How do you find the right drone operator when there are 4500 to choose from?
As of July 2018 there are approximately 4,500 CAA licensed drone operators in the UK – so finding someone to film your next batch of aerial footage should be easy, right?
Well, maybe not. There are lots of things that you need to look out for, so here’s my completely biased guide to finding a drone crew. We’re commercial drone operators, so the caveat here is: Do your own research. That said, here we go:
What does “CAA approved” (or PfAW, PfCO, CAA licensed, licensed drone operator…) really mean?
The CAA don’t license anyone. They offer a ‘Permission for Commercial Operation’ (PfCO). The PfCO is a document that allows people to charge for their drone work, it also gives certain exemptions to the main law (the Air Navigation Order). That is all a PfCO is.
The CAA PfCO process involves:
- Attending a ground school for a few class room sessions.
- Writing an operations manual.
- Having your operations manual checked and approved.
- Taking a flight test.
The process does NOT involve:
- Demonstrating that you can operate a camera.
- Demonstrating that you can frame a shot so that looks good.
- Demonstrating that you can fly a drone so that the footage looks good.
- Demonstrating that you can move control the camera as the drone moves.
- Demonstrating an understanding of any filmmaking techniques.
- Demonstrating commercial understanding.
BIAS ALERT! We’re filmmakers that have qualified as drone operators. Real film and photography experience is essential! Without knowledge of filmmaking (and knowing what does and doesn’t work) drone shots quickly become boring. Which is bad.
Finding a drone crew with a PfCO probably demonstrates that they understand their safety case, operational procedures, the law and their technical flight capabilities. I say probably because in some cases it doesn’t really mean anything at all.
You don’t have to look very hard to find training companies that will sell prospective drone operators pre-written operations manual (that the pilot doesn’t really understand). Some operators with PfCOs flying in places they shouldn’t, and beyond the safe operating limits of their drones (breaking the law as they go, either due to ignorance or general disregard).
BIAS ALERT! We wrote our own operations manual. We’ve got a 100% unblemished safety record. We’re insured. We’re in our fifth year of commercial operation.
Around 1 in 4 PfCO holders do not renew their permission, and cease to offer drone services.
TAKEAWAY: If a drone company has a PfCO they can charge you money to do drone work. If they don’t have a PfCO they’re breaking the law when they hire themselves out, and you probably are too. If a drone company doesn’t have a PfCO they don’t have insurance, as the hirer you’d probably get sued in the event of an accident. Not good.
Why are drone weights (7kg, 25kg) relevant and what are ‘heavy lifter’ drones?
The CAA grant two main PfCO permissions, one for drones that weigh under 7kg and one for drones weighing under 25kg. Different rules apply to each permission.
A big (heavy) drone will lift a big (heavy) camera. Arguably, you don’t need to lift a big camera very often. To make things confusing, most of the heavy lifter drones in use aren’t lifting big cameras at all, they’re lifting tiny cameras – which means they’re probably not a very good choice.
Heavy lift drones (bigger drones) are a total pain. They use heavy, dangerous batteries. They fly for relatively short periods of time and they usually can’t fly within 150m of built up areas.
I know this because we had one (a DJI S900). And we stopped using it. Completely. It took a long time to set up, offered virtually no camera control and was really heavy and awkward to move around.
This makes people who have invested £10,000 or £20,000 in their drone platform sad! They like to tell everyone that their larger drone is better, they want to protect their investment in out of date technology – they want to make money with their drone, which is fair enough. But it’s probably not in your best interest to hire ‘big’ drone unless you have a specific need.
BIAS ALERT: We fly commercially with an Inspire 2, we no longer use heavy lift drones. Our Inspire footage has been used by the BBC, Channel 4, 5 & ITV.
Drones with 6 or more motors are a little more stable in the air. In theory they’re a little safer, but also heavier, so in the event of a crash they’re more dangerous. It’s six of one and half a dozen of the other.
