAVs.

Productions that have used unmanned aerial vehicles

In addition to the sporting events mentioned above, drones have already been used on major productions, including…

  • Game of Thrones
  • Skyfall
  • The Wolf of Wall Street
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
  • Van Helsing
  • Transformers
  • The Smurfs 2
  • The Expendables 3

Drone operators in the UK

At the time of writing (July 2015), almost 600 small unmanned aircraft operators are registered with the CAA.

What goes up…

But not everyone is behind the growth in the use of drones/UAVs. Google’s Eric Schmidt recently told The Guardian newspaper that the technology has the potential to “democratise the ability to fight war”. But that’s to deviate from the commercial use of these machines – under licence – for broadcast purposes.

In such circumstances, one drawback of using drones is their limited battery life.

But while most drones can run for approximately 40 minutes before they need recharging, they remain quicker and cheaper to put back into the air than a helicopter that needs refuelling.

Also, a low battery is just one of a number of triggers that will automatically return a device to the ground – others being rough winds or a malfunction. Consequently, the likelihood of drone crashes is minimised.

On the ground, pilots can monitor, in real-time, what the camera is capturing, as well as details such as altitude, speed, rate of descent and ascent and indeed remaining battery power.

So with helicopters limited in how low they can go and cranes limited in how high they can go, drones – comfortable spanning the altitude range film-makers and broadcasters are traditionally used to – are the obvious choice for the future. Add to that the fact that these machines’ motors emit only a soft whine, which does not disturb their cameras’ subjects, and it’s easy to see the appeal of these relatively new devices.

Expect that CAA list of 600 to grow exponentially.

Are you a drone operator? Are you thinking of becoming one? Get in touch with us here at Frame 25 and let us know.