Two ways to capture stunning footage from a bird’s eye view are with drones and with helicopters. Many aerial filming and photography companies utilize both, and there are pros and cons to both of these methods. This article will cover both aerial drone and helicopter filming to give you an idea of which application might be better suited for your needs.
Now that video and filmmaking drones have reached maximum popularity, one might wonder why anyone would need to use a helicopter for aerial shots. Nowadays, most filmmakers are either considering purchasing or already own a drone. It’s become a no-brainer. They’re now very affordable, and their functionality has exceeded all expectations in just a few short years. However, let’s not forget how filmmakers captured aerial shots before drones became so popular. But helicopters are not just the history of filming…
So which is the best way to get aerial shots: drones or helicopters? While drones are truly amazing pieces of equipment, they have some significant limitations and helicopters overcome almost all of those limitations. However, helicopters have a couple of limitations of their own. Let’s begin from first impressions of professional film maker.
A common limitation of most drones is poor low-light performance. With each new model, this seems to get a little bit better, but even the best drones still introduce a good amount of noise as the sun starts to go down.
The big appeal of getting aerial shots with a helicopter is that you can use the camera of your choice. So, low-light capability is based on your camera of choice, not the built-in camera on a drone. This is one of the aspects to be excited about in the helicopter — You can get those nicely exposed shots of the city lights down below.
Flight time, range and payload
When comparing the range capabilities of both platforms, helicopters easily win hands down. They can fly farther and longer than any commercially available drone – think hours of flight time and hundreds of miles distance. So another limitation of drones (though completely understandable) is their limited flight time. Currently one of the longest flight time available is the near-30-minute flight of the DJI Mavic Pro 2. While operating drone You still have to always keep an eye on battery life, and you’ll find yourself landing quite often just for some peace of mind. Obviously, helicopters can fly for much longer than that. As such, you can cover a lot more ground.
Helicopters are able to carry the heaviest camera rigs that drones simply cannot lift. However, with development of smaller high-definition cameras, the quality obtained between the two platforms in many cases is nearly identical. If your project requires the highest definition possible, then a helicopter is required to carry the necessary camera gear.
Production location and weather conditions
Although helicopters have difficulty with extremely high and hot elevations, they are perfect for reaching remote locations due to their range, speed and payload capabilities. Of course they can carry not only the camera crew, but also other production team members into off-road locales. Since drones are limited in range and flight duration, they are restricted to where a pilot operator can get access. Yet there is no restriction on flying out to a location by helicopter and then deploying a drone from the ground to work in tandem with the chopper camera crew.
Some of the best drone footage is captured in places where helicopters simply cannot go or the quality requirements does not make their use necessary. This creative edge is often down close to the ground flying through trees, cresting over a ridge and flying near buildings or structures. Drone aerial filming will also allows cameras to follow a person very closely over longer distances and more effectively than a camera on a tracked dolly and without all of the extra equipment. Clearly these are dangerous positions where a helicopter is unable to match the smaller aerial “footprint” of a drone.
Bad weather can impact both helicopter and drone flight operations and ruin filming opportunities. Since helicopters require more preparation and planning before flight, inclement weather is more of an issue – especially for tight filming schedules. With drones, if the weather suddenly clears up there are fewer issues with getting it up and out to film on short notice. However, wind conditions significantly limit the possibilities of drones.
Rules and Regulations
One of the biggest issue with drones is that there are more and more rules and regulations about them now. There are more and more rules established to fly near any city and most towns. You could do the research and contact the right people, but that’s just not how cinematographer mind works who can get too frustrated with the red tape.
With helicopters you benefit from much longer endurance, range, filming height and camera system payload capability, plus currently. If you have the means, definitely getting some helicopter shots is worth it for bigger-budget projects, but it’s important to consider that one flight like this can cost about as much as just buying some popular drone.
Deciding on which aerial platform is best for your next project does not have to be an either/or proposition. A combination of the two may actually provide the best of both worlds for achieving your cinematic goals and objectives. To be sure, helicopters and drones each have unique capabilities that support aerial photography services, but drawbacks as well. Helicopters are more expensive than drones. Drones can fly close to buildings, trees and under structures but cannot fly fast or far or with heavy specialized equipment. Doing reshoots with a drone is easier and more inexpensive than with a helicopter.Making this choice is not difficult with the support and experience of the Helipoland team.
Drones vs. Helicopters in Aerial Power Line Inspections
The drone manufacturing industry has been expanding significantly to meet the needs of fast-growing demand. From recreational use to highly specialized aeronautical industries, drones are becoming more and more ubiquitous. But how do they fit in with aerial power grid inspections? Are they an overrated hype or a credible alternative to more traditional piloted power line surveys?
