My Cine Camera-Carrying Giant Drone

The genesis of this project carries back to the winter of 2019. After a skiing session with Gabriel Kocher “Gab707” and Jordan Temkin “JET” , we sat down together and watched a few skiing movies, including Gnarr and some of the other projects that Gab and Jet have both worked on. During the conversation, we discussed a lot about the types of gear that was used to shoot these movies, and one thing in particular kept coming up. 

GoPro just doesn’t cut it.

In a professional video environment, GoPro lacks a lot of features that are very important. To name a few, dynamic range, color depth, interchangeable lenses, and raw formats aren’t supported. While for many productions and situations, this isn’t an issue, but for some – especially those that require single or few takes, this can be an issue. If the shot that you’re going for is exposed poorly or the white balance is off or any myriad of things happen, you are S.O.L.  Without having the extra bits available in post, you have a much higher risk of not getting the shot in the way you want. 

Thus, the discussion is born – how do we fly a camera that supports these features but still retain the agility of a performance drone (i.e. a racing drone). Well, we still don’t know. We’ve taken a couple of different approaches: small 6-7″ hexacopters up to 13″ x class monsters, but there are always downsides to solving problems in this way. For now, we’ll follow my journey down the 13″ x class machine route, see a little bit about the machine that I ended up building, and start understanding where it could go.

Before we go on I do want to mention that this drone is a joint venture between me and my sponsor Airvuz.com. They were willing to trust me on building and delivering on this project and i am forever grateful. 

First, let’s talk parts. For X-class, there are still surprisingly few options on the market for most things. There’s some variety in motors and frames, but when it comes to props and speed controllers, there’s a distinct limit. I’m currently using HQ 13x12x3 props, but I’m still not convinced that these are the right prop for the job. They’re very large and very aggressive, and I think as a result of that, they’re more susceptible to wind issues or jello. And for ESCs I’m using the only viable option: APD 120A 12s.

APD 120 12S F3 ESCs

Next up: frame. My friend Colin Frazer and I had been chatting early on down my journey, and he let me in on a little secret frame that he was building up, which is the frame that I’m using. It’s a fairly basic design, respecting a roughly X geometry, but tilting the motors on the front and rear in so that the tips of the props are low and out of the view of the camera that I’m hauling around. Beyond that, it uses sandwiched TPU plates to help keep the arms in place, which increases resistance to jello caused by the spinning motors. Finally, mounting points for both the battery and the camera up on top of the frame keep the weight high above the CG so the drone flies like many freestyle frames out there on the market, not swinging around a lot of dead weight in the battery. In my opinion, this helps it fly a little bit more stably.

The motors on the machine are Mad Components 380kv. In the world of X class, these are the budget motor options. While I wasn’t certain that these were the motors that I wanted originally, they are serving me well. I’m continuing to look out for what might end up being the smoothest option out there, because I’m fairly certain that these aren’t them. However, so far they’ve done a pretty good job!

Polar 380kv Motors running an HQ 13x12x3. Slight Tilt and lots of Bokeh.

Finally, the rest of the components are fairly standard.. Runcam Swift, TBS Crossfire, and TBS Unify. The unify that I have on here is a nano because that’s the only thing that I had sitting around that could take 5v when I did the build (otherwise it would have to take 12s, but that wasn’t an option). I’ll be swapping it out for a big 5v unify that can output more power, because the limit of 50mw is just not enough for every job when it comes to video.

Oh how could I forget batteries!? My sponsor China Hobby Line was willing to send out a few of their 5Ah 65c 6S Black series lipos, which I run in series on the drone to run 12s into the ESCs.

CNHL 5A 6S 65C Black Series

I suppose it would be worth talking through the recording camera as well! I’m running a Black Magic Pocket Cinema 4k. This beast of a little camera can record internal Black Magic RAW, Prores 10 bit 4:2:2 color, 4k @ 60fps, and a whole slew of other awesome settings. Because of this, combined with it’s small size and relatively low price (I know, $1,300 is not cheap, but it’s better than the equivalent GH5 which costs $2,000 flat out) it’s the perfect camera to fly around on this beast. It’s amazing that even a 128 gigabyte card can be filled in 7 minutes when recording at max settings, but the picture just looks so so good. I’ve paired this camera with the Laowa 7.5mm MFT lens, which comes out to look pretty darn close to the FOV of Gopro, but operating at an F2.0 apeture. Because of this low apeture and the BMPC4k’s dual ISO feature, low light is very very doable with this camera as well, which is something that the GoPro cannot manage whatsoever. 

