A beauty shot that used to be possible only with a noisy, polluting passenger helicopter can now be achieved with the flick of a thumb. The camera is mounted on an electric drone called a quadrocopter, but comes in models with six and eight rotors. A company named Parrot sells its AR Drone, controlled with a phone, to hobbyists for little more than $200. But the hobby days are over.
"But now it's a $10,000 toy. It's very, very pricey," said drone movie producer Jim Swanson.
The super models are worth it because producer/directors like Jim Swanson need professional quality video. That calls for a rig that carries cameras weighing several pounds, flies higher than 1,000 feet, farther than a mile, and faster than 50 mph -- while broadcasting live video. That complexity is why Jim Swanson controls only the camera, while Eric Swanson remote-controls the drone.
"Eric is probably in the top 100 flyers in the country flying something like this. Everybody wants to fly who is a cameraman, but they don't know how to fly something like this, and people who can fly this, don't know how to get shots. It's two disciplines and it is very, very difficult to find somebody who can do both," said Jim Swanson.
Today, they're capturing sweeping vistas at Mills College, one of the nation's most beautiful campuses. Why doesn't this replace the television news copter?
"No. Flying over crowds is not a good idea. I've heard people talk about flying it over an Occupy demonstration. It's very unpredictable, what people could do. It could land and really hurt somebody," said Jim Swanson.
In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration has issued only a handful of licenses, and prohibits the use of drone aircraft for commercial purposes. That includes journalism.
If you're flying one as a hobby, you don't need a license. The FAA promises to issue relaxed guidelines for personal drones by the end of this year.