Aerial Photography on a Budget

Lower Cost Aerial Photography

My previous post contained information about an electric helicopter and camera harness for remote controlled aerial photography, the AeriCam. Since the cost of the AeriCam helicopter and camera harness starts around $9k (in kit form), I wondered whether there was a significantly less expensive way to get professional quality aerial photographs and video. Since I was an avid radio-controlled (RC) airplane builder as an adolescent, I thought I’d do a little research to see what could be constructed with current technology.  Here’s what I discovered.

How to Pick a Helicopter for Photography

After some research, I discovered that there are radio controlled helicopter kits that are capable of carrying professional still and video cameras.  Many retailers offer custom assembly for a fee, so you don’t need to assemble the kits yourself. These are not like the toy helicopters you can buy at your local shopping mall. Rather, they are high tech devices using the latest electronic, material, and battery technologies. Some are developed for the high-end hobbyist market, and others are designed for commercial and military applications.

The better prices can be found in the high-end hobbyist helicopters. These units can be powered by electric, gas, or nitro engines. My preference is for the electric units, since they run clean and don’t require that you travel with volatile chemicals (like nitro).  However, the disadvantage of the electric units is that flight times are short: typically under 10 minutes.

One hobby grade helicopter, that is suitable for photography, is the Align T-Rex 600 CF.  It comes in electric, or nitro versions.

Align T-Rex 600 CF Helicopter

Align T-Rex 600 CF Helicopter

The T-Rex 600 CF is a 600 series helicopter. This means that the size of each of the main rotor blades is roughly 600 millimeters (in this case, 23.62 inches). This is a relatively large helicopter. It is about 1200 mm long (47.25 inches), 15.25 inches high and weighs about 6.6 pounds.  In addition, the T-Rex 600 can carry a payload including a camera and harness whose combined weight is an additional 6.5 pounds. The payload capacity can be increased by replacing the stock motor, servos and battery with higher performance versions. This is easy to do because the kit is offered in several versions, one of which is just the helicopter without radio gear, motor, servos or battery.

Size Matters

The 600 series is the smallest class helicopter that is recommended for professional photography. There are several reasons for this. The smaller heli’s, such as the 400 series, will struggle to lift the weight of even a small DSLR and harness. These smaller birds also tend to vibrate more, so it is difficult to get a sharp picture. In addition, the 400 series are more difficult to control, tend to move more sharply, and are more easily thrown about in the wind. On the other hand, the larger heli’s are easier to see at long distances. Because the camera and harness can be nearly half of the total flight weight, camera movement in the harness can destabilize the helicopter. This is another reason why a bigger helicopter is a better choice.

Even with these considerations, there may be situations where you can get a good result with a 400 series (400mm rotor blades) heli.  Keep in mind that a 400 series helicopter is quite small and light. A typical weight is around 1.5 lbs (665 grams).  The camera and harness should certainly be well under another pound and a half if the heli is going to be able to lift them.  For example, some of the new high end point and shoot cameras (e.g. Panasonic Lumix LX3 is 265 grams) may be small enough and light enough for a 400 series heli to lift. You may even be able to take still photographs at high shutter speeds that are crisp.  I’m not optimistic about shooting video, though.  People have strapped Flip video cameras to small heli’s and gotten pictures.  But I haven’t seen anything I would hand over to a client.

Helicopter Cost

I priced the Align T-Rex 600 at a local hobby shop. The helicopter with the complete radio gear (Spektrum DX7 Transmitter, AR7000 receiver, and DS821 servos), gyro (Futaba GY520), tail servo (Futaba BLS251 Rudder Servo),  and battery (Flightpower Evo 4900 6S1P battery pack) runs a bit under $2000.

Bergen RC's Tazer 800 Electric Helicopter

Bergen RC's Tazer 800 Electric Helicopter

Another helicopter suitable for photography is Bergen RC’s (www.bergenrc.com/Tazer.php) Tazer 800. This is larger than the T-Rex 600 and is capable of lifting 10 pounds of camera gear for about 10 minutes flight time. The cost of the assembled, complete helicopter and radio gear (no camera harness) is about $2650.

The Camera Harness

HeliCamSolutions Pro60-3x camera harness mounted beneath helicopter.

HeliCamSolutions Pro60-3x camera harness mounted beneath helicopter.

In addition to the helicopter, you need a harness to hold your camera. There are many types of harnesses. Some just hold the camera and absorb vibrations.  Others have motorized pan, tilt and roll that can be operated remoted (by another radio control transmitter).    Some even have gyro stabilization built in.

One manufacturer of reasonably priced harnesses is www.HeliCamSolutions.com. HelicamSoutions makes a range of harnesses from simple mechanical harnesses at $200, to fully articulated (pan, tilt and roll), remote controlled, gyrostabilized units for $2000.  They also have many models in between. The flight weights of these harnesses range from 2.4 lbs to about 4 lbs. The $2000 units have a complete 6 channel radio transmitter and receiver for independent, in-flight control of the camera’s pan, tilt and roll. A remote camera trigger is $50 extra. Finally, their video downlink system, which  allows you to see what the camera sees, is an additional $850.

