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Words & Images: Peter Gray

A Game of Drones (& Fireworks!)

FCA Exclusive: Behind The Scenes Filming With The Gadget Show

In early September 2014 I was asked to help offer technical assistance on a shoot that The Gadget Show were planning using commercially available multi rotor filming platforms. Now in the past the show has featured everything from the original AR Drone, and the 2,0 GPS edition to more recently the Blade 350QX, iFLY 4S and Hubsan X4 FPV. Now the whole concept of the episode in question was that the presenters would take over the show entirely, even filming the sequences themselves on DSLR’s from their often far more dynamic (or even manic) perspective. With Jason Bradbury offering lots of the latter and Jon Bentley the more sedate side of the presenting equation both would be testing both the ease of use of each platform, its USP’s, and most importantly the quality of both its still images and HD video footage.

  • Three Very Different Locations

    For the tests the team had assembled the Parrot AR Drone 2.0 GPS Edition. The Blade 350QX AP, and the DJI Phantom Vision+. This offered what we considered to be the most established and accessible complete RTF packages on the market today. Even with the three having very different price points, all three were still at the most affordable end of the current consumer market where HD filming platforms were concerned.The shows production team had chosen location in both Birmingham and Derbyshire, and each of the three tests would really put each through its paces, showing what each platforms real strengths and weaknesses actually are. Alongside myself was Chris Ayres, the owner of York based Skyline Images, and CAA certified pilot, who does a variety of professional aerial filming work from both TV and Film using a custom built twin operator Droidworx Octocopter rig.

    He’s a great guy to work with, full of knowledge and was on hand at all time to ensure that the presenters were briefed fully on each platform and its functionality, and then that if god forbid anything went wrong, a strict safety protocol e was in place and everyone involved knew exactly what to do. Thankfully that last bit wasn’t called into place at any point, although we did have one unit decide to go a little ‘rogue’ on us at one point, but it then started to behave itself when it really mattered. The locations were an open field, right by the International Athletics Stadium in Birmingham and the perfect place for the presenters to get to know the way each flew. Next was literally a stone’s throw away at the Birmingham BMX Track. A purpose built all weather and floodlit venue that was actually used to help train the British BMX team for the 2012 Olympics. This would show off how manoeuvrable each was, and how stable the camera and its footage was when chasing two BMXer’s around the track at speed. Lastly was the ultimate test for both presenters and machine when each would be flow as near as possible or even right into one of Europe’s biggest Firework competitions held at Catton Hall, Walton upon Trent in South Derbyshire.

    Take One: ‘The Selfie Stills Test’

    Now the first test was for the presenters to take a still image selfie of themselves with each of the platforms. Jason found this far easier initially as he has flown multi-rotors before and can fly mode 2 4-channel aircraft. He owns an AR Drone 2.0 so knows it’s capabilities of old. He’s also briefly flown a 350QX before and was soon taking that, and then the DJI Phantom Vision + on more and more extended trips around the field as he got to know how each flew, how well it’s GPS position and height hold functionality worked, and how far he could push them at speed. Jon Bentley on the other hand a slightly steeper learning curve, but started off with the most sedate and learner friendly of the three, the Parrot AR drone. Its easily used iOS interface was intuitive for Jon to use, if a little imprecise at first to get the shot he wanted lined up just right. The fact that at any point Jon could just let go of the virtual sticks on screen and the Drone would hover in its last position (aided by its GPS add on0 made his first foray into piloting a multi rotor as easy as possible.

    Next up was the Blade 350 QX AP, and once the power light went solid indicating a firm GPS lock to the desired amount of satellites, he tentatively took to the air. In the new ‘purple’ filming mode the users stick inputs and exponential are softened right down to offer the smoothest possible flight characteristics, and in conjunction with the brushless gimbal, a totally stable and very professional looking end result for the stills and video. This proved a tougher challenge, as the age old issue of maintaining the correct orientation of quad the when flying it, and then the controls being reversed when its flying at you, added to the learning curve. Jon learns quickly and is definitely the more sedate in his approach to tech like the 350QX. He even initiated its return to home feature, watching as it slowly moved back over its starting co-ordinates above us and then gradually descending back to earth.

    Lastly it was Jon’s turn with the DJI Phantom Vision + as Jason filmed his exploits. Having flown the previous two platforms you could see that Jon now felt far more confident and made It look effortless as the quad rose above him. Once the required selfie was taken, the Phantom was then physically flown in a far wider area than the other two. You could see Jon felt far more at home with this platform, he even stated how responsive and precise it felt to pilot compared to the other two. Again this flight finished with the return to home switch being flicked and the Vision + effortlessly coming back to rest on terra-firma.

    Take 2: BMX Bandits

    The second test would be one of each platforms ability to be accurately flown As a chase cam, how well they would height hold and use GPS lock between shots and the stability of the Resulting images images produced in HD. This task w firmly left up to Jason as he was the most experienced pilot, Jon becoming the cameraman recording the action as it evolved... First up again was the AR Drone 2.0. This proved just to unresponsive and sluggish for chase cam work, as using WiFi and a smart App control system adds a lag that made physically chasing the BMX bandits Real time near impossible. He did however make use of the GPS add on and its ability to produce set piece shots using the Apps newest feature, the GPS activated 'Movie Director Mode'. Whist this improved things it dis take away some of the spontaneity of actually following and filming live action. The Resulting 720HD footage, whilst being quite dynamic was also not stabilised on any axis by a gimbal And it showed! The AR Drone was retired until Test no 3 and the Blade 350QX AP got its day in court.

    Now quite what happened during this test is still a mystery to me and everyone involved. I can only put it down to issues with the GPS lock and the Blade going into its built in fail safe mode. but whatever battery we put in, however long we left it to get lock, it kept giving us Compass and GPS error messages and or initiating a self landing sequence itself. We checked the LiPos we were using, all showed each cell was good and at full charge. We re-bound the radio and put fresh cells in that. To no avail. Jason did manage to film a few sequences in manual mode, but you could tell that for someone with quite a low amount of hours at the sticks Piloting one of these craft, he was finding it a real handful at times. The other thing that was slightly annoying about the 350 QX was the fact that the included camera will shoot in super smooth 1080p. But when using its built in (and very cool) Smartphone viewing app and 5.8GHz downlink capabilities, it defaults back to 720 giving an image that whist stable, wasn't exactly broadcast quality. 

    Jason's No 'Phantom Menace'

    Lastly for test 2 the DJI Phantom Vision+ was launched and again you could see a level of confidence build in Jason almost by the second. The basic shots all the platforms got put through were Filmed first. A long pull back as the riders rode underneath the quad, a panning shot as they passed and jumped by the Phantom, and then a shot where the quad was flown sideways with the camera filming a long shot of the bikes riding down the longest straightest part of the track. The height hold functionality was very evident as the phantom looked by far the most stable of the three platforms when performing this type of shot. But that wasn't it, Jason by now really had the feel for the DJI I and was making long high speed passes of the track, even following them For complete circuits of the very twisty fast track. The extra danger of the poles used for each set of floodlights dotted around the parameter of the track, there were more things to think about than simply piloting and filming the moving subjects. Eventually we managed to get Jason to initiate the return to home Function, and then pry the transmitter back from his hands. The grin said it all...when Jason likes something it's pretty obvious. Looking at the footage we had shot on a laptop, was was also evident was that the quality of footage the Phantom produced was very impressive too. The reason DJI have become such industry leaders in this field is because of just this fact. When you need a good result from an arial filming platform the Phantom delivers.

    To read the full review grab yourself a copy of FCA issue 1 Here

    To watch the full Gadget Show segmenet click Here

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