Aerial Video: A Comprehensive Guide For The Uninitiated

DJI Inspire 2 for Aerial Video production
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Aerial Video: A Comprehensive Guide For The Uninitiated
DJI Inspire 2: Workhorse of the aerial video world in North Yorkshire
Our DJI Inspire 2 and Xenmuse 5xs: Aerial Video heaven

Aerial Video: Doing The Homework

I run Radar Film  a professional video production company in North Yorkshire. We cover clients all over the country, including Leeds, Harrogate, and further afield. One of the services we offer is ‘white label’ aerial video. This is an article about the legal and technical considerations of making aerial video. It is designed as a comprehensive guide to folks who are thinking of using a drone to make aerial video, but not sure what it involves.

There are a number of basic things that a drone operator should do and should have if you are going to hire them:

  1. A permission for commercial operation (PfCO)
  2. Insurance
  3. Permission to take off and land
  4. A feasibility study
  5. A site survey

I’ll discuss this in some detail below, along with a variety of other useful factors you may not have considered. I make all my documents available for inspection to my clients before I get to a site, using my website.

Aerial Video: Basic Limits

  • On ‘standard’ permissions, pilots have to keep their drones to at or below 120M altitude
  • within 500M of the pilot
  • Always within line of sight, of either the pilot or an observer. (Unless your drone is the size of a Lancaster bomber, its not likely that you’d get to 500M)
  • Can fly in towns on ‘standard permissions’ but…
  • Have to make sure anyone within 50 Meters is ‘under control’
  • Most drones cannot get wet, so they mostly have to stay in the dry. However its for the pilot to understand their gear. it’s the batteries which are the problem here, more later on that.
  • They can fly in some pretty heavy wind, (up to 20MPH for a DJI Inspire 2) but the entirety of the risk must be considered.

Aerial Video: Categories of Drone (sub 7KG, 7-20KG, 20+KG)

Whilst we are on the subject of the law and suchlike – you need to also understand that different elements of it apply to different size of drone. The DJI Spark – even though it is tiny, is in the same legal category as the DJI Inspire 2. There is about a 4.5KG difference in size and a infinite difference in capability. However, the categories are defined along the lines of weight. Those categories are:

  1. Sub 7kg,
  2. 7-20KG
  3. 20+KG.

Most commercial operators use drones in the In the sub 7KG category. The ‘standard permission’ allows some operations in ‘congested areas’ . This means operating in towns etc, where people within 50 meters are. Those people have to be ‘under control’- I discuss this subject in more depth here.

If you have a look at the Drone Code you will get an idea of the difference between a ‘recreational user’ and a qualified pilot. Commercial operators are allowed more generous conditions, such as the ability to come within 50 meters of people and property in crowded areas. This is in contrast to the 150 meters within the drone code.

In short, if you hire an uninsured, non permitted operator fly in a crowded area you could end up in real doggy do if something goes wrong.

The ‘Sub 7 KG’ category drone is recognised as being small enough to dodge most bullets though. Pilots can fly them in most places. However that does not stop them ending up in the news more frequently than most other categories of drone. Though mostly used for inspections and aerial video, this category of drone is also known for its propensity to close down major hub airports and deliver drugs into prisons. That is because you don’t need a ‘permission’ to buy this category of drone, just to use it commercially:

Imagine if you could buy shotguns in the supermarket, but were only allowed to shoot bottles with them ‘officially’.

Aerial Video: The Necessity of ‘Permission’

The legal situation around creating aerial video is quite complex, and a bit vague at times. If you are interested it is found in the Air Navigation Order (CAP 393) and CAP 722.  When making an aerial video with any sort of commercial element, you need a ‘permitted operator’. A commercial element, can mean a number of things. Basically if the result of it is promotional or commercial in some way you need an operator with an official permission. So, wedding video, video made for businesses, videos made during inspections are all in this category;

despite what you hear on the news, there is no such thing as a ‘license’. CAA call this a ‘Permission for Commercial Operations’.  Also known as a PfCO – though nit is basically the same thing as a license.