Dedicated Gas Powered Cameraships

If you find yourself shopping in the $5000 price range, you may want to look at the dedicated “cameraships.”  These are gas powered helicopters with integrated camera harnesses.  They are designed specifically for photography. They are  all 800 series heli’s or larger.  Their payload capacity is high.  Some models can carry a camera and lens weighing 8 lbs.  Other models can carry a camera and lens up to 25 lbs.  Flight times can be anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours (since they are gas powered).

Bergen RC's Observer Dedicated Cameraship Helicopter

Bergen RC's Observer Dedicated Cameraship Helicopter

One particularly popular “cameraship” is the Bergen RC Observer.  This RC helicopter has a main rotor diameter approaching 80 inches (two 800mm blades). It weighs 20 pounds. This is a commercial grade platform for video/photography applications. You can get a complete system consisting of helicopter, harness and all radio gear for $5000.  You supply the camera.  It can carry a camera and lens combination weighing 8 lbs and fly for 25 minutes (16 oz gas tank).

Another high quality line of cameraships is offered by AirStar International.  One model, the ASI Mongoose Cameraship can carry 15 lbs of payload (camera and lens) for 30 minutes of flight time.  The flight time can be extended by substituting a larger gas tank.  The complete, assembled system costs $5695.  All you need to add is the camera. These units are used by the motion picture and television industries.

A high capacity heli ofen used for photography is the German made Vario Benzin Trainer. It has a 3.5 horsepower gasoline powered engine. It’s an 800 series helicopter (each rotor blade is about 890 mm), but it is not a dedicated cameraship.  So you need to get a harness from HeliCamSolutions for it.

Learning to Fly

Helicopters are very difficult to fly. The learning curve is brutally steep. So far, it’s taken me about 10 hours just to learn how to hover without crashing immediately. The good news is that there is a very high quality flight simulator, called RealFlight 5 (www.knifeedge.com) that makes learning to fly RC helicopters and airplanes safe, cheap and anxiety free.

In case you were wondering, something like the Microsoft Flight Simulator will not do the job here. Even though Microsoft Flight Sim is a very good simulator, it simulates full-size aircraft from the cockpit perspective. The physics of small aircraft, particularly heli’s, is quite different from people-size aircraft. Small aircraft are much more difficult to keep stable, especially in the wind.  They move extremely quickly, so your responses must be immediate.  Furthermore, you have a different vantage point when flying remotely. You’re outside the aircraft rather than in the cockpit. This is a major difference. When the craft is flying toward you, left and right are reversed. If you haven’t built up the eye-hand coordination for this, terrible things will happen.

To enhance the learning experience, the RealFlight simulator provides an 8-channel control unit made by Futaba, who also makes popular RC transmitters. The Futaba control unit for the simulator operates exactly like their transmitters. Perfect for training. Even at $200 for the software and Futaba (USB) control unit, this is the cheapest way to learn how to fly. Trust me. The cost of a crash can be several hundred dollars in parts for a largish helicopter.   More if you really mangle it.  I have crashed simulated helicopters probably hundreds of times just learning how to hover. Saved quite a lot of money.  It’s wonderful to crash in a relaxed atmosphere.

It Takes Two

Unless you have a simple harness that just locks the camera in one position, flying and shooting is likely to be a two person operation. You’ll need a skilled pilot for the helicopter, and a second person, the photographer, to monitor and control the camera.  For this reason, most of the systems we’ve discussed in this article have two RC transmitters.  One for the pilot and one for the photographer.  This is especially important if you (assuming you’re a photographer) don’t have the time to learn how to fly. Fortunately, RC helicopter pilots are easier to come by (and less expensive) than commercial pilots. If you find one who is into 3D (extreme helicopter stunt flying), his skills will be beyond what you need.

Cameras

With the 600 series helicopters, we have a payload capacity of around 6 1/2 lbs for harness and camera. Harnesses weigh between 2.4 and 4 pounds. This leaves you roughly 2 to 4 pounds for the camera and lens, depending on harness weight. High end consumer HD camcorders are typically around 1.5 pounds, which fits easily within these weight limits. Small SLR’s also fit within these weight limits. For example, a Nikon D90 weighs around 2 to 2.5 pounds with a small zoom lens, so it should be OK with any harness and heli.  The same is true for a Canon Rebel or similar size DSLR. Of course, the new micro 4/3 cameras, such as the Panasonic GH1, G1, and GF1 as well as the Olympus EP1 and EP2 all fit easily within the weight limits of a medium power 600 series heli.

Heavier camera and lens combinations such as a Nikon D300s (33.1 oz for body only), Canon 5dII (30 oz body only) or Canon 7d (30.3 oz body only) are going to fall within the range of 3 to 4 pounds with lens. A small professional video camera weighs even more. The Panasonic HVX200 weighs just under 5 pounds, while the Sony EX1 is about 5.25 pounds. These cameras would require an 800 series helicopter, such as the Tazer 800 if you’re going to use a 4 pound harness.  The Tazer 800 helicopter mentioned earlier can easily handle 10+ pounds of payload. The heavier Nikon and Canon cameras and the professional video cameras are all within its capacity.

