For my fourth test with the new Phantom 3 Professional, I wanted to fly around some obstacles. Up to this point in my testing, I’ve mostly flown in wide open areas where the only thing I really had to pay attention to was what was happening with the quad. The problem here is that wide open flat places don’t make terribly interesting subjects for photos or videos. My goal with shooting aerial images isn’t just to take a picture or video from up high. It’s to get a unique view of something that is interesting on its own. To do this, I decided to test in a beautiful park in midtown Oklahoma City called Edgemere.
Flying around obstacles provides several unique challenges. The most obvious one is maintaining visual contact with the Phantom. The law requires that I can see my quad at all times while flying, but my Superman powers are rusty and I don’t see well through trees. That meant I had to be able to move a little bit while I was flying to achieve certain shots I wanted to get. Walking and piloting a fast moving quadcopter will humble you really quickly.
The second major challenge I faced was finding a balance between framing shots on the video screen while visually watching where the aircraft was flying to make sure I didn’t hit anything. When you’re flying straight ahead, you can mostly see what’s coming and what you might hit. But if you’re flying sideways to get a long dolly shot, the camera isn’t showing you anything you might hit. It gets even more complex when you start doing multi-movement shots. For example, moving to the side while rotating the Phantom to get a spiral type shot. The controls to do this are complex by themselves, but to also keep an eye on the video screen to make sure your subject is still framed AND keep an eye in the sky to make sure you’re not going to hit anything… well that’s enough to make you sweat the first few times.
The last major challenge I wasn’t expecting as much: distractions. At its most basic, this included curious people in the park who wanted to come ask me questions about how the Phantom works. At its worst it included a low flying helicopter nearly giving me a heart attack. The FAA rules for flying unmanned aerial vehicles states that you can’t fly within 5 miles of an airport. Seems logical enough. But it doesn’t say anything about hospitals, and it probably should include at least a note about them. I was only a few miles from a large Oklahoma City hospital, and while flying at 400 feet I nearly decided to shut down the engines on my quad and let it free fall from the sky just to make sure I didn’t have an accidental collision with the low flying manned aircraft (who was probably saving someone’s life while flying).
The biggest help I had during this flight was taking my wonderful wife along with me as a “spotter” of sorts. She was able to take over conversations for me when I was approached by other park-goers, keep and eye on me when I was walking and looking up to make sure I didn’t walk in to the creek, and helped me navigate my way out of trouble when the helicopter came by. As a side benefit, having McKalyn with me helped me look less creepy flying a “drone” around the park. There’s undoubtably a stigma around flying cameras. I understand that people are worried about their privacy, and did my best not to put anyone in my shots without their knowledge and permission. I think having her with me helped disarm potentially angry or frightened parents/homeowners/dog walkers. She also made two cameos in the video.