The Rundown.

Drones are becoming increasingly more popular. It seems like everyday they’re in the news for good, or for bad.

There is a lot of confusion out there surrounding drones, and a lot of fear, too. But with that comes a lot of potentially great things. As a fan of technology in general, I’m excited about what drones can do and what they’ll be able to do for us in the future.

Epic #drone shots

Background on Drones

Drones have been around for nearly two decades. The military pioneered Remote Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in the 90s that allowed them to carry out their missions with less risk to pilots. Because of this, drones have a negative connotation in that they are made to carry missiles or cause destruction.

Filmmaking drones certainly do not have the same objectives. We use drones to get shots that offer incredible views or establish a location or a setting.

Filmmakers have been using helicopters to get shots for decades, and they have always added a lot to the production value. In the beginning days of helicopter filming, a camera operator would sit outside the side and hold the camera. The next evolution came when cameras were mounted on front and would be stabilized using a Cineflex or Team 5 Aerial systems. This provided ultra smooth capture and helicopters were now allowed make more aggressive moves that led to greater immersion in the films when watched.

This worked incredibly well for action movies and made audiences feel like they were a part of the action. The problem was that helicopters are expensive and large. Due to their size they’re not as agile as film directors would like. Helicopter crashes have led to 24 deaths for filmmaking purposes over the years. Drones just make sense for filmmaking.

Enter drones.

Drones are much smaller, less expensive and more agile making them ideal for filmmaking purposes. Film cameras are large and heavy in size, so drones were never an option until digital cameras became popular. Digital cameras were small enough to fit onto drones and have the ability to send a live feed of what the camera sees to the drone operator.

There are 3 kind of drones used in filmmaking: quadcopters, hexacopters and octocopters, having 4, 6 and 8 small rotors, respectfully.


Among all drones, quadcopters are the most popular, easiest to fly and least expensive, starting at less than $1,000. They are targeted for beginners and can hold small cameras, such as a GoPro. Most manufacturers include safety software such as a GPS-assisted mode, failsafe mode that will return to the takeoff position as well as manual mode for more experienced flyers.

This does not mean that anyone can fly a drone, however. Even quadcopters require practice and patience. When I got my first drone I took it to an empty park with plenty of grass and flew it for 8-10 hours before even putting a camera on it. I crashed it a few times during landing and once into a tree while about 50’ off the ground. The drone was durable and didn’t break, but I did break a rotor in half and had to replace it.

Once I got my confidence up I added a GoPro and have since gotten amazing results with it. Here are some of the best shots I got in the last year.

Today, most quadcopters can fly between 11-20 minutes per battery. Flight time will depend on a few things including: aggressiveness of flight pattern, payload (such as a camera), age of battery, wind (if the drone has to constantly stabilize itself or fight wind resistance) and if you are sending a live feed down to the operator.

Hexacopters and Octocopters

Hexacopters and Octocopters are a quadcopters big brother. Since they have more rotors they have a few advantages that quadcopters do not have. With both hexacopters and octocopters, if a rotor failed during flight the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle would not crash like it would with a quadcopter. This is because it has enough rotors for lift and pan.

On any drone, half the rotors spin clockwise and the other half spin counterclockwise. The rotors moving clockwise are typically responsible for lift, while the counterclockwise rotors are responsible for turning the craft. If you need raise your drones elevation, the two rotors will spin faster, creating more lift. If you need to turn to the right or left, the appropriate rotors will either increase their RPMs or decrease, causing the craft to rotate or pivot.

Drone props spin opposite directions for lift and turn

Hexacopters are more stable and can carry a heavily payload than their smaller quadcopter counterparts. This means that larger batteries can be used and offer slightly longer flight times. It also allows larger cameras to be used. Popular cameras for hexacopters are Panasonic GH4 and Canon 5Diii (include links?). These cameras offer superior image quality over a GoPro and have the ability to change out lenses.

This provides an incredible amount of flexibility for filmmakers. Not only are the lens selection for these cameras much greater than a GoPro (since a GoPro has a fixed, super wide angle lens), but they are glass and professional optics.

Here is a Panasonic GH4 with a wide angle lens similar to a GoPro look and a medium focal length 20mm lens. Both offer much greater control over the image as well as improved image quality.

Panasonic GH4 suitable for a hexacopter drone

Panasonic GH4 suitable for a hexacopter drone.

Similar to hexacopters, octocopters can handle even larger cameras. Octocopters, having 8 rotors, offer the greatest amount of stability and payload options.

Octocopters are used frequently on high end jobs such as car commercials and blockbuster films. Commonly RED Dragon cameras are used because of their state of the art image quality and lens selection. Octocopters are the most expensive and systems can cost up to $20,000 with all parts and accessories needed to fly – not including the camera system!

Octocopters almost always require two operators, one for the drone operation and a second for the camera operation. Many drones, from quadcopters to octocopters, have gimbals attached that hold the cameras.


Gimbals offer 2 or 3 axis stabilization and remove any shake for the drone itself or the wind. Gimbals are camera specific and you must balance the camera properly on the gimbal for it to work.

Some drones have cameras and gimbals built in, eliminating the need for balancing. The downside of this is that you can never change our the camera and you’re stuck with that lens.

For smaller camera and drone systems, such as a DJI Phantom 3 and GoPro, the gimbal will come pre-balanced and all you have to do in attach your GoPro. When it comes times to upgrade your GoPro, it is a fairly easy and quick fix to upgrade the gimbal ensuring a longer life for your drone system.

For the larger camera systems, each time you want to fly you need to balance the camera on the gimbal. Lenses differ in length, weight and size, and therefore require precision when balancing.

Flying the Drone!

The future is bright for drones and filmmaking. The technology is advancing quickly, battery life is growing and ease to pilot is advancing, making it easier for anyone to pick up a drone and learn to fly. Although the FAA is moving slowly with their approval process for commercial use, hobbyist are free to fly (for now) with a few restrictions (INSERT LINK).

Recently, 3DRobotics introduced a new quadcopter called the Solo, and it promises to be much easier to fly for beginners. Furthermore, it has the tools required for professionals, too. The price is about ⅓ of what drones of this quality used to cost just a year ago. Still, being a quadcopter it will have the physical limitations of other quadcopters listed above, yet still lowers the barriers to entry for drone enthusiasts.

I cannot stress enough the importance of safe and responsible flying. There are great places to learn online such as The Drone U. Flyaways are common, and you don’t want your drone falling out of the sky like this one.

Camera technology will also continue to advance, bringing state of the art systems to smaller UAV crafts. Arri, makers of the popular Alexa camera system, recently announced the Alexa Mini, making it possible to use with a drone system.

Black Magic Design also released a small, lightweight camera system capable of being attached to hexacopter system, bringing the technology in the grasps of mid sized independent productions.

What are your thoughts on the drone industry? Let me know in the comments below.