The kind of cameras that make using a heavy lift drone worth while are £30k – £50k+, some drone operators work with these types of cameras and have drones capable of lifting them. Some of these heavy lift drone operators have special permissions that allow them to fly their larger drones very close to buildings and other people. These operators charge a premium, if you have a budget of £3k+ per day, then specialist heavy lift operators are a great choice. If you don’t then you’re probably better off avoiding the hassle of big, heavy drones.
TAKEAWAY: If you need to lift a cinema camera like a RED or Alexa, or you’re on a high value TV drama, and if you have a £3k – £5k daily budget – look for a specialist operator (we can recommend one).
What do I need to know about Dual Operator ‘v’ Single Operator drone crews?
When you’re filming something complex* with a drone you need two people, one to fly the drone and one to move the camera. The camera moves completely independently of the drone. It’s impossible to create certain types of shot with just one person in control.
Single operators, i.e. a pilot attempting to control the camera at the same time, have two options: Fly simple shots, or use some kind of automated tracking software. Tracking software isn’t very flexible, it will often fail and lose the subject, or just lose the plot in general – like software does.
Pilots are legally obliged to maintain ‘line of sight’ with the drone. If they’re busy looking at the camera view, or programming software, they’re probably not completely aware of the drone’s location. If they’re neglecting their safety obligations, sooner or later something will go wrong.
Some jobs need an observer, or more than one observer. Sometimes this can be the client, camera operator or an additional member of crew. The bottom line is you need a dual operator crew for the best drone footage.
*so what is complex? Well, if you need to track something that is moving – the drone’s AI isn’t particularly good. If you want to pan and tilt the camera at the same time – that really needs a camera operator. If the flight itself is tricky, the last thing the pilot wants to be doing is trying to control a camera. Etc., etc.
BIAS ALERT: Surprise, surprise. We operate as a dual operator company when required!
What do all these technical specifications mean (HD/4K/RAW/PRORES/5.2K/8bit/10bit)?
Operating a drone (and filming with it) is a technical endeavour. The hardware needs to be good, the pilot needs to be good, the camera operator needs to know what they’re doing technically, and creatively; and somehow this all has to happen in real time in 3D space. Part of that complexity comes from the quality of cameras and the files that they produce.
When you’re commissioning a drone you may:
- Know exactly what technical specs you require.
- Have no idea what technical specs you require.
- Require specific capabilities but not have the budget to get them.
- Not care at all.
So, here’s my no-BS guide to filming tech specs:
- HD – Like your telly at home. HD is a minimum standard for filming.
- 4K – Like the telly you’ll have at home next year. The picture is 4x bigger than HD. People filming with drones should film at 4K, it’s nothing special and it’s not really about having a bigger picture. 4K lets editors ‘zoom in’ for HD, and also helps if they need to stabilise footage during edit.
- H.264 / H.265 / MP4 / MOV – Standard filming file formats. 90% of what we’ve filmed for TV is H.264. We’re now beginning to H.265 (smaller files) and Prores (better quality) – depending on client needs.
- RAW – RAW video images are great, RAW gives colour editors the most flexibility in editing. However RAW takes a beast of a computer process the files and tonnes of storage space (about 1000 gigabytes for 15 minutes of footage). If you really need RAW video expect to use up at least a day extra in edit and to spend £200 or so on hard drives for the footage. If you’re a normal user your computer will not be fast enough to deal with RAW files.
- PRORES – Prores is an Apple file format, people like Prores because it’s a nice format to edit, it runs fast on Macs, and it protects detail and colour. Prores is great if the camera shoots prores all by itself, but it’s also possible to convert standard files (like H.264s) to Prores, which is a complete waste of time. So. If you need Prores files – make sure they’re captured natively by the camera, not transcoded from 8 bit footage.
- 5.2K – Like 4K but bigger, why not! Again, this is likely to be RAW or PRORES, you’ll need computers capable of handling it.
- BITRATE – Guess what? You can have good HD and bad HD, good 4K and bad 4K – it’s probably bit rate that makes the difference. And it does make a difference.
