Drone technology advances: An aerial view of where things stand in 2019

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Photo credit: Timeslice Cinematograhy.

Drone technology has made considerable advances since the last Mediatech Africa in 2017.

According to Mediatech trade show director, Simon Robinson, drone technology is a powerful tool for many sectors of the economy but it’s undeniably disrupting and drastically altering the events, media and filmmaking industries. “Unmanned aerial geniuses – drones ignite the imaginations of people and industries the world over, and till now we have only just begun to scratch the surface of their potential,” says Robinson.

“From toys for adults to drones able to land on water and film underwater, to solar battery technology that’s allowing high-altitude drones to fly for weeks at a time without landing – drone technology is leap-frogging what was ever imagined possible.”

As drone technology evolves at blinding speed, the question to ask is what new horizons will it take the industry to? Robinson believes that one thing is certain, “Companies can design new and innovative value propositions, and fundamentally modify the way they operate thanks to drones.”

When it comes to drone technology, Mediatech exhibitor, Timeslice Cinematography, is recognised as a trailblazing company and is best known for its ability to cater for feature films and TVCs – where precision flying and heavier 4K to 8K cameras with PL mounting are required. Timeslice is a company that has celebrated many firsts in the South African market and continues to demonstrate authority in this arena – and Screen Africa spoke to SA director, Jono O’Connell, to gather insights into this accelerating technology.

Tell us about the growth of drone technology in South Africa since Mediatech in 2017

The past two years have been significant and markedly good for the drone industry both locally and internationally, with several drone technologies disrupting the drone market and much technological advancement achieved. We are now at a point where drones are faster, safer and easier to use – and far smarter.

Battery technology has also come a long way: improved flight time capabilities are a notable improvement.  From a safety perspective lithium polymer batteries are now housed in rigid casings, which makes handling and transportation of these batteries less dangerous. Today’s drones also have avoidance collision.

Drones that are really easy to fly are now on the market and they have a greater ability to fly fast and far and range has improved dramatically. Consumer drones can easily fly up to 4kms away – which allows us to get to places we were never able to reach previously.

Is there a cost benefit to using drones in filmmaking?

With the cost reduction of drones over the last two years, and the advances in technology, opportunities, accessibility and capabilities have been greatly enhanced for many through the opening of this new platform. Very little capital outlay is needed to buy into the world of drones – so whether you’re in the film industry, or just a home movie maker, drones are now widely accessible. An aspiring music video producer, or budding film maker, can purchase a drone for between R8 000 to R10 000 and shoot great quality, beautiful 4K videos – easily, smoothly and cost effectively. This has paved the way for a wave of filmmakers to start living their dreams.

Is South Africa keeping step with technology advances compared to global trends?

I believe South Africa is lagging in some verticals – this is most certainly true of the consumer market. We just don’t have the footprint of other countries and the local regulations have also stifled growth. The embryonic phases of drone technology were completely constrained and when the regulations came out in 2015, they had a very negative influence on the industry and stunted its growth for at least the first couple of years. It is regrettable, but the landscape is changing and the floodgates have opened – and I believe that, moving forward, we will catch up and keep pace with global standards.

Drone regulation in SA – how do we fare?

Make no mistake: South Africa has the strictest drone regulations in the world. On average, it takes an operator in the region of two years to get a Remote Operator Certificate (ROC). The process for approvals is protracted and expensive. This barrier to entry is prohibitive. I believe that, as an industry, we need to collectively work on the regulations and make it easier to comply. In so doing, we will nurture and promote the industry – all the while attracting a younger set of aspiring filmmakers to shoot without massive overheads and the time restrictions that come with getting a full-blown license.

On the flip side, when it comes to working on jobs abroad, the stringent confines of our regulatory environment work in our favour. When a registered South African operator works overseas, their accreditation and certification almost always validates them in that country. There’s no need for any proficiency testing; we merely provide paperwork.

Where do you see drone technology going in the next five years?

As with many accelerating technologies, it’s hard to say what the future holds: five years in this industry is an absolute lifetime, if not two. But, in general, it can be predicted that the mainstream use and demand for drones will continue to rise and seeing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in the sky will become more commonplace.

As for specific projections, I believe range will be the next big thing to dominate the drone world: BVLOS – Beyond Visual Line of Sight. This speaks to the ability of drones to be flown at great distances from the operator and to fly accurately.

We already have the technology now where directors, DOPs and creatives with no training can wear goggles and move the camera around by simply moving their head or arms by holding a handle bar. This means a significant barrier has been lifted for creatives with no training, allowing them simply to point and shoot the camera.

I do believe a big issue to work on over the next five years is endurance – flight time. Drones require an enormous amount of energy to stay airborne, which means heavy batteries must power the drone and this counteracts their own endurance. In principle, most drones use half their power to carry the very batteries that power them. Fundamentally, we need a device or system that makes the aircraft more efficient in the air – better battery technology and even solar power or renewable energy would work.

I don’t think it’s unrealistic to consider that soon, a director will be able to operate a drone from a completely different city, and be able to control it automatically without even laying eyes on the bird.

In 2017 Mediatech Africa introduced a drone cage exhibition for the first time – showcasing the best cameras and drones the industry had available, while leading operators discussed functioning within the current legislation and the impact of drone usage in film and broadcasting production. A hugely popular addition to the show – drones will be a big feature at the show this year. Mediatech Africa is on between 19 and 21 July – register before the 12 July closing date to avoid paying the R100 entrance fee.

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