5 Crucial questions for hiring drone operators – PT 4 DRONES

PART 4
Do they have the drone that your production needs?

Welcome to part 4 of 5: 5 Essential questions a producer should ask drone pilot. This is likely the most crucial part of the process, and the part where there is the most confusion. And while the latest-greatest drone does not a pilot make, a good pilot can only do so much with his available technology. This is an industry that changes every 6 months to a year, so subsequently this is the one blog I have to constantly update. Now grab hold of your controller, and read on!

It’s well known that DJI owns a very large chunk of the market, in fact it’s almost a monopoly, this also includes industrial applications like mapping or agricultural drones. While they make very good drones, they have incorporated geo-fencing into their OS making it very hard to fly in many locations. This is good for the fact that amateurs can’t launch in the landing approach to LAX, but can give responsible pilots headaches, and getting restrictions legally circumvented.

 

Often times productions only know “we need a drone” and tend to lump all UAV’s into one category, the responsibility often given to someone who has no camera or drone knowledge.
What you should be looking for is, a skilled and licensed pilot / crew that has the correct camera/drone combination for your production.

Please read this entire blog(s) and hopefully my 10 years+ of professional drone piloting will help bolster your knowledge, and you’ll know which questions to ask. Or if you’re in Southern California, you can contact Dronewrx and we can help you get your production the right drone/pilot for the right price.
Our direct number: 323-899-8400 We travel, and have valid passports! Also note that we provide various types of specialty camera, from car-to-car, EagleCam (AKA SpiderCam), rail cam, Dactylcam (point-to point cable cam) on occasion we’ll even bust out a tripod and shoot on sticks.
While there are many drones on the market there’s only a handful you need to know about. This is one of the most overlooked aspects of the process. So many people just ask for ‘a drone”. That’s like walking into a camera store and saying “I want a camera”.

 

THE BIG PICTURE

A quick overview of the different drone categories you’ll need to start with.

  1. MINI-CINE DRONES – DJI PHANTOM+DJI MAVIC

    These are small, affordable GPS stabilized drones. They’re great for getting web content, and with the latest Mavic 3 Pro you can shoot 5K ProRez and with the optical zoom achieve shots that are spectacular.

  2. FPV CINEWHOOP / CINELIFT

    Small non-GPS stabilized drones that offer high speeds, and small size for dramatic POV results. From GoPro’s to Komodo’s, there’s mucho diversity in this category. 

  3. DJI INSPIRE SERIES

    The DJI Inspire is in a class by itself. Medium size (9lbs) and simple enough to keep the budget reasonable, and now with the new Inspire 3 – full frame 8K sensor, 4K down-link, and RTK.

  4. HEAVY LIFT DRONES

    Heavy lifters are necessary to fly cinema cameras & lenses. Only a small % of productions need them. They take more time to set-up and require much higher budgets. 

Mini-Cine – Phantom / Mavic / DJI Mini

The DJI Phantom Series

No “list of mini cinematic drones” list would be complete without the The DJI Phantom. It has a shape that’s ubiquitous to drones in general and it’s pretty much the official emoji for drones. The Phantom 1 is the drone that started the whole revolution and got many people in the air, including yours truly, and stuck around the longest. It was a big deal to buy a drone that you didn’t have to assemble from parts that you ordered from the back of a magazine (remember magazines?), PLUS it came with it’s own controller. They progressed thru many versions, and ended on the Phantom 4 Pro. Perhaps the most valuable of all DJI features started off with the Phantom 3, the ability to control all camera functions from an app that doubles as a screen. Up until the Mavic 3 Cine, the Phantom was the low budget leader because of the camera quality, but now it’s been relegated to a fond footnote. 
However, don’t be sad for the Phantom.  This drone works well for “delivery simulation” or acting as a practical “this is a drone” type of scene. We’ve done a few jobs where the Phantom was the star of the show,  Like Rich Brian’s music video, Bali. See pictures in the gallery or for a deep dive click on the link to check out out our blog about it.

