As more consumers capture their outdoor adventures with tough and lightweight cameras, especially through video, some are achieving new heights by attaching them to remote-control (RC) miniature helicopters.
These aren’t the toy helicopters of your childhood. Today's generation of flying gear are “quadcopters,” a term that describes the four vertical propellers that allow the craft to smoothly lift, dip and turn at a multitude of angles.
Until recently, quadcopters were relegated to the hobbyist scene, requiring technical assembly and a hefty investment. But if the videos beginning to appear on YouTube are any indication (see footage below) the technology is becoming more accessible through companies such as Bend, Ore.-based Xpro Heli.
“The cameras are getting lighter, smaller and tougher, and so we’re grasping onto that trend and figuring out how best get it onto these machines that are easier to operate and more affordable,” said Xpro Heli co-owner Hans Skjersaa. “We’ve been at it for a year, and most of our customers have never flown a RC copter before — they’re mostly video production guys. It’s gotten to a point where its affordable for them, and you don’t need to be a hobby nerd to fly it.”
For the everyday consumer, the technology is still relatively expensive, but it’s attainable considering what some people spend on camera equipment these days. Xpro Heli’s latest Xp2 quadcopter starts at $2,399 and runs to $3,599 with additional features such as GPS and the ability to transmit live point-of-view video to the operator. Fully loaded with a GoPro, the setup weighs about 2.8 pounds.
Skjersaa, who founded company with fellow video production professional Wes Coughlin, said sales of quadcopters are rising steadily with buyers ranging from photographers and videographers to outdoor enthusiasts, hunters, farmers and ranchers. Xpro Heli's products are available only direct-to-consumer, but Skjersaa said he’d “love it to be in retail stores one day” depending on how, if and when the company can increase its capacity and production.
“Drones” in Pakistan
At a higher professional level, outdoor aerial photography has been around for a while — think of all the stunning shots you’ve seen from above in Warren Miller films. But that type of aerial video typically has come at a high cost — requiring a manned helicopter, pilot and film crew.
So when Swiss outdoor brand Mammut wanted to document a remote, high-altitude expedition in Pakistan earlier this year (see footage below), it too turned to remote-controlled quadcopters, or as USA Today recently put it — a different type of drone in Pakistan’s skies.
Mammut’s drones were, of course, on a peaceful mission. “They introduce entirely new possibilities to outdoor sports filmmaking," said Harald Schreiber with Mammut. “Drones are much cheaper than big helicopters and freer to move than camera cranes. It is possible to shoot big overview scenes from high above and then fly in really close to the object in the same take. Helicopters can’t get too close to the people they are filming because the wind from the rotor would disturb the climber or skier.”
Mammut worked with Dedicam.tv to supply and pilot the professional quadcopters, which carried more substantial photography equipment than just a GoPro. Schreiber said the cost, although cheaper than alternatives, was still significant at more than $20,000, not including the camera.
“The pilot/filmer has to be very experienced in flying the drone to get the desired shots without crashing the whole device after a minute,” he said. Battery life was also limited on these devices, sometimes only lasting 10 minutes a high altitudes and needing to be replaced.
Still, Schreiber said he thinks the trend of aerial remote photography is bound to take off wtih outdoor consumers.
“If you look at the incredible amount of GoPro videos posted on YouTube it is obvious that there is a big need for self documentation in action sports,” he told SNEWS. “Skiers, climbers, surfers, bikers, basejumpers and many more like to document their achievements and make them accessible for a greater public. Once the drone technology gets a bit cheaper, I can totally see it becoming the next logical step in this direction.”
Concerns and regulations
As remote-quadcopter sales rise, it doesn’t take much foresight to see a possible problem looming in regards to safety, privacy and frankly, some peace and quiet in the outdoors. Not everyone will be pleased to have a buzzing drone join them on a hike in the wilderness. And dangers lurk in crowded ski areas if the device were to malfunction.
“It’s a machine and mechanical things can fail,” Skjersaa said. “You could do real damage to property or a person if you crash it. It’s not a toy.” Xpro Heli provides optional flying tutorials along with its quadcopter purchases. Skjersaa said the training aspect would be an extra challenge if the devices went to retail.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does have regulations on unmanned flying units, but at the moment, it is busy debating government, police and commercial requests to use the devices.
For now, hobbyists and consumers are free to fly, Skjersaa said.