- 4:2:0 / 4:2:2 / 4:4:4 – If you’ve read this far you’re a real glutton for punishment, well done. I’ll just mention the words “chroma subsampling” – it’s beyond the scope of this article, but if you’re really interested then Google is your friend. 90% of our work to date has been 4:2:0 – which has been fine for use on the BBC, Channel 5, Channel 4 and ITV. For those needing more colour fidelity we can now shoot Prores 4:2:2.
When you’re trying to set a budget.
From what I can see price seems to be a fairly good indicator of quality, most of the time.
You’ve got a set of operators working for < £300, their footage tends to look pretty dull. It’s not suitable for commercial projects really, unless you get lucky. Next, you have the middle ground operators working between £300 and £600 – they’re a mixed bag, often one man bands or people with older camera/drone combos. The £600 – £1,000 operators do a lot of commercial and TV work, most of it looks reasonable to me. The £1,200 – £3,000 bracket takes in the specialist operators, and those who can’t bare to put their prices down, even in the face of increasing competition.
BIAS ALERT: We’re in the £600+ range, but we do offer a discounted single operator rate for the Phantom 4 Pro.
When you “only need a drone for an hour”
Drone jobs never take an hour. Sometimes a local drone job can be completed before midday, or started after midday and charged at a reduced rate. But more often than not a booking will be at the full day rate to cover the actual work involved.
Unfortunately there is a stack of planning, battery management (this is actually a thing), risk assessing, and set up to every job. Fortunately that means safe and effective drone filming once a crew is on site, but it also means…
- Legally, all flights need a desktop survey and risk assessment. This takes an hour or two, depending on location and complexity.
- Most jobs require an hour of discussion / arrangement time upfront.
- Jobs require a journey, which rarely takes less than an hour.
- One hour of flying time allows for 2 flights of 20 minutes.
- From arrival to set up takes about 20 minutes.
- From finish to leaving site takes about 20 minutes.
When you’re trying to figure our which drones are pro and which are toys.
We’ve worked commercially with several drones: A DJI Phantom 4 Pro, a DJI S900, an Aeronavics Skyjib, a Vulcan Black Widow (I’m not making these up), a DJI Mavic Pro, a DJI Inspire 1 and a DJI Inspire 2. Some drones have bespoke cameras, some use standard cameras.
The drone and camera is absolutely important. Photographers like to say “it’s not the equipment that matters, it’s the creativity and vision”. That might be true for street photographers, but not for drones. Every single variable needs to be as good as possible. As good as you can afford.
Here are some common drones, along with what they’re suitable for:
- DJI Phantom, Phantom 2 – Home videos, fun (or anything with a Go Pro)
- DJI Phantom 3 – Real estate videos, single operator shots.
- DJI Inspire 1 – Entry level TV, corporate video, web video. Some complex shots. Dual operator. NOTE: Make sure it has an X5 camera, the older X3 doesn’t cut the mustard.
- DJI Inspire 2 – Any TV, low budget film, corporate. Advanced shots. Dual operator. RAW & PRORES.
- DJI Spark – Home videos, fun.
- DJI Mavic – Real estate videos, basic single operator shots. Test flights for bigger drone.
- DJI Mavic Air – Real estate videos, basic single operator shots. Test flights for bigger drone.
- DJI Phantom 4 Pro – Damn good drone – don’t consider a using a ‘single operator’ unless they’re flying at least a P4 Pro
- DJI S900/Skyjib/Vulcan with Panasonic GH4/GH5 – Same as Inspire 1.
- DJI S900/Skyjib/Vulcan with Sony A7R2/R3 – Great for stills photography, limited flight time, limited camera control.
- DJI S900/Skyjib/Vulcan with Sony A7S2/A7III night time work, limited flight time, limited camera control.
- Skyjib/Vulcan/other heavy lifter – Great for REDs and Arri’s. High end solution – TV Drama / Movie budgets.
BIAS ALERT: We’ve owned many of these combos with the exception of Spark. We now exclusively use the DJI Inspire 2 and P4 Pro.