I’m sitting in my car in a freezing cold field in northern Missouri, waiting for a Phantom 4 Pro’s batteries to warm up so they can recharge. The car is littered with drone stuff — chargers, hand warmers, print outs of maps. But I’m also noticing how dependent I’ve become on my phone for a lot of information regarding how we fly with drones.
I’m not talking about the apps we use to fly the drones (though I have three on my phone). I’m talking about the apps that provide things like airspace clearances and maps and weather. There is no magic bullet app that does everything. And technology isn’t the sole answer to being a better drone journalist. But we’re safer when we remember that we’re pilots first and photographers second. These apps help get us there.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of apps out there that aren’t good. So here are ones I use every day.
You’ll need a couple of these to stay legal. This class of apps will tell you what class of airspace you’re in and if there are any Temporary Flight Restrictions. Some apps have additional features like weather and solar activity indices, too, though I look for accuracy in terms of airspace first and then other features second.
I use ForeFlight, which is the only mobile flight logbook app approved by the FAA. It’s for the general aviation community (and at $100/year, it’s priced for it, too) but it updates the sectional maps each month, has detailed information on every controlled airspace and includes industry-common weather forecast METARs and TAFs — as well as translating them. It also has overlays for TFRs and weather. It can be lot of overkill, but it’s a great app.
Hover is a free app that provides airspace and weather information. It’s great for what you’ll pay for it — but I’ve found the mapping is inexact especially when you might or not be in controlled airspace. In that case, I’ll go to DroneMaps, which is a bare-bones app that does one thing well: It has the FAA’s UAS grids in it, so you can see where an airport’s controlled airspace is and how how you can fly in it.
KittyHawk, which is free, has this functionality, too, and is more of a soup-to-nuts solution. Its airspace maps are integrated into its LAANC (Low-Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability, or automated permission to fly in controlled airspace) functions. KittyHawk has positioned itself as a provider of everything, from checklists to risk assessments to airspace clearance. So its app — which has recently become free to individual users — has a lot of functionality.
There are so many. And there is such overlap between all of the above apps and straight weather apps that it’s hard to define a strict weather app. For what I like to call “regular people weather,” I like Weather Underground since it shows me hour-by-hour when it’s supposed to rain. Most of the time, I just look in ForeFlight. For flying, I’ll often use METARs Aviation Weather which, just like its name says, provides METAR reports for your choice of airports. I’ll also use UAVForecast for its very convenient grid of forecast flight conditions. A word of caution on this app: Its maps can be out of date.
The above apps are nuts-and-bolts functional apps to help you pilot safely. But there are other apps that help you do better drone journalism.
I use TPE — the acronym for the terribly named The Photographer’s Ephemeris app — almost every time I fly. It shows me the angle and direction of the Sun at any place on Earth at pretty much every time. It has 3D maps so I can see, for instance, if I’m going to be shooting in a valley or atop a ridge’s finger. Drone filter and gear maker Polar Pro makes a useful app that does a couple things: It shows you how much time until the next Golden Hour — when we get that lovely soft, diffused light that fixes all the sins in the world. It also has a filter calculator so you can put in either what filter you’re using or what shutter speed you want and it will calculate the other value for you.
Then there are the autonomous apps. For mapping and for gathering photos at regular intervals, I used Pix4D Capture, which is the free autonomous flight app for the very pricey Pix4D mapping software. It automatically flies photo (not video) missions taking pictures at whatever intervals you want. It also has a very handy free flight mode where you can hand-fly the drone while it’s taking pictures every few feet. It’s really nice for modeling. For a more cinematic approach, there’s Litchi. Litchi is an autonomous flight program that lets you program waypoints in, telling the drone to fly at X altitude to Y location and turn on its camera at whatever angle you want, then fly to the next one and the next one and so on. It allows you to make very precise, complex flight plans — and it saves them so they can be repeatable from one day to the next. It’s very handy if your news outlet is doing, say, a progression of a major building and you want to build a time-lapse video over the months.
I finally got the highlight reel together, after much too long. Now it’s time for critical self-appraisal.
First, the sustains:
- I flew in good light. And when there wasn’t good light, I adjusted.
- I did a good job of color grading.
- My gimbal flips were solid and the rate of gimbal movement matched the rate of ascent or descent.
- I built my best reveal ever at :48 coming up over a ridgeline and moving diagonally.
- I like the music.
Now, the improves:
1. It’s :20 too long. This is largely because I couldn’t get the music to cut cleanly and still build to that strong finish.
2. That music required me to put in two shots I could have done without. The diving well shot is too static.
3. I need fewer landscape shots and more shots of active things.
4. I should fly more fearlessly. Speed-ramping hides a lot of sins here, but I’m a slow flyer.
Story statement: A bite from a Lone Star tick can make a person allergic to meat — and Missouri’s Lone Star tick population is increasing.
Motor: This once-rare occurrence is happening a lot more than it used to and anyone who is exposed to ticks is at risk.
Another semester passes and that means it’s escape from weird b-roll. Like the shot of a cat in a story about a chimney company. Or the inexplicable shot of a college-age woman vomiting in an alley in a story about the elderly.
Thus, today’s mild rant about the concept of intentionality: the idea that every shot that goes into an edit should have a point and propel the narrative forward.
I’m deep, deep into the weeds of what each shot communicates. So deep, in fact, that I’m going to use the best video about being in a friend zone ever to demonstrate a concept. That’s right, we’re going to use now-defunct Maryland pop punk band Modern Baseball’s “Your Graduation” video. It has it all: Shots with personality, a drummer screaming into a microphone while it precipitates around him, an opening shot of a pudgy guy laying in a bed.
Before we get into that — especially that last part — let’s talk about the role of a shot within a sequence. Or let’s start with the sequence. The sequence — a connection of linked shots, usually around an action — is a visual sentence. In teaching video editing, we talk about five-shot sequences and we talk about three-shot sequences. I teach them as some combination of wides (which create context), tights (which drive the narrative and create character) and mediums (which combine context and character). But each shot serves its own purpose and I’ve been thinking more about that lately. For basic newscutting, we teach keeping motion in shots to a minimum: Only move when the shot needs to move. But as we get more advanced, it’s possible to use those shots to show character and setting — and to change both — with a little bit of movement.
Every time director Kyle Thrash introduces a new scene, it starts with a tight on our friend-zoned protagonist. He uses a simple enough shot, the dolly-out (a shot where the camera smoothly backs away), to create a sense of scene and character. It’s a combo shot. The tight at the beginning gives us character and the widening perspective of the dolly-out to a medium provides context.
If we divide the video into two stylistic choices — narrative and band shots — the narrative sections look like this:
- Tight on guy in bed. Camera dolly-out to show girl talking to him, though not sitting there.
- Tight on guy in car. Dolly-out to show girl talking to him in a car.
- Tight on guy at party on couch. Dolly-out to show girl talking to him on couch as couple makes out next to him.
- Tight on guy sitting on a swing. Dolly-out to show girl talking to him on adjoining swing.
- Tight on guy sitting on stairs at a Halloween party, dolly-out to girl talking to him.
- Tight on guy laying on snow. Dolly-out to girl laying next to him, then getting up.
- Tight on girl sitting on bench in graduation gown. Dolly-out to guy getting up and leaving.
The visual sentencing is so distinct and so structured in the video that you can’t avoid the symbolism of the switch at the end. But from a storytelling perspective, that dolly-out gives us the clues in every scene to understand the narrative.