BMPC4K On Board

So in the current iteration of this drone, I’ve managed about 10 different flights (time of writing is July 16, 2019) in a few different environments carrying the camera. I’d like to upload and leave access for you the footage that I’ve shot raw, but I can’t find anywhere with a large enough storage size to let me leave and transfer these 20 gigabyte+ files. So, if you are REALLY REALLY interested in looking at some of the footage from this machine, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me via my contact us page, and I’ll get you hooked up via we-transfer (the link only lasts a couple of days, so I’ll need your email address. REACH OUT HERE. Otherwise, if you’re satisfied just looking at my YouTube video versions of these, please use these unlisted links to check them out.

So.. in the end, why would we use a setup like this? 

  • Color Depth and RAW
    • For larger productions and for shoots where you can’t do something more than once (i.e. an explosion or a snowboard trick), it’s important to have as much control as possible in post, and this camera on a drone enables that
  • Low Light Performance
    • GoPro and all other action cameras are trash at night – there’s just no way around it. A camera like the BMPC4K mounted on a drone like this would be a much much better low-light shooting option
  • Chasing Large, Safe Things – Mostly Cars
    • It’s unlikely that there would be a lot of opportunities for chase footage of things that aren’t big, enclosed boxes like cars or boats, but it’s a possibility. The picture and motion blur that this camera provides when fixed on an object in motion will create the best looking follow footage imaginable, but if it’s unsafe to shoot with it it won’t be safe to shoot with it.
  • Mountain Surfing and Landscape 
    • Simply using a higher quality camera to do mountain diving and cruising around landscapes will be a huge opportunity to make some really good looking footage. This footage will look awesome as part of videos, but maybe it could also be used as stock content? 
  • Marketing
    • I think there’s something to be said about just how LOUD (not just in a sound sense, but also in an.. excitement manner) this thing is. It makes noise, it’s big, it’s expensive. It’s the kinda drone that could have a NAME ya know? Look at things like.. the Hoonicorn.. It just exists as it’s own entity, and you let it out of the cage once and a while to do something awesome, but for the most part it’s not really that useful. 

So all that to say, she’s a beast. I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to do with it, but I’m really excited to continue to experiment and test and learn. What are your thoughts? What should this be used for?

9 thoughts on “My Cine Camera-Carrying Giant Drone

  • July 18, 2019 at 2:44 pm
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    Man! I really liked the low light footage from the lake. I shot a similar video last Summer using a BabyHawk and a Firefly HD camera, and I was scared to death of dropping into the lake. I can’t imagine how unnerving it must have been to fly that setup over the water. I can’t wait to see more.

    Reply
  • July 18, 2019 at 3:00 pm
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    Innovative and cutting edge… pushing to the next level as always. WTG Paul

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  • July 18, 2019 at 3:37 pm
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    How awesome! The flying/camera operating is beautiful. Watching it in 4k was worth it.

    I’m wondering what a GH5 and the double image stabilization w/ the camera and an IS lens would create. I’ve got one here if ur ever close to ATL and wanna test. The BlackMagic looks nice tho! And…

    Your creativity and flying is energizing!

    Reply
  • July 18, 2019 at 3:38 pm
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    All you have to do now is talk to the Reelsteady GO devs to let you use the gyro data from a gopro that’s hard mounted to the blackmagic and apply the stabilization info from the gopro gyro to the blackmagic footage…

    Reply
  • July 18, 2019 at 11:48 pm
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    I love your project videos like this! Great setup! Did you weigh the pros and cons of a gimbal for your dslr on this rig?

    STEADY-X or SUPER NURK for the name

    Thanks for the great content, I’m always thumbing up! Have a great day!

    Reply
  • July 20, 2019 at 6:33 am
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    Great work Paul thanks for the information and the effort of doing all this work ! Very well done I feel like there could be some use cases for this especially in Movies 🎥!

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  • August 30, 2019 at 6:17 pm
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    hello, maybe crazy idea. but if you try to get the footage more sharp and less motion blur. you can more easy stabelize the footage in post, and you can always add in your motion blur after the fact by using pixel motion blur in after effects.

    Reply
  • September 9, 2019 at 6:26 am
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    Hey! I just finished reading your article and wanted to tell you that I absolutely enjoyed it! Thank you

    Reply

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