To begin with, drones are meticulously tested for robustness and safety even before they reach the market. Nonetheless, these tests are not regulated by any governing bodies and therefore their thoroughness relies solely on the manufacturers’ own jurisdiction and judgement. It is safe to say that no matter how true to life the testing environment is, it cannot always simulate the wide range of real-life flying conditions that a working drone will have to face. Therefore, it can be argued that a large majority of currently marketed drones are not sufficiently tested in an environment similar to that of a power line inspection.
Of primary interest would be to test whether or not a drone would be able to carry the hardware necessary for aerial inspection purposes. The drone must be able to safely fly with the various equipment required to meet these needs: from cameras that take photographs of the towers from various angles to thermal imaging technology for indicating hot spots to LiDAR equipment that scans power lines for 3D imaging, just to name a few. To address this, some manufacturers offer tailor-made drones, but their testing and development is a lengthy and costly undertaking.
So what does this mean in the world of utility asset management? Recent research conducted by Laserpas company has revealed that most of the currently available drones struggle to operate smoothly, with all the necessary equipment, for more than two hours. There are, of course, a handful of highly specialized drone types that would be able to carry out such tasks for longer and without many serious interruptions. The major downside of such drones is the initial investment, which is, in some cases, around five times the financing needed to deploy a piloted helicopter to perform the exact same task; the initial costs of a drone that could safely and efficiently carry out power line inspections lies somewhere in the range of €200,000 to €1 million, if not more.
Despite the high cost, there are cases where using a drone instead of a manned helicopter would make sense, mainly where flying conditions are very dangerous because of various environmental factors.
Perhaps the most popular assumption would be that drones offer financial savings for power grid inspections. In theory, considering that their exploitation is generally cheaper, i.e. lower fuel costs, replacement parts, storage, etc. That assumption would be right, but only if a mid-range drone was suitable to carry 15 or so kilograms of hardware needed for the inspection. However, current experience dictates otherwise.
In a recent project in central Europe, Laserpas company equipped both a drone and a piloted helicopter to inspect over 700 kilometers of medium voltage power lines. The project was split into two nearly identical blocks, with similar geographical layouts – one half was to be surveyed by a drone and the other by a manned helicopter. The predicted costs for the project, based on the specifications of the grid, suggested that the drone would be a more economical option. It soon became apparent that a helicopter was able to complete the project faster, cheaper, and more efficiently, mainly due to the drone’s unscheduled downtime. Although the team selected the drone based on its specifications and tested abilities to fly with the required equipment weight, the frequent and unexpected breakdowns of the drone’s technology meant delays were unavoidable.
Nevertheless, it is very tempting to harness the possibilities of drones for utility asset management. Their innovation is an alluring proposition for many clients, and, of course, the unmistakable advantages of using a drone for power grid inspections are better flight precision and more meticulous attention to detail. It takes time for a pilot to master the flying skills needed to inspect a tangled web of a medium voltage power lines. A drone, on the other hand, is programmed to fly with extreme precision.
However, there are several undisputed downsides to unmanned technology. In addition to the discussed lack of suitable drones to carry the required weight of equipment and their sometimes questionable reliability for the longer flying times, drones’ collision avoidance capabilities currently leaves a lot to be desired. There are now drones that are able to avoid large static obstacles, such as walls and buildings, yet the unexpected – albeit ordinary – obstacles that pose no difficulty to a helicopter pilot, such as unmapped transmission cables that cross the planned inspection route, are fatal to any drone.
This points to another important challenge when it comes to breakdowns and collisions. Most manufacturer warranties only cover the cost of the drone and not the payload equipment it carries. In many cases of aerial power line inspections, the cost of technology damaged or destroyed due to a fallen drone could be even higher than the total cost of the drone alone. Bearing in mind the conventional risks involved when flying piloted helicopters, serious incidents are much less frequent, and therefore the levels of reliability and safety are good, with virtually no financial implications.
Another significant factor in favor of piloted aerial inspections is the uniformity of safety regulations around the world. Helicopters traditionally operate in a similar framework of rules and regulations, with certain adaptations from country to country. On the other hand, flying regulations for drones are mostly a grey area in the majority of countries. The lack of official, clear governmental regulation can potentially pose problems during a project. In the above example of the central Europe project, the planned permissions to fly the drone took six months to materialize despite the relevant authorities assuring the team it should take up to four weeks.
Lastly, helicopters, unlike drones, can carry very heavy payloads and of course – human operator. Today’s drones can carry a limited amount of weight, which would mean that different modifications might be needed to ensure lighter yet more expensive materials and smarter ways to incorporate them are used.
All in all, there has never been a more exciting time for the drone industry. With constantly growing demand, there must come a time when drones will catch up with the high demands of their users and possibly offer ways to become even more efficient and refined. Drone technologies are developing at a fascinating speed and very soon they should be ready to face the outlined challenges with ease. It is only a matter of time when we will see the industry of aerial power line inspections change forever – if regulators allow. However, this is not a future as close as is usually said.