So drones are good, right! With cameras, batteries and computer chips getting smaller by the day it was only a matter of time before the filmmaking community found ways to use the latest technologies to capture images our audiences hadn't seen before. Or at the very least, the kind of images that would have cost a small fortune in the past. With drone technology now allowing us to capture images faster, cheaper and with surprising dexterity what's to stop you from hiring one and bagging that perfect aerial shot to bring instant gravitas to your project? Well... actually quite a few things. And as we have entered in to this world ourselves over the last couple of years we thought we'd share a few of them with you so that you can be better prepared on the lead up to your next big shoot.
To use footage shot with a drone for any kind of commercial project, your pilot must be licensed with a certificate from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Yup, the same authority that grants wings to commercial and fighter jet pilots! There are a number of licensed training schools across the UK and indeed the world so if you're really interested in becoming a pilot, this should be top of your priority list. If you are a production company looking to hire a pilot, check their credentials or you could be breaking the law by using any footage they shoot.
The certification a pilot receives is not just a piece of paper allowing them to make money from piloting drones, it is a stamp of approval from the CAA that proves that pilot has demonstrated, under test conditions, their understanding of meteorology, aerodynamics, air law and their place within the skies.
2. Legal Distance
A friend called me up one evening as he was directing a popular TV show and they needed some exciting aerial footage to stitch some of their scenes together.
"So what sort of shots are you after?" I asked tentatively.
"Well we'd love to get a shot following an ambulance as it speeds down a road with blue lights flashing! And -"
"Woah there pickle..."
I often feel like the bearer of rubbish news when discussing prospective drone shoots with clients, because their mind naturally goes to the limits of possibility, whereas mine goes to the law. If your drone weighs over 7kg (including gimbal and camera etc) you are not allowed to fly within 150meters of any person or area out of your control. That means any built up area as well as roads, railways, parks etc are out of the question unless you have complete control over them, ie closing a road, public place and only allowing persons under your control within that area. Ouch, right.
If your drone weighs under 7kg like our DJI Inspire 1 Pro then you are permitted within 50 metres. But that still rules out all of the above unless adequate permissions and levels of control are in place.
It is worth mentioning that pilots of a very high level of experience can achieve exceptional status and apply for permissions to shoot at closer distances to areas or persons out of their control. To my knowledge there are only two companies in the UK that have this. And they ain't cheap.
3. Controlled Air Space
UK air space is particularly crowded. We are only a small island, so our air force gets a pretty huge bite of the apple when it comes to restricted air space. So even if you do find a place in the middle of nowhere where you think you couldn't possibly harm anyone, think again. Fighter pilots on manoeuvres can be authorised to fly as low as 100meters from ground level, and your drone will be able to go higher than that. And when that jet comes out of nowhere at 300mph your drone MUST NOT be in the way. A certified drone pilot will know how to check for notices of such planned manoeuvres.
A talking point for us all since time began on this temperate land, and a massive pain in the arse for drone pilots.
A drone cannot take off in rain, even light rain, or even fog! Precipitation is a total no-no for drones, it can damage the hardware which can lead to malfunction, which can lead to your drone falling from the sky, which can lead to one or several people getting hurt. And we don't like that.
This means, in the UK especially, you need to be flexible with your dates. If you can, block book 2 or more days as potential shoot days and be ready to go on the best one! Then there's wind, much over 15mph and it's game over.
And my personal favourite, space weather! Yup, coronal mass ejections from the sun, though over 92 million miles away, can still have devastating effects on your drone here on earth. And though it is relatively rare that the KP Index reaches dangerous levels, it could be the one day that you plan to shoot that you send your bird up and it flies itself into the sea (best case scenario) due to massive signal interference due to abnormally high levels of radiation, which we as humans wouldn't even register.
Extreme temperatures can also have adverse effects on drones so if you're planning a shoot in the Sahara or perhaps the Arctic, check your drone (and pilot!) are up to it.
There's more but I can't help but feel I'm talking myself out of a job so, to summarise; If you use drone footage that was illegally gathered, which could be as a result of any of the situations I've outlined above, you are liable for substantial fines. And it's worth bearing in mind that certified pilots are under obligation to report to the CAA if they witness any such infringement. And given that sticking to the rules is a part of their livelihood, and the ill-informed actions of inexperienced or uncertified pilots could lead to accidents or worse still deaths, which will lead to the inevitable tightening of regulations and increase in insurance costs, you can't really blame them for making that report.