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Aerial photos by remote control

Use of flying drone equipped with camera shaves costs

Photographers are used to rapid advances in camera technology.

But for one Victoria shooter, new hardware is radically changing the way he does business.

Aerial photographer Russ Heinl, who has made a long career of shooting from helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft - including a sevenyear stint as the Canadian Forces Snowbirds' photographer - finds his feet on solid ground a lot more these days now that he's added an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to his arsenal.

Heinl, who has published several books of aerial photography and shot five films from above, admits he never imagined he would be using the UAV or drone and its camera to get his shots.

"This was a complete shock to me ... I couldn't believe it," said Heinl, after demonstrating his drone's capabilities at a farm in Central Saanich. "And how it happened was strange."

Heinl had been visiting a friend's farm. While looking out the window, he saw a small plane fly by, low to the ground. "Then it happened again," he recalled. He found out it was a drone, being flown by someone in a neighbouring field. The attached camera gives the pilot, using remote control, a view from the aircraft.

Heinl became convinced it was the next big thing for his business. "I saw how unbelievable the possibilities were," he said.

That was one year ago. Now, drones are a big part of his work.

"I have done a lot of aerial work and it's very expensive work and the market for it has changed over the last several years," Heinl said. Costs have put off many companies who are squeezing more out of their budgets. "But there is a market for a cost-effective machine," Heinl said.

The average helicopter shoot can cost between $3,000 and $10,000. While fixed-wing shoots are cheaper, Heinl said the images tend to be of poorer quality. "But drones have become a way to bring a good product to market at a very reasonable price," he said. The drones can also get into tight spots and the quiet electric motors allow the aircraft to get close to wildlife.

The biggest selling point is that, instead of a company looking at thousands of dollars for a shoot, it costs a few hundred dollars.

"Like what the digital world has done for us photographers, this is about seeing where the market is going and changing with it," Heinl said.

"I will still do helicopter work but [I do so] knowing that the business is not what it was."

Heinl has a Canadianmade DraganFlyer X4, which retails at about $10,000. It comes with four electric rotors and an attached camera that shoots high-definition stills and 1080p digital video.

From his remote control, Heinl has a video display that shows him what the aircraft's camera sees. It allows him to shoot what he wants, without guesswork.

It's a scaled-down version of what the RCMP bought from Saskatoonbased DraganFly Innovations this year. The RCMP has been testing the $33,000 Draganflyer X6 drone-like helicopter since 2010 in B.C. and Saskatchewan.

Like Heinl's slightly smaller craft, the drone is fitted with cameras to help probe crimes, reconstruct traffic accidents and assist with search and rescue.

While the pilot on the ground operates the craft, a second Mountie serves as observer, scanning the flight path for power lines and other hazards. The devices can be used when it may be dangerous to send an officer into an area, such as a toxic spill. The camera can show the size of the spill and how it is moving.

The helicopters are similar to ones being used by the Ontario Provincial Police, other RCMP divisions and some municipal forces.

The ones chosen by Manitoba RCMP are custommade. They are slightly heavier than other models so as to resist the strong Prairie winds.

The use of such helicopters in other countries has raised privacy concerns from people who fear the choppers could be turned on protesters, crowds at sporting events or people just walking in the street. That will not happen, according to the RCMP.

The helicopters only have enough power to fly for 13 minutes when they're carrying a camera, making them impractical for crowd surveillance, a RCMP spokesman said.

With the unmanned aerial vehicle, Heinl's market has expanded considerably with applications including aerial photography and video, real-estate shots, environmental monitoring, inspection, surveillance, roofline and gutter inspections and construction-progress monitoring.

"It's a cost-effective and easy way for many of these firms to get what they want," he said.

Each flight requires approval from Transport Canada. Heinl said he gets a special flight operations certificate for his aircraft for each flight.