Dale Henderson, Steadicam veteran, is now a central player in the development of remote control helicopter platforms in the Australian production sector. The camera moves are breathtaking and they are adding a whole dimension to modestly budgeted drama and documentary productions.

“I’ve been flying these things since the age of eleven and I’m 43 now,” he said on the phone. “I fly a remote controlled jet at 300km an hour. You have to be on the thumbs to bring that $10,000 model back to the ground without crashing it or blowing it up.

“But the technology is so good now it allows anyone like yourself or any kid to pick it up. They will fly themselves – until something goes wrong.”

The curse of the Flying, Filming Drone struck again this weekend, as an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle piloted from Warren Abram’s company, New Era Photography and Film, fell on the head of a triathlete in Geraldton.

The unfortunate Raija Ogden was treated for lacerations in hospital. She did not complete the race.

According to Abrams, someone may have hacked into their system. He also maintains that she was startled and fell down but was not actually touched by the device. Raija Ogden claims the ambulance crew removed a piece of rotor from her head.

On the phone from his car, Abram’s described himself as an agricultural consultant working mostly with farmers. He is a sponsor of the event, and the coverage is part of the deal. There were no less than four people present who can pilot the vehicle, actually a substantial commercially-built HexaCam, which produces images like this:

HeXaCam 2013 Show Reel from HeXaCam Media Manila on Vimeo.

CASA is very clear that commercial operation requires a license, and provides a list of eighty companies with that documentation. For non-commercial use, a pilot is not allowed to bring the vehicle within thirty meters of a person; creating a hazard is not permitted under any circumstances.

Warren was careful to point out that his coverage was non-commercial, done as a favour, and in co-operation with the Geraldton Triathlon Club.

That CASA licensing process is onerous. Radio-controlled flying geek and Steadicam operator Dale Henderson combined both passions eighteen months ago and set up Fluid Motion. “Your body gets hurt early in this game,” he said. “Now I just have to work with my thumbs.”

Now he claims to be leading the charge into Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, at least in television. Key to that is the laborious process of securing his CASA license.

“Two CASA officials from the UAV sector out of Brisbane came to my house. They physically watched as I went through a stringent flight test. They want to see you fly the machine, and turn off the GPS intelligence and smarts, and fly it in manual mode.”

The machines use the GPS system to calibrate and drive the chopper using no less than fourteen satellites. That is the easy part. But pilots must then fly the craft manually, taking full control, until it is landed successfully at their feet. As Dale said, “Manual is basically crash mode.” It is very difficult to do; the pilots registered with CASA that Fluid Motion works with tend to be professionals who also fly the real thing – though it is not fair to call a UAV unreal since it is a physical object in the air, on a controlled trajectory.

With these big machines, well able to carry the RED or EPIC camera, Dale has a crew of at least two. Someone has to watch the craft at all times, so it never disappears behind buildings or trees, and can be brought home manually.

He has the fun of the POV bit, where he is lining up shots, mostly with a deep focus lens which provides the spectacle which is the point of the shot. The rules say he must keep that thirty metre distance from objects and people when he is operating in general airspace.

But, when he is operating in a controlled area, the provisions are very different. He must have proper health and safety staff, with a safety risk assessment. Floating over a crowd at an OB event is not on, but they can operate close to athletes and crews within stringent limits at controlled events.

This is the system which the UAV operators use on film and television locations. With the right safety regime, they can float a camera next to an actor, drift past and into a tunnel, wait while they get into a car, chase them down the road and then surge up into the sky. The actors know what to expect, the drivers are poised for problems and someone is making absolutely sure it stays in the line of sight.

Here we enter the helicopter versus UAV discussion. You can’t pick the difference between the shots, the mounts are stable, the newer, lighter cameras will deliver 4k just as well. But, as Henderson points out, they are making no dents on the chopper business (though he did do a shoot for the Coasts series on Norfolk Island). The big machines do carry larger cameras, they don’t have the line of sight problem, and their flying time is much longer. Those huge floaty takes that go on for several minutes probably cost some desperate production accountant somewhere between two and eight thousand dollars an hour.

The undeniable advantages of the remotes is that they are smaller, quieter, cheaper, with no backwash problem, can get closer and fly through structures. But they still carry a highly trained crew, and cost serious money to fly.

The people who are under pressure are the Steadicam operators. After all, Dale called his system, now up to a dozen rigs, the ultimate Steadicam. To add insult to injury, the gimbals on the aircraft can be used to mount a camera on the ground, and give a greater range of movement than a Steadicam, or a crane.

What about the bottom end, with GoPro cameras and tiny rigs from the electronics store? Fixed lenses, very wide, bend the earth so it curves. Great for documentary. But they also bring a huge problem, universaly acknowledged as frightening. The sector calls it the dickhead factor.

Said Henderson, “Currently there are people out there buying the smaller craft, the quadcopter, and flying with GPS. They don’t have an understanding of airspace and regulations, and the common knowledge about what is surrounding them, and the potential dangers and hazards that can develop while flying UAVs.”

In fact, people are allowed to fly with just one person, though everyone is supposed to keep them in line of site. All the while locked into that POV shot on the console.

“You just don’t go flying in your local park. I tell that to people why are flying little quadcopters. If they push that craft into the face of a jogger, or a child on a cricket pitch, they have the risk of the police investigating the crash. If someone is injured or killed, you could go to jail. With no insurances or public liability, you will go to jail.”

“And you lose your house when the family takes you to court, and sues the pants off you.”

Warren Abrams is not the only person to face these kinds of risks as the ambulance crews deal with blood and curious crowd. In Lithgow last year, a UAV operator shot an extraordinary scene of a bushfire which ended with a wide shot across the fire crew. Both CASA and Henderson point out acidly that the risks were pretty terrible – distracting a fire crew, tangling up with aircraft, causing an accident on the ground.

The drone crews employed to control the incident scene at fires are fully licensed.

“I think it will take someone to die before CASA has the law enforcement powers to fine people, and start to put the clamps on them to make them think about what they are doing. That would only be a good thing for guys like ourselves who abide by the regulations and make the investments.” Although the technology is converging, Dale Henderson’s position shows the scale of the gulf between profession and play.

[title size=”5″]About the author[/title]

DAVID TILEY is the editor of Screen Hub