Fly on the wall

Imagine, from an intimate distance, capturing the precise moment a raft of top-tier CEOs capsizes in rough waters during an offshore team-building exercise. Think how treasured the photographs of an incentive group on safari would be if the shots of the people in the jeep had been taken from the lion’s perspective. Picture the pride on the face of the office junior in the framed shot on his desk from the moment he captured the flag during a jungle airsoft battle at his firm’s away day. These are the kinds of moments that only remote-controlled, flying cameras can capture.

In Hong Kong, this is a new service being offered by Aerobots, a specialist arm of the highly creative events company Aeroporto. Founded by Rob Luxton. Aeroporto specialises in mechanical models. Often interactive, the company’s creations are built from scratch and form the centrepiece of client events.

Luxton first began using airborne installations for his event clients back in 2005. He says: “We installed three massive, helium-filled, remote-control fish for the opening party of Langham Place. We designed all the electronics and navigational systems for the fish. They flew around Langham Place for about a month. It turned the interior of the shopping centre into a giant fish tank. Everyone loved them.”

What began as a fun promotional gimmick quickly evolved into a more robust idea for Luxton. With the success of that first project, he began looking into the potential of harnessing such low-level flight.

He says: “Photography seemed like the most obvious application. I imagined flying a blimp down the streets of Hong Kong, photographing people from unusual angles. I looked into the technology and because they’re lighter than air, they’re unlikely to fall out of the sky. For the same reason, though, blimps are difficult to control in wind and their instability isn’t ideal for a photography platform.

“Around 2007, I discovered drones and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). I realised that they presented a stable platform from which to shoot pictures. The technology has really come a long way from petrol-driven remote-control helicopters. Our machines are much quieter but still have the power to carry large objects for long periods of time.

We currently use a Canon 5D SLR which is relatively lightweight at 7kg, but it’s still significant.”

Able to photograph events from previously unimaginable vantage points, the vehicles are remote controlled from the ground and operated by a pilot and a spotter.

Live music events, large indoor conferences and sporting events would seem a natural fit for the kind of uninterrupted swooping shots a flying camera can provide. The danger of a crash, though, still presents limitations on where the drones can be used. Luxton says: “Even though we trust our systems, it’s not advisable to fly a heavy camera over a crowd.”

Aeroporto is still investigating the use of blimps for future safe overhead use, but there are currently solutions for events where flying machines are not appropriate. The company uses cabling systems to pan cameras over crowds, for example. The free range of motion presented by the drones, however, means that they can shoot previously unobtainable pictures. Combined with traditional film techniques, their use adds an extra element of unique data capture to any event or incentive trip.

Luxton says: “We do a lot of work with tour groups, documenting their experiences. Sporting events, particularly water-based activities such as dragon boat races, are brilliant. We can fly alongside the boats as they paddle and between races we can hover around and film people on the corporate junk boats. My dream event, though, would be set in the mountains, shooting the progress of a group as it scales a cliff face or abseils down from the summit.

“Recently we were involved in WWF’s Earth Hour when Hong Kong turned off all the lights in Victoria Harbour. We were granted permission to fly out of West Kowloon and we were able to take shots of the buildings as the lights went off.”

Large in scale and alien in appearance, the drones themselves are also a legitimate cause for excitement. Luxton explains that although it only takes a few people to operate the machine, they have to set up some security to stop people excitedly grabbing at them. He says: “Things that fly will always draw a crowd. It’s a great medium. In fact, when we were filming for Earth Hour, a security guard came charging towards us armed with his phone camera. At the moment our machines are unique, so people react in a big way when they see them being used.”

Aeroporto currently has two camera-equipped drones in use. Luxton calls them aerobots because he feels they sound friendlier than drones, which have a negative, military connotation. The company is planning to launch another pair within the next few months. “We need to get bigger so that we can carry larger, more sophisticated camera equipment,” says Luxton.

There may be plans for better equipment but, already, the technology allows for so much creativity that in the future, it would be easy to imagine the role of the landlocked photographer as a thing of the past.


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