Remember that when you weigh down an electric helicopter, you shorten the flight time, because the motor requires more current from the battery to keep all that weight in the air. So, a bigger camera and harness requires a more powerful motor, battery, servos and possibly a larger rotor.  The 800 series helicopters make more sense as the camera and lens get much above 3 pounds.

Airplanes Cost Less

There is another way to go, which I will discuss in detail in a future post. You can use a radio controlled airplane rather than a helicopter. Airplanes have many advantages and one big disadvantage. Airplanes are less complicated to set up, safer and easier to fly, and vibrate quite a bit less. They are also a lot less expensive both to build and to crash. So your cost savings can be huge (half the cost of a heli or less for something that can keep the same camera aloft). However, airplanes usually do not hover, and they require a lot more space for taking off and landing. They are, of course, less nimble in the air. For photography, that’s the big disadvantage. You can only fly toward something or fly by something. But you can’t stop and take a picture, as you can with a heli. But if your photographic goals fit within an airplane’s capabilities, you can get very good quality results for much less money and a considerably shallower learning curve.

The Bottom Line(s)

All this may sound like it’s pretty expensive. It can be. Though for a complete, basic system with helicopter, a minimal harness to absorb vibrations and a remote trigger for your camera, the cost can be as low as $2250 for the Align T-Rex 600, the radio components listed earlier, and the low end HelicamSolutions harness and remote trigger.

If you want full in-flight control of the camera’s pan, tilt and roll as well as gyrostabilization ($2000 from HeliCamSolutions) and a video downlink ($400 to $850) and a suitable helicopter ($2000 to $2650), you’re now in the neighborhood of $5000 for the complete system.  The only thing extra is the camera.  Not cheap, but still half the price of the top end systems.

Suppose you consider an intermediate capability harness (say $500), and shop around for a less expensive video downlink ($500).  Add to that a T-Rex 600 ($2000) and  you’ve got a complete and very competent rig for about $3000.  At this price, you may only have 3 pounds of payload capacity for the camera and lens (unless your harness is very light).

If you want to use a camera that’s heavier than 3 pounds, you may want to opt for the Tazer 800 helicopter (at $2650).  With the Tazer 800 you get a higher payload capacity: 6 lbs for camera and lens, plus 4 lbs for the harness.  Is your brain spinning yet?

Of course, if you have deeper pockets, there’s always the dedicated cameraships mentioned earlier.  They’ll lift most professional camera systems.  Due to their larger size and weight, they’ll handle better on windy days.  Best of all, some of the gas powered ones will give you flight times measured in hours rather than minutes.

Additional Resources

Here are some resources that I found helpful for getting basic information and getting your questions answered.

  • www.RunRyder.com is a very popular RC helicopter forum. It has sections on aerial photography and video.
  • www.APLanding.com is a photography forum that has a section on all types of aerial photography.
  • www.RCHelicopterFun.com presents a good overview of the various types of helicopters that are available and how they work. It also reviews some products and explains how to set up and “tune” RC helicopters.
  • www.AerialPhotoBook.com sells a book on RC helicopters and photography. I ordered a copy and will review it as soon as it arrives and i can read it.
  • www.BlackWidowAV.com sells wireless video downlink kits and accessories. Very reasonably priced at $300 without monitor.  It is common practise to use a portable DVD player for the downlink monitor, or a small portable lcd tv.
  • www.hicam.com is another vendor of wireless video downlinks.
  • Electric Helicopter Beginner’s Guide has good introductory information, explains the jargon, and offers sound practical advice.
  • Triax-Aerial is another source of gimbaled camera harnesses for aerial photography.
  • www.airfoilskycam.com is a manufacturer of low cost camera harnesses. The M1 Carbon 30 mount offers servo controlled roll and tilt (but no pan) at a very low price and low weight.
  • Rosauro Photography features aerial panoramas and some useful how-to information.
  • PhotoShip One makes camera mounts, some front mounting for TRex 600 and other heli’s. They also 360VR mounts for aerial photography, as well as their own cameraships.

Acknowledgements

I’d like to thank the folks at HobbyTown in Nanuet, New York for much information and guidance. They wisely talked me into using a simulator before buying anything. Their experience as skilled heli pilots was invaluable for creating this post.

Full Disclosure

The United States the Federal Trade Commission is going to require that, as of December 1, 2009, bloggers and other web authors clearly disclose “their connection, if any, with the advertisers; and also reveal the receipt of free products and or payments from the advertisers”.

In compliance with this requirement, I am not in any way associated with any of the manufacturers or retailers mentioned in this post. I have not received any compensation from them in any form, neither free products nor payments. I am not an affiliate marketer of any company or product mentioned here.

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