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Drone Girl

How (and where) you can legally shoot commercial video with a drone

Is commercial drone use illegal in the U.S.? Nope! But there ARE are regulations at the federal, state and local levels.

But for someone intending to use a drone for something as innocuous as getting a bird’s­eye view of a cityscape, a field of crops, a wedding ceremony or a snowboard run, regulations can be confusing.

That’s why the team at AllDigital, Inc. put together the infographic below. It’s designed to help video professionals navigate the ever­changing legal landscape as it applies to drones — and especially using drones to capture video.

Infographic: What You Need To Know About Shooting Video With a Drone
Source: Infographic: What You Need To Know About Shooting Video With a Drone

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Ask Drone Girl: I have never flown a drone before. Should I buy a Phantom 4?

Do you have a question for Drone Girl? Submit it here.

Dear Drone Girl,

My question is in regards to the Phantom 4. I will be purchasing a drone and have never flown one before. The 4 sounds great but I am concerned about not being able to upgrade cameras, etc because of the design. I would like to use my investment money wisely. Do you have any input into this issue?

From, Karen Rphantom

Hey Karen,

I had a chance to fly the Phantom 4 a couple weeks ago, and let me tell you, it’s great! It’s totally counter-intuitive to fly into an object and have it not crash, but hey, that’s what makes the Phantom 4 so fantastic.

With 28-minutes of flight time and other features like TapFly or Smart Return Home, the Phantom is a vast improvement over its predecessors and an especially great copter for someone like you who has never flown one before.

But at $1,399, you’re completely right. You DO want to use your investment money wisely, so I’m glad you’re carefully considering it. The camera on the Phantom 4 is really great, capturing 4K video at 30 frames per second and slow motion 1080p at 120 frames per second. But the Inspire camera gives you the option to upgrade to a much more powerful camera.

Looking back, just 3 years ago I spent about the same dollar figure on my DJI Phantom 1 plus GoPro. There’s no Lightbridge and no gimbal. I only keep it for posterity, because it’s nowhere near as good as the drones on sale today. I joke now that I paid about $1,000 for a piece of junk! The drones you can buy today are infinitely more powerful than what was on the market 3 years ago.

That only means one thing — the next Phantom will guaranteed be even more powerful than this. I anticipate more sensors so the Phantom can sense objects overhead and behind it, not just in front of it. I also anticipate the sense and avoid technology being implemented into the next version of the Inspire.

So while I can pretty surely guarantee that within the next few years the Phantom will drop in price and/or improve, what would happen if I waited for the Phantom 2 without getting the Phantom 1?

It’s hard to say, but I’m confident you know the answer based on your needs. Either way, the Phantom 4 is both a great beginner copter AND copter for the pros. Happy flying!


P.S.: Even though the Phantom 4 says it is crash-proof, do practice in an open field. I would hate to see your $1,000+ drone end up at the bottom of a pool.

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DJI’s Phantom 4 is here — and incredible

This is an excerpt of a story originally written for MarketWatch.com. Read the entire piece here.

DJI has unveiled its smartest drone yet: it’s the first consumer drone to have the ability to sense and avoid obstacles and marks a huge leap in preventing drone crashes.

DJI’s Phantom 4 drone, unveiled Tuesday, has two forward-facing optical sensors that can scan for obstacles and automatically direct the drone to fly above the obstacle to avoid it. If it can’t fly above the obstacle (for example, a roof overhead or the object is simply too tall) the drone will hover in front of the object until it is manually redirected.

The drone will sell for $1,399 on DJI’s website, but otherwise will be available only through the Apple Store from March 15 to March 29.

It will also be the first non-Apple product to get promoted in the “feature bay” in brick-and-mortar Apple Stores — perhaps, an indication of Apple’s confidence in the product’s technology._MG_9791

The drone will be available at other retailers, including Best Buy and Amazon.com beginning March 29.

The new technology means drone operators “don’t have to worry as much about their flying skills,” said Romeo Durscher, Director of Education at DJI. “Every crash I have had is because I made a bad judgment call. This gives the operator confidence in the machine and its flying capabilities.”

