New copters fly cameras for unique photos, videos

The sky is no longer the limit.

Aerial photography, once confined to shots taken from an expensive-to-fly airplane or helicopter operated by a highly skilled pilot, can now be made from small remote-controlled helicopters holding mini cameras, the whole outfit costing as much as one tank of helicopter fuel.

“They’re insanely popular,” said Kurt Kreiger of HeliProz, a Lockwood-based model helicopter company. “In the last six months there’s been a huge spike in sales.”

Local photographers and hobbyists have taken note.

“Once they came out and got a little press, I did some research and looked around,” said Tyler Sultenfuss, a 25-year-old Red Lodge-based photographer and videographer. “I can use it to film rock and ice climbing and have the ability to chase skiers, kayakers, pretty much anything.”

Talking ’bout a revolution

The Chinese company DJI, which originally built military unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, revolutionized the machines, Kreiger said. Using research funded by the Chinese military, the company entered the civilian market with small UAVs two years ago. Now they own the UAV market.

“Just in the last two years the flight controllers, their consistency and reliability has vastly improved,” Kreiger added. “The joke around here used to be that it would turn left and crash, because everything did.”

But now the flight control algorithms are so much more stable and the gyros are so small and precise that flying the machines is much easier. But it’s the addition of a camera that has made the UAVs really take off.

“Oh, absolutely,” Kreiger said. “Everyone has dreamed about taking pictures from above.”

Up in the air

Remember as a child when you got to ride on an adult’s shoulders? Everything looked different from above, more interesting and entertaining. Take that elevation up a notch and that’s the concept behind the move to aerial photography using four-, six- and eight-rotor helicopters that have gyro-stabilized mounts for small still and video cameras like the ubiquitous GoPro.

“For me personally, it’s a great application for filming video and photography,” Sultenfuss said. “It’s a fun toy right now. We’ll see what direction it goes from here.”

The copters have gotten high-profile media attention in recent months as the CBS news show “60 Minutes” aired a program on’s plans to use the machines someday to deliver packages more quickly to nearby residences. Earlier this month, the program aired a show on the concerns about the loss of privacy if so-called “civilian drones” mounted with cameras become more commonplace.

“Let’s not use the D word,” Kreiger said, noting the word drone has a negative and military connotation not applicable to the small UAVs.

Beer delivery

UAVs also hit the public’s radar when a Minnesota microbrewery shot a promotional video of a small quadcopter delivering its beer to ice fishermen on a frozen lake. After the video went viral, the Federal Aviation Administration shut the delivery system down.

Then earlier this month, a judge threw out an FAA fine imposed on a commercial UAV photographer, arguing that by the agency’s definition, all flying devices including paper airplanes should be banned. The agency is appealing the decision, but in the meantime UAVs are being used by law enforcement for search and rescue, farmers to fly over agricultural fields, real estate agents to show off property, and for movie photography.

The FAA expects to publish rules on UAVs under 55 pounds by November, while regulations governing commercial drones won’t be formalized until 2015. The FAA regulates where all model planes and helicopters can be flown under rules published in 1981, which specify that they can’t be flown in populated areas and must stay under 400 feet.

Kreiger said the FAA lawsuit did temporarily slow sales of the UAVs, but now they’ve taken off again.

Simple to fly

Sultenfuss purchased his copter from DJI for less than $500. Larger models can carry a full-size SLR camera to capture better images. And some models allow the pilot to see what the camera is viewing as it flies — known as first-person view or FPV. They can even be operated by smartphones by simply downloading an app that sends back high-definition video.

“It’s really simple to fly, and if you let go of the control the GPS takes over,” Sultenfuss said.

Battery life is his major concern, with cold weather more quickly draining the batteries when he’s filming activities like ice climbing. Typically he only has six to eight minutes of flying time. Newer, more expensive models that cost about $1,200 have stretched battery life to 25 minutes, Kreiger said.

Sultenfuss said his model is easy to fly, with him rating a helicopter as the most difficult, then a model airplane followed by the UAVs.

With the UAV technology quickly advancing, Kreiger said, it’s hard to predict what the future might hold.

“Some day we might see the flying car,” he said. “That’s where this type of technology was originally going.”

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