Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Photographers, others find more and more creative uses for drones
Originally published July 10, 2015 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel

This beautiful view of Lighthouse Point at sunset shot by Steve Mandel, has great color and shadow
 patterns. The Surfing Museum lighthouse can be photographed by a drone, but the coastline north
 of the lighthouse cannot. By law, drones cannot cross the mean high tide line over the Monterey Bay
 National Marine Sanctuary (about ¼ of California’s coast), with certain exceptions. (photo by Steve Mandel)
Mandel uses a sun-shaded high-definition monitor
—or occasionally goggles—to see what his drone
 camera is seeing and to frame his photographs.
 (photo by Tina Baine)
As a former photojournalist, I’m wondering if newspapers will ever be allowed to use drones to capture the scope of a rock concert, the drama of a high-speed police chase, or simply the beauty of the earth viewed from 400 feet in the air. If these camera-toting flying machines had been around back in the 90s, I might not have been denting the hood of my pick-up by standing on it, or routinely carrying a ladder in my truck bed or constantly searching for roof access in buildings—whatever it took to get a better perspective on things.  

But although photojournalists and other professionals have lobbied the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), they may not be allowed to use drones at work anytime soon, because privacy and safety concerns currently out-weigh the need for a perspective from a higher vantage point. The FAA has made the use of drones for commercial purposes illegal.

However, flying drones recreationally is okay, as long as it’s not endangering lives or in restricted airspace—and there’s quite a lot of that, including over National Parks or higher than 400 feet from ground level. This means you can buy a drone and photograph your own outdoor wedding (as long as it’s not in Yosemite or along most of West Cliff Drive), but you can’t hire a professional to do so. And despite one industry analyst’s prediction that consumers worldwide will spend about $720 million on drones in 2015, most of us will not see many photographs taken with drones unless we shoot them ourselves.

Which isn’t such a bad idea, because in the last few years, drones (also known as quadcopters or UAVs—unmanned aerial vehicles) are becoming increasingly more affordable, reliable and simpler to operate. And best of all, they can capture high-resolution, stable images that are quite extraordinary. Even subject matter you’ve seen a thousand times from ground level becomes entirely fresh and fascinating when viewed from above.

This Hoverbike Star Wars drone came assembled, but Mandel
modified it by completely changing the electronics.
  (photo by Steve’s wife, Carol Foote)
“They say it’s like putting a tripod up in the sky,” says local photographer Steve Mandel. “Friday night we went to some friends’ house in Saratoga for dinner—it was an outdoor barbecue—and I launched it and took a picture straight down.” The resulting photograph is proof that even the most commonplace subject matter can be transformed into something extraordinary by virtue of a “heightened” perspective.

An enthusiastic promoter of drones, Mandel also appreciates their potential for good. “They can do all kinds of things with these,” he says. “You can attach infrared cameras for search and rescue work. In Canada last year a guy got into an auto accident and he got a concussion and he wandered into the woods and the temperature was dropping rapidly and he would have probably died in the woods. And they sent up a drone with an infrared monitor and they spotted him and were able to rescue him.”

A Soquel resident and founder/president of Mandel Communications, Inc., Steve Mandel has also been an exceptional wildlife photographer and conservationist for many years. In 2008 he established the Lions of Gir Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the construction of barricades around open pit wells in India, to help save endangered Asiatic lions of the Gir Forest.

Now he uses drones to further his interest in wildlife protection. “I’m working with scientists and we’re looking at using drones to gather data on elephant seals,” he says. “And I’m going to be taking this one with me (pointing to one of many drones filling up his office workshop) to Antarctica at the end of this year and doing studies in Argentina and Antarctica and filming elephant seals. Their populations were decimated and now they’ve came back and they’re trying to study them and understand them and prevent any future catastrophes. I’ll also be filming southern right whales off the coast of Argentina when we go down there.”

When in flight, drones sound something like a swarm of bees, and wild animals react in different ways to the sound. ”I took a smaller drone with me last year when I went to Kenya,” Mandel says, where he stayed at a hotel called Giraffe Manor where giraffes roam the lawns. “I’ve wanted to stay there for 20 years. The owner flies a drone and they’re used to it so it doesn’t bother the giraffes. So they let me fly around there and take pictures. So that was really fun."

Steve Mandel took a small drone to Nairobi, Kenyan last year when he stayed at Giraffe Manor where giraffes roam the lawns. You can see Mandel on the ground, remotely shooting the photograph from his drone, which can hover like a helicopter. (photo by Steve Mandel)
But, “a lot of the wild animals are really afraid of them,” he says. “A problem they have in Kenya and Tanzania is that sometimes the elephants will roam into the fields and eat their crops.  And sometimes the farmers will attack and kill the elephants. So they’ve got a couple of places now where they’re trying to use drones to chase away the elephants.  Because elephants are afraid of very little, but they are afraid of swarms of bees.” 

Drone flying regulations vary country to country, says Mandel. “People have tried to fly drones over a lot of World Heritage Sites, but they’re banned. You can’t fly drones over the Mayan pyramids in Mexico. They don’t want you crashing a drone in certain areas. And when I fly in Antarctica I have to attach pontoons to the drone, because if I crash it in the water they don’t want plastic into Antarctic waters. They try to keep it pristine. So I’ve designed pontoons that I’ll strap onto the drone,” he says.

Make: magazine says that the most popular quadcopter for aerial photography and filming is a $679 DJI Phantom because it’s ready to fly (RTF) out of the box and designed to hold a GoPro video camera. They are also easily hackable. More budget-friendly options include building one from a kit or from scratch (see makezine.com/projects/the-handycopter-uav-2/ for a drone made with hardware store parts).

Steve Mandel photographed his friend’s DJI Inspire 1 Quadcopter over the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor with his own drone of the same type.  This model (priced at $2,899) has landing gear that raises up during flight to allow a full 360-degree unobstructed view for the camera attached at the base. (photo by Steve Mandel)
Because it takes some practice to fly well, Make: recommends starting with an inexpensive (less than $100) toy quadcopter without GPS or a camera, like Syma X1, Blade Nano QX. They fly using the same controls and the skills you learn will translate directly to larger aircraft.

Mandel learned to fly with inexpensive off-the-shelf models and kits. “I’d go out at lunch and I’d fly for ten minutes every day. So after a month of practice I learned how to fly it and I got the coordination,” he says. Later he bought components and built drones from scratch. “The mechanical parts—the little motors and everything—are pretty easy. It’s the electronics that are really difficult that you have to learn, because there are video signals that come down from them.”

Scientists and makers around the world are constantly coming up with exciting new uses for drones—from tracking poachers in Nepal, to delivering text books to students in Australia, to performing avant-garde dance moves in New York.

“It’s just kind of infinite what you can do now,” says Mandel. “People are finding all sorts of creative uses for them. It’s just like anything out there—people can do good with it or they can do evil with it. So there has to be regulation and people will do stupid things, so you have to keep an eye on them. But you know, they’re just really, really fun.”