Drones are here. Actually, they're everywhere.
I'd say a drone hovers overhead about a quarter of the time I'm in the lineup. It's pretty annoying, unless they're filming me of course.
But this constant whirring got me thinking… with all the new drone users of the world, and especially the ones who'd like to film surfing, it would be smart to construct a How-To guide with one of surfing's best mini-heli pilots. So I called up Brent Bielmann and asked him about the basics. Hopefully his answers help any aspiring drone enthusiasts.
All tips by Brent Bielmann
You need to get your drone registered first and foremost. The US government is taking drones seriously, as they have the potential to be used in a way that can compromise people's privacy (with cameras) and health (with crashing). Beyond that, if you want to do a commercial shoot with a drone, you actually need a pilot's license.
Gear for beginners:
I would recommend the Phantom 4. Some people say you should start with the cheapo equipment so that if you crash it it's not the end of the world, but the Phantom 4 is the perfect middle-ground of not being too expensive but not being too cheap.
Where to position oneself:
First and foremost, you need to be in an open area so you don't risk crashing your drone, and so you don't risk losing the signal. A lot of people aren't aware that drones send signals not only from the controller to the drone, but also to a satellite, so you don't want to have obstructions above you or to the sides of you if possible. Also, stay away from large metal objects as they can disrupt the signal. It also helps to position yourself fin the shade so that you can see the screen without tons of glare. Lastly, you want to have a clear line of sight to the lineup so you can see in real terms where your drone is in relation to everything and everyone.
Launching the drone:
Launching on a boat is pretty gnarly [laughs]. I wouldn't do that right off the bat, because people don't realize that they're dealing with swell. Your dron can be hovering in the same place in terms of the satellite's GPS, but in relation to the ocean and boat it could be moving dramatically. Other than that, just launch it on land from an open area, it's pretty easy.
Etiquette with surfers:
Whenever I use my drone, I always know a couple guys out in the water. I'd feel really weird about showing up to some random spot and flying my drone over a bunch of random dudes' heads. Some people really like to go surfing and relax and have a good time, and drones can be super annoying buzzing overhead and following you on waves.
Etiquette with other drone operators:
It's tricky with drones, because it's so impersonal. When you're swimming and shooting out at Pipe, there's a pretty clear pecking order of photographers that determines who gets to sit where, and it's pretty much based on time spent out there and reputation. But with drones, it almost feels like free game because for one, it's a new phenomena, there aren't like OG droners (laughs), and two, there's almost no way to tell whose drone is whose anyway, so it would be hard for there to be any form of priority. Basically just don't send a drone out if there are already a few out there, and definitely don't crash into anyone else's setup.
Be aware that the surfer and wave are moving pretty quickly. Pay attention to the line of the wave and track accordingly, keeping up with them so they don't leave the frame. Be smooth with the camera movement and turning the drone, because the footage doesn't look good when you make quick movements.
Landing the drone:
I like to catch it. Landing the drone on the ground just leaves so many potential variables like a wind gust or something. Obviously do it in an open area and out of the wind if possible. Also if you have a friend helping you it's a lot easier. Don't do this on a boat either!
How to avoid crashing, generally:
Make sure you have a good signal, and that you're connected to GPS. A lot of people tend to fly on Attitude mode, that's when you're not connected to GPS, and that's when things go wrong. You actually get a lot of help from the GPS because it keeps you in position and helps you fight the wind. With attitude mode, it's all up to you – it's basically like taking off the training wheels.