Working with Drones

Working with Drones in Film and TV

By ACO Camera Operator Darren Miller and BNUc Pilot Angus Benson Blair

Drones are becoming a necessary tool in the box for a vast percentage of TV drama, documentaries and feature films. For a few years now, Directors have been able to fly a camera in places and proximities where the use of a real helicopter would be impossible making epic aerial shots accessible like never before. 

The technology is racing ahead at the speed of the development of digital cameras. This makes it accessible and affordable to the consumer and the authorities are trying to keep abreast of illegal flyers that are giving the industry a bad name. In the wrong hands they can be lethal, but this could be applied to any technology airborne or not. In the right hands, drones can open up a whole new avenue of creativity. 

The machines are lightweight, compact and much more affordable than their big brother. However, they are a tool designed for a particular job and form part of the chain of equipment and processes available to a production. 

For many years, I had been interested in aerial work and executed countless aerial shoots being strapped into a Tyler mount or once even hand held from a vintage Harvard cockpit. To undertake aerial filming of any kind requires amongst many other things, a great deal of investment, experience, on-going training and a good deal of marketing. The same could be applied to working with drones. 

Not having gone down the Steadicam route as a second string, I embraced this new technology and applied for a training course that would hopefully reward me with CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) approval for doing aerial work commercially by using a drone. The CAA call this PFAW – Permission For Aerial Work. This is a legal requirement without which insurance is invalid and under the concept of vicarious liability a production company hiring an operator without a PFAW could also be held liable. 

It’s a bit like the diving qualifications run by BSAC and PADI. There are currently over 20 NQE’s (National Qualified Entities) that run the courses but at my time of qualifying the only two companies were Euro BNUC (Basic National UAS Certificate) and RPQ (Remote Pilot Qualification), I opted for the RPQ course. 

RPQ is run by Resource Group, mostly consisting of ex-military personnel at their headquarters at Gloucester airport. The application of military discipline by the course tutors was testament to the high pass rate of their students. They made it intense yet very enjoyable. The course consisted of ground-work done at home covering the basics of flight, map reading, CAA regulations, CAA documents and how to read the weather; three days classroom studies and exams at a hotel in Manchester; then a flight exam day at a Gloucester airfield. 

At the time of the RPQ there was no additional flight training, so all the flying I had done on my trusty DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter was self-taught. Hours and hours of flying circuits and manoeuvres, many crashes into trees, personal despair, failure and repairs later, I was able to master the basic art of multi-rotor flying. 

The flight exam amounted to one of the most nerve-wracking, dry mouthed experiences I have ever undertaken. There I was flying what looked like a plastic food blender in the gaze of a stern ex-military man, ticking boxes at my every move. All the basics were covered, right from the start as if turning up for a real job: longitude at latitude coordinates, contacting ATC (Air Traffic Control), affirming the airspace category,    on-site safety recce, setting out a safe take-off and landing area, making a safety brief to personnel, executing a safe hover, flying to and from waypoints at 500m distances in different flight modes and altitudes, executing a RTH (Return To Home function) where the drone makes its own way back to its point of take off, executing an AIPROX manoeuvre (avoidance of another airborne object in the same flying space) and then a final quick-fire question session covering random aspects of all my training. 

Note to self: military men don’t react to man hugs and cries of yippee in the middle of a vast airfield. 

Remarkably, I passed and eventually received my golden ticket from the CAA, the PFAW certification. This meant I could now go out and earn money with my class of drone in the sub 7kg category. Somehow I had to recoup the £3k of investment I had just made with the course and my drone. This was the real start of the learning curve. 

The marketplace had suddenly become saturated with eager drone operators trying to enter the TV and Film market with small machines that could only carry Go Pros and the larger 7kg machines using Panasonic G4 or Canon 5D DSLR’s. These cameras produce some very good images but are ultimately not really adequate for TV Broadcast or large format for feature films. The consumer DJI Phantoms are still used today for news coverage and the larger ones for some TV documentaries. 

It was apparent that there were hundreds of very competent pilots who might be able to fly their machines but they weren’t cinematographers or film set savvy. Most were having to learn the basics of photography and composition on the job whilst trying to fly complicated moves with average results. There weren’t many experienced Cameramen operating the gimbals so there was an opportunity to apply my newly acquired skills. 

Professional high­end drone operators work as a two man team, Pilot and Camera/Gimbal Operator, also sometimes with an observer and a 1st AC. They fly the larger sensor cameras, which include the Arri Mini and the Red Epic/Dragon, mounted on a stabilizing gimbal like a Freefly Movi 15. Understanding the flight controls and the manual dexterity of how to fly a multi-rotor became vital knowledge when applying this to operating the gimbal. 

A competent and professional Pilot becomes the dolly grip in the sky, effectively and intuitively doing the tracking and jibbing whilst the Camera Operator maintains the composition with panning and tilting. The unison between Pilot and Operator is paramount to delivering seamless and smooth sequences that can add immense screen value to even the most modest of budgets. Not all shots we execute are high altitude. 

Some might be tracking with a vehicle, low over water or flying through doors into a shopping mall for example. A drone can be used as a tool to bridge a gap between Steadicam and a Crane but not replacing them. 

Part of the CAA’s regulation is that all Pilots maintain their flying hours (just like an airplane pilot) and that the machine they fly remains airworthy and in their allocated weight category. This ranges from sub 7kg, and 7kg to 20kg (20kg being the total maximum take off weight including any payload). 

These things are reviewed annually where the Pilot has to re-apply for his/her PFAW. Drone operators also legally have to carry aviation specific insurance and adequate public liability insurance. These insurances cannot be obtained without proof of PFAW when operating commercially. So everyone needs to have the assurance that a pilot holds these credentials otherwise he/she is breaking the law and the production will not be covered. 