The DJI Mavic Series

The DJI Mavic has now been around long enough to be considered a mainstay of the industry, in fact it’s now top dog of “mini-cine” (a term I made up). Every time you turn around they’re releasing a newer, smaller one. When the Mavic 1 was released it’s “reason” was that it was foldable and compact, but the camera was only so-so. Then came the Mavic 2 which had the Hasseblad camera with the 1″ sensor, but even better it’s VERY quiet. 

Mavic 3 PRO

The Mavic 3 Pro (or the prior model Mavic 3 Cine) is the drone you should be looking for for web content or smaller productions, as shoots in up to 5.1K Pro Res 422 HQ, with a micro four thirds sensor, up to 120fps, and has a 3X zoom lens. There are two secondary lenses which zoom up to 7X, and 128X, but they cut the resolution and aren’t as useful. The zoom aspect is huge as you can now do in camera moves the until this little drone were reserved for the most high end heavy lift drones. There’s also a Pro controller which has a built-in Day-Bright screen and an HDMI output. The 1080p HDMI is very stable making it valuable for live streaming and providing a feed for video village. With 30-40 minute flight times, smoother flight, speeds up to 45mph and low noise, makes it s desirable addition to many productions.

 

FPV

What was once a paragraph in this blog has now been expanded upon to be it’s own section, much like my collection of drones has grown so has this part of the blog.

FPV (First Person View) Drones have been around for 15 years, the new darlings of the industry started becoming commonplace a few years ago. Drone races were being televised with $250 purses and it was all the rage for a minute. FPV goggles put the operator right in the craft, making it easier to navigate and making for exciting footage. There’s a category known as “freestyle” which focuses on flips, rolls or combinations of the two which isn’t recommended for content unless you want your audience to hurl. 

However, whereas stabilized drones are relatively easy to learn to fly, the learning curve for FPV is quite long and steep. It also requires a lot of knowledge that isn’t very intuitive. It’s very DIY and each drone is specialized to a specific need so it requires various sizes for different applications. They range in size from something that fits in your palm, to 18″ wide, and a new product hits the market every 5 minutes so bring your wallet. They can fly between small spaces (hitting gaps) and can fly up to 100 mph which compresses time. (they can go faster, but legally 100mph is the FAA’s limit for speed)

Cinewhoop

There’s a niche in the FPV category known as a “CineWhoop” which is ideal for getting up-close to talent, cinematic flying (smooth and controlled), or fly thru gaps. These drones are generally smaller (>3.5″ props) and the props have ducts around them making them safe to fly around people, it tends to clean up the air making flying smoother. You can literally bump into things and they resist crashing, but it makes them less maneuverable for freestyle hence “cine”. There are some cinelifters with covered props but generally they’re made for speed and manuverability. 

Cinelifter

The latest, and highest stakes game is putting a RED Komodo, Naked Black Magic, or similar on a large/powerful custom made FPV drone and zooming around the subject. These are known as called Cinelifters. In 2021, there were only custom drones in this category, now there are a lot of factory built drones on the market, in a weird way replacing the once dominant heavy lift markey. At first it was just a locked off wide angle lens pointing straight ahead, now we have the option of adding a Ronin to the drone and having a separate camera operator. 

DJI Inspire

DJI revolutionized the industry with its DJI Inspire 1 that was introduced in November of 2014. The way the camera sits lower when it’s in flight mode lowers the CG and helps physically stabilize the camera, plus it gets the lens away from the propellors, AND makes it easier to transport. This drone has dominated the industry since it’s introduction, and what 70-80% of all big productions are shot on. A separate operator can control the camera independently making follow shots much more accurate. 

 In November 2016 they released the Inspire 2 which took the platform to the stratosphere of innovation.  With the X7 camera it had a Super 35 Image sensor (which is almost identical to the Alexa Mini’s) and carbon fiber lenses, shot directly to ProRes – HQ422 & 4444 XQ, DNG and Cinema DNG, plus it has more available frame rates and resolution up to 5.2gb. It could fly up to 60 mph, I had my I2 up to 62mph with a tail wind.

