Paul Pan navigates a DJI Phantom 4 over the water at Conrad Sanya.
The DJI Phantom 4 kit.
View of the leafy, palm-shaded resort, captured in mid-May, 2016.
DJI is the world’s biggest and best-known commercial drone maker. These lightweight unmanned vehicles (quadcopters or UAVs for short), are incredibly popular with filmmakers for their smooth and seemingly magical aerial footage capture. They can slalom through the air, swooping incredibly close to buildings and nature with minimum potential for causing damage—or disruption to the air around them—all controlled by a pilot on the ground. Hollywood’s directors have found that the agility and grace of the results often wipes the floor with that which a helicopter pilot and cameraman could achieve. Paul doesn’t actually like to describe his latest product, the Phantom 4, as a drone. “It’s a flying camera”, he says.
A virtuoso pilot himself—a skill he demonstrates (still wearing shades) at Conrad Sanya by capturing epic sweeping footage of the resort and shimmering seascapes beyond in the dazzling light of the afternoon sun—Paul’s crowning technical achievement has been the development of the three-axis gimbal system, which lets the Phantom 4 capture silky-smooth, 4K video as it moves through the air. As Paul describes it, it’s like placing a marble on a board and working to keep it central at all times. “We apply that same technology to camera stabilisation. It’s very fast, very precise. It’s down to 0.02 degrees of accuracy. Before the camera is able to record a pixel movement the gimbal has already recorded.”
Like Ocean Alliance’s expedition, drones can offer simple solutions to complex problems. Search and rescue operations have found life-saving uses for drones. In 2014, a three-day search for a missing person in Wisconsin, USA, ended when an amateur drone pilot managed to spot the 82-year-old man — after just 20 minutes of looking. “Using a thermal camera for seeing hot spots for firefighting,” is another suggestion Paul throws out. UAVs are being used by all sorts of marketeers for better, more creative and inspiring photography, especially as film and animations for advertising online truly takes off.
So where do drones go next? That’s for us—the consumer, traveler and lover of photography—to figure out. DJI will continue to hone its technology, but the real blue-sky thinkers are you and I. Time and time again Paul says he is blown away by people’s inventive ideas — and things are only just getting started. He does have one interesting idea for the future, however: “There has to be a point at which drones are also recognising each other in the air,” he says. “There is probably going to be a system like that in the future where it’s not one person flying one drone—they could be flying multiple drones—and where they’re aware of each other and working together.”
Drones can change the way we work and play. They can transform the way we see the world. They solve problems. They have the potential to save lives. DJI and others have given us the tools — now it’s up to us to show them what we’ve got.