The obstacle avoidance does have limitations. Sensors are located only on the front and bottom of the drone, so it is not able to sense obstacles if it is flying backward or laterally.

But while the sense-and-avoid technology is not perfect, it’s a critical step in making other processes like drone delivery possible. Currently, companies working on drone delivery, like Silicon Valley drone delivery startup Matternet, rely on terrain data to avoid crashing into trees, buildings and mountains. But if the terrain data isn’t up to date — for example, a crane went up overnight — the drone wouldn’t have that in its system of data, and could crash into the crane.

Now, the drone can sense when it is getting too close to the crane, the White House or the Empire State Building, and just hover instead of crashing.

The Phantom 4 also boasts several other technology upgrades.

It has a mode called “TapFly,” which allows users who have connected the drone’s camera to their smartphone screen to tap a destination in view and let the drone calculate the optimal route to get there.

Another feature called “ActiveTrack” allows the drone to follow a subject, selected by tapping that subject on their smartphone screen. Even if the subject moves, the drone will follow it, keeping it in the center of the camera’s frame.

The drone also has a “Sport Mode,” which allows it to fly about 45 miles an hour, much faster than previous models and near equivalent to speeds attained by the souped-up drones that race in competition.

The drone allows for about 28 minutes of flight time.

DJI launched its Phantom line of drones in 2013, building one of the first ready-to-fly drones, along with competitors like French robotics manufacturer Parrot, DJI’s Phantom has rapidly evolved over the past few years, as newer models added camera feeds for users on the ground to see a live feed of what the drone is seeing, gimbals to stabilize video and ‘follow me’ features, allowing the drone to follow the user holding the RC transmitter.

These major technological advances by DJI come as GoPro is set to release a drone in the first half of 2016. There’s still no information on what technology the GoPro drone will (or will not) come outfitted with, but the new Phantom 4 sets a new high — sky high — bar to meet.


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Meet the filmmakers behind ‘Drona’

The Bay Area Drone Film Festival is set for this Sunday in Silicon Valley. Ahead of the festival, we caught up with Chafic Saad and Kris Lee, founders of Kind Motion Pictures and the creators of ‘Drona,’ one of the nominees for the Narrative/Statement/Cause category of the festival.

Drone Girl: What is your film about?

Chafic Saad: It’s centered around Kecak, which started in the 1930s as a secular art form made for tourists in Bali as a local type of entertainment. The film was made in Bali and grew off that. Every village has a different style of Kecak where they sit in a circle and do different types of chanting.

DG: How were you able to get the access to shoot this?

Kris Lee: We went for the International Body Music Festival, which has been going on for 7 or 8 years and was in Bali this year. We got in touch with the founders, and we got the green light.

DG: It was that easy?

CK: When we first started filming Kecak we realized it was very loud, and Kecak is vocal music. The village was pretty sacred. In order to go to the area where they perform, there are all these different types of customs in order to enter. When we were filming it was a little too loud and we were asked to land it. We felt defeated at that point. We came this far, we landed the drone into Bali and now we can’t film.

DG: Of course, it did work out.

CK: We brainstormed, ‘how can we get the drone into the performance and get the drone we need?’ So one of the organizers had the idea of including the drone in the actual ceremony. Its an 1930s art form and here we are in 2015 incorporating a drone into it.  It wasn’t too complicated but it was cool to have the Ketchav group interact with the drone. It looked like a futuristic spacecraft coming into the middle of Bali.


Kris Lee and Chafic Saad’s ‘dronie’ in Bali. Photo courtesy of Chafic Saad

DG: So what gear did you use to shoot?

CS: We shot on the Inspire 1, and we also have the Osmo, which is really awesome for those closeup shots. Since flying into tight spaces is complicated, if I want a technical path then I would rather put the camera on the Osmo and just walk it, but make it seem like it’s still flying.

DG: A lot of people ask me about traveling internationally with a drone. What was your experience like?

