Phantom Camera in the WUSA9 Photojournalist Arsenal, says Chief Photographer Erik Lee

3:20 PM, Aug 6, 2013   |    comments
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WASHINGTON (WUSA9) -- The Phantom is one of a handful of radio controlled rotor aircraft designed to act as miniature flying camera platforms.

WUSA has experimented, with limited success, other popular models. One model we tried flew well as long as there was no wind-but the method for downloading the video was not simple enough for our workflow-which always requires speed, reliability and ease of use.

The Phantom is a quad motor, rotor type aircraft that has a GoPro camera slung underneath for shooting video and still pictures. The GoPro is usually tough and reliable so it makes a nice choice for shooting aerial footage this way.

It's reasonably small-20"x15." It has lights under the aircraft so the operator on the ground knows whether the unit is flying away from them or returning to them.
I like flying in general-whether I get to be in control or whether I'm just going along for the ride. I had a pilot's license 20 years ago and used to poke around the Arizona desert in Piper Super Cubs. However, as much as I love things that fly-the point of this demo is not to play (honest Boss)-but to see if there are great picture making possibilities for WUSA*9's news team if we buy an R/C camera platform.

The unit was easy enough to fly-I did need a reminder from the Sales Rep on how to make it take off-but I have to admit landings didn't always go well. In fairness to me-this aircraft had been tested and crashed around a little before WUSA got its hands on it.
The camera harness was a slick little gimbal system that allows the operator to tilt the camera up and down. The harness, as demo'd, came apart kind of easily with a little bounce on the ground-and it took some time to get it back together. It looks like that mounting problem is solvable and I'll bet it probably has been.

The R/C controller kept very good control of the mini Chopper Cam until it started to get low on batteries (after about 9 minutes). When the system is working correctly-and the battery starts to die--the Phantom is supposed to use GPS to land as close as possible to its last takeoff point. I have read other reviews that confirmed this feature can work well. We had a different experience when it was time to wrap up our test flight. I knew, going in, that this chopper's GPS was out of order. Bottom line-instead of a soft landing near the point of takeoff-it refused to land and kind of "took off" on me-crashing into the street.

Still, the unit is pretty tough-it was obviously still airworthy after the crash and the little GoPro camera was still rolling away. I did get some nice aerial pictures, and with the camera mounted correctly I could see WUSA photojournalists getting some very cool and creative pictures with this kind of machine.

As WUSA's photo chief-I get to see and test all kinds of camera and broadcast gear. Sometimes it is worth buying and can really make our talented Photojournalists even better. Sometimes the value of the toys we test is completely outweighed by high costs.
The jury is out right now on whether we will buy a radio controlled chopper to shoot video. I can see us being more competitive on breaking news assignments by being able to shoot high quality aerial footage in a hurry. I can see beautiful, scenic shots and creative sports highlights from this platform too.

On the other hand-we would have to be extraordinarily careful when using this or any other camera-copter near traffic or pedestrians. The plastic rotor blades are pretty close to harmless and you can add guards around them. Still-bouncing one off a driver's windshield would be absolutely unacceptable and we would need to use great care in deciding when to use it.

I'm encouraged by how well this particular model flew and with a solid camera mount and the GPS landing system-I'm sure we can make some fine pictures with an R/C flying camera.

When it comes time to decide what equipment we buy next for the news department here at WUSA*9 we are certainly going to keep flying cameras in mind. As I said in the video after flying this aircraft, "We'll see." What do you think?


Written by Erik Lee

WUSA9 Chief Photographer

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