To Drone or Not to Drone....

You might have heard a lot in the news recently about filmmakers that are using drone devices or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). Some come with cameras built in. Others have gyro-stabilized housing that allow you to attach everything from little GoPro cameras to 15 LB cameras to them. So…Are they worth the investment? Where do

You might have heard a lot in the news recently about filmmakers that are using drone devices or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). Some come with cameras built in. Others have gyro-stabilized housing that allow you to attach everything from little GoPro cameras to 15 LB cameras to them. So…Are they worth the investment? Where do you get them? How easy are they to fly? Do you need a license? And….are they awesome?? I will get around to the other questions shortly….but for the meantime. Yes, they are that awesome….or at least, they can be that awesome : )

Check out this video of present-day Chernobyl by Danny Cooke @dannycooke that has gained more than 10M hits in just a few weeks

Postcards from Pripyat, Chernobyl from Danny Cooke on Vimeo.

Or this one by Edan Cohen @edan_cohen that documents “Arcosanti” the experimental town built in the middle of the Arizona desert.

Mirage from Edan Cohen on Vimeo.

If you take out the drone shots in each of these videos…They would still be very well filmed and produced videos….But there is something about the sweeping cinematic shots that just brings up the production value and creates an experience like none other….Unless you have a MoVI, attached to a Jib, attached to a MoVI, attached to a crane.

One the other hand, people have been known do things like this with drones: ….and this

OK so, how easy are drones to fly? Pretty darn easy. How easy are they to crash? Pretty darn easy.

First off, the whole principle of “needing to operate” a camera is now gone. You just strap in a GoPro (or other small camera device), set your white balance….let it decide the the exposure, and then basically just hit record and fly a little toy helicopter. You’ve got a set of throttles to go up and down, from left to right, and forwards/backwards. Not rocket science! But let me say….from personal experience – the instant you have that remote control in your hands, it doesn’t take long before you forget that there are a few thousand dollars flying in the air….because you want to go higher….you want to go faster…..and it’s not like most other film devices that you can suddenly turn off, or stop quickly if things aren’t going your way.  Lets call it Peter Panning.


Transportation Canada recognizes the fact that dangerous things can happen, and there are idiots out there! so, some time ago they put into effect a rule that filmmakers and others flying drone aircraft for personal gain of some sort must apply for a SFOC or Special Flight Operations Certificate. An SFOC is an intensive 7-10 page document detailing everything…..Everything! Like: what day, what time, how high, how fast – where the safety perimeter is located, what the contingency plan is, and they request for maps, and diagrams to be created for each of these locations (Basically the application takes a few hours to put together). After you finish, you submit the application via snail-mail and are requested to wait 20 business days for a response back.

One of our clients was interested in aerial footage, so we went through this process of writing a very detailed application at the beginning of September this year.   Late September I started checking my mailbox….waiting for something that had a nice big stamp of approval on it. But, we heard nothing back. So I gave it another week, and heard nothing back. Then, 5 weeks later (+25 working days!!!) I received a phone call from a gentleman who apologized, and told me had reviewed and approved the application, and finally we had permission to fly.

While a 2-3 month timeline for the permit to fly a UAV is possible to plan, it’s not realistic for my world.    We like to be totally on top of all the details of projects regarding creative expectations, scope and budget….and yes, timelines!  So for this reason it was really challenging communicating with my client and explaining to them that my SFOC application was in the system….but I didn’t know exactly when it would be approved, or….if it would be approved either.

Fortunately there is good news. As of very recently, there are rules for certain aircraft that can now fly without needing an SFOC permit: Here are some of the main stipulations:

-Aircraft must be under 2KG (most small drone units are)
-Operator must have at least $100,000 of insurance (drone specific)
-Aircraft must be 30M away from people, buildings, structures and vehicles not involved in the operation.
-Operators must be at least 18 years old, or 16 with supervision.

You can find more details here:

Where can you pick up a drone?

Well, there is a whole range of places. On the consumer level, you can probably go to Best Buy to pick one of these guys up, or online at Amazon or B&H

There is a lot of really good prosumer stuff being captured with the DJI Phantom Cameras together with GoPros, which I’m sure are available online at places like B&H. We probably paid a little more, and got our package from Flying Cameras and it came with an entire package including, wireless monitor, system, carying case etc. Here’s a little setup/tutorial video that shows you everything that is included in the package:

Phantom2-ProPackage from Flying Cameras on Vimeo.

On the “professional” level, there are UAV devices that can actually fly heavier cinema cameras like the Red Epic using the Freefly Cinestar 8, which is unreal considering the 15 LB + payload….but the final output image is pretty incredible:

Freefly Films – ALTITUDE from Freefly on Vimeo.


Final concluding thoughts: It is amazing that these new exemptions for drone devices have been approved. It is also very scary. Personally, I’m all for the 5-7 page SFOC application. I am just not a fan of the 2-3 month timeline, or the fact that you are sending an application about a new cutting edge technology using the most old-school antiquated communication system known to man. Mail….seriously???

Here’s what should really happen. The government should put funding and resources into a user-friendly web portal where all applications are submitted and processed in an efficient 2 or maximum 3 week time frame. That way, you ensure that applicants are thinking and planning ahead. Having an online system will also allow for automation, so humans don’t need to go down to a mail room….riffle through a big box of envelopes, and then sit down and flip through pages of hand-drawn flight plans (I’m a lefty….so the mock-ups I assembled were not masterpieces of art). This also ensures some kind of a system of tracking to see who is operating when/where. All drone operators should also be required to “opt-in” for a randomized audit on their video shoot to ensure the flight plan is maintained and the correct safety protocol is in place.

End Rant.

From now until that time….have fun, and fly safe.  Please post your comments here below, and please also feel welcome to share some of your favourite drone footage : )