CS: We brought our drone, the Inspire 1. After traveling for 36 hours from New York, we finally got to Bali, and the customs department would not let us bring the drone through. It was the quite a scene. We had all the paperwork saying we could bring it through. They thought I was going to sell it. I had to put down a deposit of $2,000 US dollars and it would not have been returned if I didn’t bring the money back. That was scary.

DG: But you got the money back?

CS: Yes, we had to show them it was the same drone. Even still, they walked us all the way to our gate to make sure we wouldn’t sell it.

Photo courtesy of Chafic Saad

DG: What was the whole experience of filming with a drone like?

KL:  Some of the shots we were getting we were just getting goosebumps. It’s high stakes. There is this ceremony going on and you have to capture it. We went with the love of what we do, but we came back with the culture and knowledge. It was easy to make because we had such a beautiful canvas to work with. And the drone really became a quintessential part of modernizing the story.


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Meet the woman whose project uses drones to study the impact of El Nino on California’s coast

Earlier this week we told you about the Nature Conservancy’s Phones and Drones volunteer project. Now, meet one of the women behind the project.

As El Nino hits the West Coast, it’s a prime time for scientists to use the weather patterns as a crystal ball for future climate change. Tides are higher, and there are more storms. The Nature Conservancy’s Sarah Newkirk is spearheading a project that looks at the coast line using images from drones, shot by “citizen scientists” — essentially anyone with a drone.

For drone operators interested in volunteering with the project, visit this site.

Sarah Newkirk

Drone Girl: Why did this project come about?

SN: I direct the California Coastal Project at the Nature Conservancy of California, and our job is to  makes sure we still have natural shorelines, but we have a land development threat. Our communities are growing, but there is sea level rise, so coastal habitats are getting squeezed out of existence.

DG: So what’s your role?

SN: We’re working to help communities and decision makers make wise decisions about using natural resources rather than sea walls.  Sometimes that means restoring wetlands, getting infrastructure off the coast. It also means understanding how sea level rise and climate driven coastal change impact how we go about this. It’s a conservation problem in 4 dimensions — latitude, longigtue, altitude and time. It’s not about our coastline today, but tomorrow.

DG: What’s the project you are doing now with drones?

SN: El Nino is giving us an opportunity to look into a crystal ball and see how that change is going to happen. It gives us high tides, high swell conditions. It’s also giving us actual storms that are going to be more frequent and intense in the future as climate changes. It makes these less understood events like the event in Pacifica more understood. It empowers communities to make decisions about where they are protecting their infrastructure, and where are we better off just not having an apartment building on a cliff.

DG: Where do the drone users come in?

SN: We are asking anyone with a camera on their phone and the unique subset of volunteers with drones to document photos of the shoreline and submit them. Then our scientists take these images and cross reference them with future climate change models, scenarios and maps.

DroneDeploy Orthomosaic ExampleDG: What’s beneficial about getting the drones involved?

SN:  The drones are amazing. They give us a bird’s eye view. We can cover so much more of the landscape with a single deployment than we can with a cell phone image.

DG: At what point did you realize you should include drones in the project, and not just cell phone images?

SN: Our CTO, Matt Merrifield,  is always thinking about ways to deploy new technology in pursuit of our conservation objective. He and I had been sitting around in the office one day looking at maps and I made the comment that none of our models are validated. We’re not going to know whether we are right. But we both recognized the best approximation we have is this El Nino event. Matt said this is a perfect opportunity to deploy not just phones and drones, but also citizen scientists.

Sample california aerial image
On January 25, 2016, a state of emergency was declared in Pacifica, California, after king tides and storm surge pummeled the coastline. Many of the apartments in Pacifica are hanging off of soft sandstone cliffs and are in danger of falling off. Photo taken January 26, 2016.

DG: What kind of participation have you gotten so far?

SN: The drone people are coming out in droves. Believe it or not, we may have more drone images than cell phone images. There is a sweet spot between the casualness of a photo on a beach and the sophistication of the drone user being very intentional about what they are doing.

DG: How can people get involved?

SN: Visit nature.org/elnino. This kind of an opportunity happens really rarely, and it’s now that we have the opportunity to get so much information. And by empowering citizens to do this, we’re building a small army of citizen scientists.

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