Released in June of 2023, the Inspire 3 took all the prior features that everyone loved, and added some truly amazing ones. Starting with the X9 camera which has a full frame, 8k sensor with ProRes and Cinema DNG, etc. The new batteries are lighter and provide more flight time. The flight characteristics are refined and it’s pitch is lower, making it more quiet. But the biggest innovation was adding RTK which is a highly accurate GPS module which allows the drone to repeat paths with 1cm accuracy. The drone can also follow a path in dolly mode which allows the operator to slowly design a shot, then manually adjust the speed and follow the action. Talk about hitting your marks!

THE DJI INSPIRE SERIES

DJI revolutionized the industry with its DJI Inspire that was introduced in November of 2014. When they introduced the Inspire 3 with RTK in June of 2023 they created a paradigm shift for cinema drones. Pilots are selling thier heavy lift drones to make way  for this shift.

 

  1. Most popular drone for production

    The Inspire has so many features which has made it the standard of the industry.

  2. Affordable pro results

    Got a pro production, but don’t have $8-$12k in the budget for a heavy lift? We’ve flown this drone for NBC, CBS, HBO and more.

  3. Fast set-up, dual operator

    The Inspire series gives you the same features of heavy lift drones, but are much less technically intensive which frees up the operator to be more creative

HEAVY LIFT DRONES

This is literally the big leagues. Flying a cinema sized camera with full lens package is no joke and can produce some amazing results, but the cost of failure can be devastating. Crashing a $30K drone with a $100K camera can ruin your whole day! At one time we had a whole section devoted to all the different heavy lift drones that were on the market at the time, but at this point the only one that the industry is using en mass are the Freefly’s. Yes, there are some +55lb drones like the Shotover U1, and some custom builts, but if you are using those, you’re not reading this blog.

So while I’ve included some history throughout, it’s not worth spending your time learning about all the various heavy lifts that has lead us to where we are today. And with the Inspire 3 this market will likely fade away and become more esoteric, like a vinyl record. 

"The Alta X is the world’s toughest drone. It carries huge payloads for impressive flight times while being portable - folds to half its normal size, and easy to use - goes from case to flying in under two minutes."
This last line, which was copied from FreeFly's materials is a fantasy. No heavy lift drone is fast or easy to set-up. Everything has to be built and figured out.

There’s all the other heavy lift drones, then there’s the FreeFly, the Seattle based outlier of the industry. Currently they offer the  Alta X or the Astro, which is a miniaturized version of the X. Tho the’ve recently discontinued support for both the Alta 6 & 8. Freefly was a pioneer in the heavy lift arena with the Cinestar (There’s a picture of our Cinestar from 2013 somewhere on this site), and anyone reading this is probably familiar with the MoVI electronic stabilizers. Freefly has a soft spot in my heart because they’re the only real American company that makes Cinema drones anyone cares about. We own a MoVI XL and MOVI PRO. When I first wrote this blog post back in 2018, there were many heavy lift manufactures, now it’s pretty much Freefly Alta and a couple of custom builds. The market has really changed!

The only supported Freefly drone, the Alta X gives the flight crew the ability of carrying up to 35 lbs. One of the most unsung features of the X is the sound. It’s much lower and annoying than the smaller drones, which is less likely to be picked up by audio. On set, that’s huge!

LAST MAN STANDING

FreeFly remains the only real player in the sub 55lb heavy lift catagory, and the Alta X is the most robust drone available today. This was a market which there were probably 50 companies making drones at one time, but the Inspire slowly took over as productions realized that the extra expense and liability was more an exercise in futility. Now with a 9lb drone that has a full frame 8k camera on board, it’s days are numbered. 

  1. Most widely used heavy lift drone

    Freefly is a pioneer in the film industry with their drone the Cinestar, and stabilized camera’s with with the introduction of the MoVI.

  2. American made and supported

    In an era where almost everything is made in China, Freefly continues to build quality products right here in the good ‘ol USA.

  3. Reliable • Robust • Recognized

    Solid and reliable drones are crucial for safety. Having products that are overbuilt gives some headroom in changing environments. Because of their popularity, often a heavy lift is known as an Alta.

To continue to the final post PART 5 “Do they speak camera?” click here

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