Standard restrictions involve keeping at least 50m from the public, completely out of towns and cities if flying an aircraft over 7kg and going to a maximum height of 400ft. You also have to avoid crowds of over 1000 people and various specific locations such as military installations, power stations and airports as a general rule. These restrictions can be reduced however if the flight crew have submitted what used to be called a Congested Area Operational Safety Case (CAOSC) and is now

the Unmanned Air Systems Operational Safety Case (UAS OSC). These safety cases are directly assessed by the CAA and are only awarded to those operators with the highest of standards. Most UAS OSC holders are allowed to fly to within 30m of the public although there is just one at the moment, able to fly to within 10m and 600ft whilst flying an Arri Mini/Red. This is the operator I work with, Angus Benson-Blair. 

Working with Angus, gives us the edge when it comes to close proximity flying. This is also helped by his time as a military officer giving him a work ethic firmly embedded in the disciplines born from his previous career. This prowess and application to professionalism has enabled him to build is own aircraft, a complete mobile aerial filming facility and obtain a unique CAA CAOSC that enables Directors and DoP’s to acquire shots and sequences that no other operator can legally execute. 

Angus’s confident and highly competent flying skills are testament to the vast array of contracts he embarks upon and the results speak for themselves. Our working relationship continues with his commitment to ARPAS (Association of Remote Piloted Aircraft Systems, the regulatory body working closely with the CAA) and some exciting new projects on the horizon. 

We can fly an Arri Mini at 4K Pro Res with a range of prime lenses with remote iris/focus control for example, up to 600ft in altitude, within a 10m radius of people & buildings, at night and in the city of London if required. Flight time is governed by weight, so a flight of this configuration would last about eight minutes leaving adequate time for the Pilot to safely return the aircraft. The addition of any extra filters or a mattebox will have an effect on flight time and the stability of the gimbal in the wind. 

Under normal circumstances, the CAA restrictions would render the most imaginative shots impossible due to the operations area that the production would have to control. This of course can add extra expenditure and make the use of the drone less attractive. 

By having this unique CAOSC, Directors, DoPs, Operators and Grips can now apply the technology when decisions are made on recces. We don’t have to reapply to the CAA for permission to fly as most other operators have to do on a case by case basis and having to be date specific. There is also a charge the CAA apply for this service which either has to be absorbed by the drone operator or levied onto the client. 

The aircraft we fly is a Vulcan X8 Octocopter in the 20kg category. It has eight rotors mounted over four arms in an ‘X’ configuration. This offers a redundancy safety aspect meaning if one rotor fails, the aircraft can still be flown safely back to the ground. 

It has:

Two different flight controllers for added safety 

A drop safe parachute for increased altitude flying 

Pilots FPV orientation camera  

High-vis orientation strobe lights 

Return-to-home function 

High Definition playback on both the pilots aircraft control and the operators gimbal control 

Remote in-flight camera stop/start control (saves masses of data)

Remote iris/focus control   

Freefly Movi 15 or Movi 5 stabilizing gimbals for ultra smooth shots   

Repeat flight ability with mobile charging facility 

Director/DoP Hi-Def monitor with a Connex transmitter/receiver 

We can usually be ready for flight in about half an hour after arriving on set. 

A normal day would consist of notifying the local airport, police and/or council of our intended operations prior to arrival, weather checks, submission of a risk assessment to production, pre-flight recce, balancing the choice of camera on the gimbal, pre-flight checks on the Vulcan, setting up the ground station (monitors etc), a test flight and a full crew safety brief prior to any flying. 

We can fly close to actors and/or trained animals (about 10ft) as long as they are fully briefed and under the control of the pilot. Obviously this has ramifications for sound for any dialogue issues. It is not uncommon to fly from 100ft over a rooftop down to head height of an actor(s) in a matter of seconds. We have flown from pontoons in the middle of a lake, to underground river arches and stuntmen on the roof of a moving steam train. 

The weather is our nemesis and we cannot fly in winds above 20mph or in the rain. The Vulcan’s avionics are exposed so that they remain cool and any moisture or water could result in a catastrophic failure. The Pilot’s decision on whether to fly or not is final. 

Our USP is our combined experience that can be applied to the production. Being a TV drama Camera Operator enables us to work independently as a second unit, able to do both aerial and conventional filming either under supervision of a Director or with a brief. We can usually match the manufacturer camera system of most productions or fly a supplied camera if required. 

A professional drone or UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) team has embarked upon lengthy training, studied and absorbed many complicated CAA regulations, passed flight exams, made significant investment, acquired hundreds of hours flying time, maintained their aircraft and applied many long unpaid hours to running their business. It should be noted that it takes an equally long time for a Pilot to gain the necessary experience to operate consistently on set as it does for a good Camera Operator. 

When a drone operator turns up on a shoot, they should have the same prowess as the camera department and be integrated as such. It’s not all about the drone. We are there to offer addition to the arsenal of tools available to the Director and DoP and execute our work safely, proficiently and without fuss. 

If we cannot fly safely, we cannot operate legally just like any Steadicam, crane, tracking vehicle or helicopter. We cannot order the weather but we can do our utmost to deliver some outstanding material that hopefully would be included in the final cut. 

To date, we have worked on several feature films, and a great deal of TV drama and documentaries. The most recent notable drama being the second series of ‘Happy Valley’ where we completed around 30 different sequences over the course of the production. 

The CAA has a list of 1461 current PFAW holders in the UK . 

Resource Group UAS Training: 


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