There are special provisions around the handling of aerial video captured by drones. I’ve done an article on this subject here as it’s not something which is really covered in much depth in training. It is important though. (Your operator should have a privacy policy. Not many places have cottoned on to this yet).

Aerial Video: Insurance

A condition of the PfCO is having insurance.

  • If you have a permission, but no insurance you have no permission.
  • If you have insurance, but no permission, you don’t have insurance.

Geddit? There are a number of drone operator insurance policies out there, by the likes of Coverdrone and Moonrock insurance. Many of the providers are now moving to a ‘pay as you fly’ model of insurance. This has great potential for the occasional operator, such as wedding videographers and photographers. But don’t forget cover on the ground has real benefits too. A flood destroyed all my batteries before I even got my first job.  Coverdrone sorted me out admirably after this. It was a bizarre situation and they clearly didn’t believe me, but I couldn’t blame them.

Aerial Video: The Training and Feasibility Studies

Official operators have been through about 5 days of training, including a ground school element. This involves an exam.

It is a real eye opener in terms of the things that need checking. In effect, making aerial video using a drone entails a lot of planning. This element of an aerial video shoot often happens behind closed doors at a desk. This is what is called the ‘feasibility study’ element of the aerial video shoot and I factor it in to my pricing structure.

Permitted operators look carefully at aerial charts to look for air traffic restrictions and identify hazards. They need to check the weather, cross reference that against their airframe tolerances and take wind measurements. They also may need to call air traffic control and also check in with anyone who has lodged a ‘notice to airmen’  -a NOTAM. You might think this is frivolous but it’s not. I’ve had conversations with various organisations across the UK about my commercial activities and they are all grateful when I do. I’ve even had helicopters ground themselves for 20 minutes whilst I finish up a shoot.

Aerial Video: Observers and VLOS

The Pilot conducting the The feasibility study will determine how many staff will be needed. It is sometimes necessary to have ‘observers’ on hand to maintain safety. The principle job of the observer is to keep an eye on the landing site and keep it clear. You’ll often see little cones out and warning signs if the aerial video shoot is in a busy area. Drone pilots have to land and take off in a fashion which means that those within 30 meters are under ‘control’.  Pilots have to keep a 50m ‘bubble’ between the drone and structures/people not under control whilst ‘on task’. Again, I find this a bit vague, but in general the rule is ‘be sensible’.

Another mis-understanding in public perception is that during the shoot, the drone has to be in Visual Line of Sight or VLOS. The Pilot to see the drone at all times. This is even though the pilot can generally see what is happening using the iPad or tablet. The range of most drones is about 5 KM, but going this far would be a massive no no. Pilots can use a thing call ‘Extended Visual Line of Sight’. Using this, Observers can ‘bounce’ the drone between staff. But, consider the difficulties in control here – I personally would steer away from this.

Aerial Video: On Site Survey

Your drone operator will want to arrive early to do this. Basically, before you make your aerial video the pilot has to check the environment. What are the trees like? Are there jumpy looking starving bears wandering through the site? overhead wires ? What is the limit of the view? Where will people stand if it all goes Pete Tong?

Aerial Video: Restricted areas

Drones are actually physically banned from very few areas. Most of them are in London. Obviously it would raise an eyebrow, particularly those eyebrows in Police uniforms were you to fly near a prison or a nuclear power station. But the restrictions in the airspace actually apply only to helicopters and other light aircraft. They don’t apply to sub 7KG drones. Pilots can even fly in the air traffic zone of an airport. Air Traffic Controllers would need to have been told first. If they haven’t  or they say no, then you are probably recklessly endangering an aircraft and you could end up in a cell, with drones delivering drugs to your ‘pad mates’.

Aerial Video: Permission to take off?

