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Drones go to Hollywood

Speed read
  • Unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) have been around a long time
  • Complicated action sequences in films have high financial and safety risks 
  • Filmmakers use drones to create previously impossible shots 

In the last years of World War I, the US Army Signal Corps commissioned aviation pioneer Orville Wright and engineer Charles Kettering for a top secret project. Their mission was to create a powerful, bomb-dropping aircraft, with a twist: The aircraft had to be entirely pilotless.

The duo’s contraption, the Kettering Bug, was the world’s first operational unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Designed to hit targets at a range of 40 miles, the Bug was launched like the Wright brothers’ original glider, using a dolly that moved on a track.

The Kettering Bug, however, never encountered the battlefield. The war ended with the armistice of November 11, 1918, about a month after the aircraft’s first successful test in October 1918.

Even though it didn’t encounter enemy forces, the Kettering Bug sparked the evolution of UAVs that continues to this day.<strong>A Bug's life. </strong> 1918 photograph of a Kettering Bug prototype. Commissioned for World War I, it never saw combat. 100 years later, its descendants are taking movies to new heights. Courtesy US Army.

A drone with a purpose

Despite its militaristic origins, the UAV has become an effective tool for scientific research, due to falling prices on cameras and sensors and greater commercial availability.

One project incorporates UAV's to collect data from sensors underneath bridges to measure the bridge’s sturdiness.

Other projects use UAVs to measure airborne pollutants and boost farm productivity.

But a new research effort has the potential to improve cinematic entertainment and lower the costs associated with shooting hazardous action sequences.

For example, the movie Terminator 2: Judgment Day rang up over $50 million on stunts and special effects when it was released 26 years ago. Director James Cameron risked his life filming the movie’s daring helicopter chase.

Drones and algorithms are the solution Hollywood has been waiting for.

Up in the clouds

PhD student Tobias Nägeli from Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zurich has developed an innovative way for remote controlled drones to buzz around a movie set.

Responding to an algorithm, the drone avoids potential barriers in its path.

Attached GPS sensors continuously collect data about its environment. Using this data, Nageli’s drone recalculates its path up to 50 times per second.

In one scenario, the drone can fly through windows that are normally difficult to negotiate by a manually operated camera. Two UAV-mounted cameras can also film simultaneously in an indoor space and can avoid crossing into each other’s shots using their using the GPS sensors.

“All the drones in professional productions are controlled manually,” says Nägeli. “Therefore, you normally need at least two people to control the drone and the camera. Because the camera on the drone is not necessary pointing in the flying direction, the drone pilot needs to see the drone all the time, making the range very limited.”

<strong>Big time. </strong> Drones can capture shots previously inaccessible to movie directors. Algorithms are leading the charge into the bright blue yonder. Courtesy Tobias Nägeli; ETH.

To create the shot they want with the UAV, the camera operator can adjust certain parameters manually, such as a choice of shooting angles and deciding which actor to follow in a scene to increase the potential range for filming.

But in the case of Nageli’s drone, the algorithm runs externally and is sent to the drone via radio signal.

This means the drone can operate itself up to one and a half kilometers away from the laptop, creating flexibility to capture amazing shots.

Beyond the camera

With a patent pending on the algorithm, Nageli envisions greater applications far beyond the silver screen.

For example, in the wide world of sports, these drones could follow different players during an event, providing every viewer with an up close seat.

Nageli's algorithm-powered UAVs could also identify safe flight paths for helicopters carrying critical donor organs and other medical assets.

From military purposes, to hazardous site management, to assisting farmers with their crops, to enhancing our cinematic experiences, the sky truly is the limit for self-operated drones. 

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