The job was simple: get some stunning shots of Reykjavik in the early morning or early evening light, with snow-covered mountains in the background, for an upcoming Hollywood feature film. Iceland’s drone laws are pretty straightforward: anything over 5k requires a licence, anything under 5k there are no restrictions, provided you keep at least 1.5km clear of aerodromes.
With this in mind, we spoke to RC Geeks about using the DJI Inspire X5 system. In the air it weighs just 3.5kg, which is half the weight of our DJI S900 system at 6.9kg. The X5 shoots 4K and allows for a choice of lenses, including the tried and tested 12mm Olympus lens we’ve been using with our S900 since March.
On the downside, the bitrate is similar to the standard Inspire at around 60mbs, instead of 100mbs which we get with the Panasonic GH4 camera on our S900. We explained the quality difference to our client and were given the green light: if we could get the shots they would take them!
- Reykjavik at sunrise
With the S900 we’re used to loading up a ton of gear, so it was refreshing to find a system that would fit inside a suitcase. We decided to add an NVidia Shield as the camera-op’s monitor and I initially tried to get my iPad 3 to work as the pilot’s. I hit a snag immediately though when I tried to fit it on the controller: it turns out they are meant to be used with iPad mini’s or Air’s. To be fair, my aging iPad 3 would probably have been too slow to run the software anyway.
As a backup I opted to use my phone – a Samsung S5 – which I’d used with the Inspire 1 on a few previous shoots. The screen is small, but for the pilot it’s less of an issue. The NVidia shield has been used on over 180 flights with the Lightbridge App and coped fine, but the one previous time I’d used it with the DJI Go App, it drained the batteries shockingly fast. I decided to turn the screen brightness down to 60% and keep charging it up between flights.
Taking drone batteries on a plane
Taking batteries on an international flight was the next concern. Having read around and found no concrete information, I printed out some guidelines from the American FAA and British Airways, stating that you could have one battery of any size in equipment in the hold, and then as many batteries as you like under 100 watt hours, and up to two from 100 to 160 watt hours. All loose batteries must be taken in hand luggage though.
RC Geeks provided us with 1 x TB48 (129.96 Wh) and 4 x TB47 (99.90 Wh). Following the regulations, we fitted the bigger battery in the unit which was placed in the hold, and took two smaller batteries each in hand luggage. We put them in LiPo safe bags and arrived hoping we would be able to argue our way through security.
As it turns out we were waved through without issue. I feel this may be in part due to the fact they look more like a sealed unit, and less like blocks of C4, or perhaps more people are taking drones on flights than I imagined.
- Preparing to fly in Reykjavik
Once we cleared customs we were ready to start filming. Shooting in the winter in minus 10º C with snow and ice on the ground needs the right sort of vehicle, so I opted for a 1993 Subaru Legacy 4WD, which turned out to have done a staggering 357,000 km.
As we would be travelling around the South West corner of Iceland we needed an in-car charging solution, and I brought a slightly battered but reliable 600W inverter for the job. Once this was hooked up to the car battery it did a great job of charging batteries as we drove between locations, taking about an hour per battery. My fears with the NVidia Shield were unfounded, and it would have coped all day without charging, but I gave it a quick one hour blast at lunch time for good measure.
- Hooking up the charging solution
Lithium battery cold temperature performance
The cold caused a few issues; while the battery indicator in the DJI Go App showed a constant heat of around 30º in flight, on one occasion when coming in to land the battery levels dropped from 32% to 1%, which in turn triggered the return to home function. This was at Gullfoss Waterfall, the coldest location at around -10°C and we landed without incident.
On the next flight in the same location, we came in early at 40% without issue. The next flight after this was at Geysir Park at a balmy -5°C, and the battery indicator dropped from 29% to 9% just before landing. This time though the return to home function wasn’t triggered.
- Gullfoss Waterfall
We brought the Inspire 1 battery heater with us and used it before every flight. I’m certain it helped us maintain decent flight times – up to 14 minutes with the TB48 and 11 minutes with the TB47s. It was also invaluable for battery charging. Without warming them up first, depleted batteries seemed unable to charge, with the LED simply blinking at us slowly rather than indicating the charging sequence. At £16, it’s an essential investment when filming in the cold.
- Geysir erupting at Geysir Park
Beyond the Inspire, the Samsung S5 also gave me issues in the cold. At Gulfoss in -10°C, it started flashing up a “Unit not charging due to low temperature” warning box, filling my screen and requiring me to press an OK button to return to the app. Not great when you’re flying and it’s happening every 20 seconds. The Shield had no complaints.
To give me and my operator some protection from the cold, we invested in some touch-screen gloves. When worn underneath fingerless mittens, my hands were only freezing cold rather than frozen solid! Other winter gear we packed included lined trousers, ski-jackets, thermals, head torches, hand warmers, sturdy boots, and YakTrax for the icy bits, so we used everything we brought with us.
We ended up only filming for one very long day in the end, managing 9 full flights in a 12 hour day, which isn’t bad considering we had 5 batteries. You can see the results here:
Overall, I’m thoroughly impressed by the quality considering the size of the gimbal. The drone itself is easy to fly and the controls are intuitive. The weight and ease of transport make it the perfect solution for jobs like this.
Inspire 1 vs s900
Compared to the S900 it shines in many ways. It’s quicker to setup, flies for longer on anything but monster batteries (we managed 16 minutes on a 16000 mAh battery, but it weighs too much to use in congested areas). Where it excels though is the in-flight camera controls. When shooting a subject from multiple angles (lit and shaded), or in changing light conditions (i.e. scattered cloud), the ability to change aperture is a must. I know I will be frustrated next time I need to land the S900 to change camera settings halfway through a flight.
Where I feel the drone is lacking, is really only in the image quality in some shots. You have to know what you’re looking for, but if you have a very high contrast shot you can see a lot of noise in the darker areas. The other minor complaint is taking still shots from the footage. These are much crisper on the GH4. Both issues are simply down to the 60mbps bitrate. On the majority of shots they are indistinguishable from GH4 footage.
These minor irks should both be sorted when the X5R is released – and when it is, we’ll be placing an order straight away.
So, if you need to hire the services of a professional aerial filming company that has worked across the globe, whether it be using drones for filming movies or perhaps something more simple such as an aerial survey, then please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on 01273 921991.
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