About the Aircraft and Technology

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Our primary platform is a hexacopter (for six motors) named "Humphrey," weighs in at about 2.5 pounds and is a little over 20 inches across. It will fly from seven to ten minutes depending on the battery used, which is more than enough time for most aerial photo missions. If more shots are needed, we simply load another battery and fly again until the job is done.

Humphrey can also transmit the same picture that the camera is seeing back to a screen on the ground to provide precise guidance in lining up shots quickly and efficiently.

 

The aerial platforms we use are basically very much like the radio controlled model airplanes that people have been flying for years. These types of planes have been refined over the years to have very reliable and precise flight characteristics.

The main difference is that modern technology now allows our aircraft to be steady enough in flight to be used for aerial photography and videos. The basics of small size, light weight, and radio control from the ground is still the same. Also, modern batteries allow these aircraft to be electric powered rather than gasoline, so they are much quieter to fly.

HawkEye Aerials has two platforms ready to go, depending on the job. The larger one, called a hexacopter, has six motors and will lift additional weight and fly a couple of minutes longer than it's little brother. The one to the lower right has four motors, and is light and agile.

Both aircraft make use of an internal electronic gyroscope, GPS, altimeter, accelerometer and other electronics to produce extremely stable and controllable flight behavior.

Both of our aircraft have multiple failsafe features to insure the safety of the UAV. For example, if for some reason the radio link is disrupted or there is a system malfunction, the aircraft will automatically return to its take-off location and land itself.

In addition, in photo operations we never need to fly above or beyond visual range of the operator. There is also a video monitor on the ground that displays not only the camera view from the helicopter for precise photo work, but a also shows flight data such as altitude, distance, battery level, and even an indicator to show the direction to fly to the "home" position.

Both aircraft carry their GoPro cameras with gyroscopically stabilized camera mounts for rock solid video and photography. It's like having a "tripod in the sky!"

This is our secondary platform for photo work, and as a backup. It is called a "Quadracopter," because of it's four motors, and it weighs a little under two pounds. It will fly for about six minutes on a single battery.

Friends call him "Homer."

 

Frequently asked questions...

The aircraft naturally attract curiosity when we are out flying. Here are some the commonly asked questions and answers.

What about privacy - can you spy on people?

A lot is made of privacy issues and these types of aircraft, and it's easy to suppose you could use them for spying. In practice, a "multi-rotor" like we fly is a very poor tool if you want to snoop on people.

To start with, you can't get close enough to spy on anything without attracting attention. They aren't as noisy as a lawnmower, but you can hear and see them if they are close enough to see individuals or details. Also, they can't use telephoto lenses, which are pretty much essential for that sort of thing. Also, since they're operated "line of sight," if someone can see the aircraft, then they can probably spot the operator - and the essence of spying is to go undetected. That's not a problem for us because we are always being asked to film the property by the owner when we are shooting.

Again, there are much better, cheaper things to use to spy with than a multi-rotor helicopters like we use.

Is it a drone?

Well, yes and no. A true drone costs millions of dollars, is usually owned by governments, and is often used for military applications. Most important, a drone can guide itself without the help of a human operator.

In opposition, our aircraft are under our control at all times, so they don't do "autonomous" flight like a true drone. However, the news media has now popularized the term "drone" to describe a wide range of aircraft, including small multi-rotor aircraft like we fly. Like a lot of things on TV and in the newspapers, the description leaves out a lot of important distinctions.

Are they safe? Yes, of course, or we wouldn't fly them and risk losing potentially thousands of dollars. Especially with the stabilization built into them, they are always under complete control. Also, there are "failsafe" features built in that back up the pilot in the event that problems occur with the equipment. For example, if somehow the radio signal is lost, the aircraft electronics can sense the problem and will automatically fly the helo to where it took off , and then actually land it safely. This is the only instance where they are capable of flying without direct control of the pilot, and it works only to keep the aircraft from being lost. Other features prevent the helo from flying up or outward beyond preset limits. Finally, as an important level of security that is often a requirement of our clients, we carry full liability aviation insurance specifically to cover UAV operations.
How high will it go? Very high, but we don't fly over 300 to 400 feet. It's against the FAA guidelines to fly over 400 feet, and it doesn't make photographic sense because the unique quality of using these aircraft is the ability to to get viewpoints that can't be obtained any other way. There's no reason to fly too high.
How about distance and speed? Like maximum altitude, it will fly further than we need or want to go. The basic rule is to keep it "LOS." or line of sight. Even if we're setting up the shots on the video monitor, we still want to be able to have the aircraft in sight at all times - so we don't go further than 400 to 500 feet away. Flight time is from five to 10 minutes, depending on the particular aircraft and battery size. Maximum speed is around 20 mph, but we don't fly that fast because high speed doesn't make good video except in special circumstances.
How long can it fly? The flight time varies mostly with the size of the battery and particular aircraft, but between seven and ten minutes is reasonable. That might no sound like a long time, but if you just watch a clock for ten minutes you realize it's plenty of time to accomplish the photo mission. Before the flight we always have a plan in mind of just what shots we want to get, so we efficiently use the flight time to accomplish what we need to do. Then, if more time is required, we land, change batteries, and fly again with another set of shots in mind.
How do you control it? Is it easy to fly? Actually, they're basically very easy and safe to fly, largely because of the electronic stabilization sensors like the internal gyroscope and GPS. However, it take a lot of practice and knowledge to do the precision maneuvers needed for aerial videography. The aircraft is controlled by radio signals from a transmitter held by the pilot, and very accurate flying is possible in all three dimensions.
Are they expensive? Yes, the aircraft can be very expensive when you include the electronics and extra equipment like the gyro gimbal that provide the stable flight necessary for professional quality photography. They're not nearly as expensive as the government ones, though!
Can I try it? No.

 

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