Of key importance, especially to those readers of the Dail Mail is that pilots do not need permission to fly over someones land. But –

Drone pilots need permission to take off. Not to film. To take off. And also be aware of privacy and data protection if you are gathering information which could ID a living person.  In a general sense, pilots should not trespass on land with drones. For example, the National Trust have pretty much a blanket ban on drone flying everywhere. Leeds city council have a bye law in place covering all their parks but 1. There is not really such a thing as ‘public land’. Someone owns almost all the land in the UK, irrespective of the presence of a footpath.

Aerial Video: Permission to take off – my experiences

I don’t think the intention of the CAA is to make drone pilots check the land registry beforehand, but it is important to know you aren’t unwelcome. For example I have twice been asked to film in Spinningfields, Manchester, and on neither occasion been given permission…even though there was general permission to film. Spinningfields is private land, end of story. On the other hand, it’s sometimes not totally practical to find out who owns the land. With jobs in gated compounds leased by a company, it should be enough to have permission from that company in.

Aerial Video: Cameras

The most commonly used pro drone is probably the Inspire 2. Drone operators can however choose different cameras to go on the Inspire 2 so check this out. I use the Xenmuse X5S – a 20 MP beauty. It is basically an underslung compact system camera (CSC) with interchangeable lenses using the micro four thirds system. The camera is fully controllable in flight, like a normal DSLR/CSC. It outputs in 4K, up to 120FPS, and easily handles 60fps at 4K.

I’ve got quite a few lenses for this camera including a 45mm (90mm equivalent). It’s a fabulous lens. I can sit miles away from my subject and look like I am right on top of it. As you now know, this can be an important factor in the planning element of the aerial video shoot.

The current and newest, roundest wheel, is the xenmuse X7 camera, but I’m sticking with the X5S for now.

Aerial Video: Best of the Rest?

Other drones do not have the same range of control, so if you are really looking for something you can use to compose great shots you need someone with at least an Inspire. If your pilot is only using a Phantom 4 or a DJI Mavic, then you won’t have the same options available to you. But with all the said, both of those platforms have their uses, particularly in wide angle landscape shots. They are amazing drones, but not quite as useful.

The intelligent flight modes on the Inspire 2 mean that it is possible to do all sorts of REALLY cool stuff, such as tracking subjects, keeping the camera fixed etc. I ummed and aahhhed about buying the Inspire 2…but  I have no regrets at all.

Aerial Video: Pro File Formats

It is also possible to shoot in Pro Res and Cinema DNG on the Inspire 2- but this is an option, and it comes at extra cost. Don’t assume that your pilot has this as standard. I don’t, but I would get it if the demand arose. The Inspire 2 is really the workhorse (with its little sister the Inspire 1) of the commercial drone world. Stuff shot with the Inspire appears all over the place. That’s because as well as a ton of cool camera kit and lenses, the actual drone itself is fast and has great agility. Take a look at my showreel and see me tracking fast moving rally cars. Also, the legs fold up, which means they don’t get in the shot. This is important because the gimbal on the Inspire 2 can turn nearly all the way around.

Aerial Video: Drone Batteries

Just one more thing to think about – power! The DJI Inspire 2 uses a dual battery system which makes it safer. If a battery fails, it will still be able to land safely. Not so the Inspire 1, Phantom 4, Mavic or Spark. Bigger drones also have more batteries fitted and the M200 series of drones is actually waterproof, which the Inspire 2 is not. The M200 can carry loads of other stuff too, though it is mainly for commercial inspection type work.

Check how many sets of batteries your pilot has – 3 sets sound be the minimum. the TB-50 battery costs £200 a piece, so they are a serious bit of kit considering that you only get around 23 minutes of real world flight time out of them. But that is actually quite enough for most applications so don’t worry.

Aerial Video: Conclusions

So there you have it! My comprehensive guide to your aerial video shoot! If you are ever in town and want a chat, don’t hesitate to get in touch and have a coffee! It’s ironic that I spend most of my time blogging about drones and not flying them at the moment, but hey ho…it’s a subject I love!

Much Love





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