Above & beyond

Woodbridge from the air

Woodbridge from the air - Credit: Tim Curtis

Nick Cottam looks at the increasing use of drones for gaining a new perspective on the county, and highights the stunning work of professional film cameraman Tim Curtis

Tim Curtis with his drone

Tim Curtis with his drone - Credit: Tim Curtis

The widely acclaimed film John McCarthy’s Woodbridge starts with a series of aerial shots. There from a great height is the dramatic layout of the town’s market square, the dominant St Mary’s Church tower and the meandering River Deben, illuminated by contrasting cloud cover and glowing sunsets.

Later in the film the aerial camera gives us Sutton Hoo, with views back across the Deben towards Woodbridge and a great sweep of river, tide mill and crowded marina. This is Woodbridge as its never quite been seen before, a town captured by the artistry and flexibility of a flying drone.

“The attraction for me was the sheer beauty of the shots which the drone makes possible,” says professional cameraman and qualified drone pilot Tim Curtis. “It’s opened up a whole new perspective which previously could only have been filmed from a helicopter.” In John McCarthy’s Woodbridge, a charity fundraising project which took nearly two years to complete, Tim uses his drone alongside conventional camera shots to startling effect. The town, the river and nearby Sutton Hoo are all served up as a stunning visual backdrop to the commentary of broadcaster and former Beirut hostage John McCarthy.

Woodbridge from the air

Woodbridge from the air - Credit: Tim Curtis

The drone

The drone itself resembles a pilotless remote-controlled helicopter. In fact it’s a ‘Quadcopter’, with whirring rotor blades to lift a central structure, including the all-important camera, several hundred feet above the ground. The operator is able to guide aerial shots using a monitor on the drone’s remote control with both moving and still pictures available from each sequence of filming. One of the delights of drone photography is the dramatic contrast it allows between panoramic views and detail on the ground. A viewer has the sense of an overview while also being down there in the engine room.

Needless to say there are strict rules covering the commercial use of drones and these are becoming even more important as drone photography continues to proliferate. Current rules include no drone flying higher than 400 feet or further away than 500 meters from the drone controller. In short you mustn’t lose sight of your drone or fly it over busy roads or densely populated areas. If there’s a crowd of 1,000 or more people assembled, you can’t fly within 150 meters.

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Drone county

Suffolk’s big skys and open spaces lend themselves well to the drone phenomenon. There are now numerous qualified and talented drone operators around the county and drone uses are rising (pardon the pun) all the time. Estate agents, farmers, surveyors, television film crews and even Suffolk police are all examining new options for aerial drone photography, with everything from live news and sports coverage to criminal surveillance under consideration. The restrictions already noted mean that every commercial use of a drone has to be carefully considered, although farmers, for example, have a fairly liberal licence to ‘roam a drone’ across their own land.

“One of the next big things being looked at for drone photography are live broadcasts – for example for news bulletins and big sporting events,” says Tim, who lives in Woodbridge and has worked for news media and on documentaries in numerous parts of the world. “The Premiere League and other sports are already employing drones to provide the audience with dramatic shots of stadiums and events. At the moment a news team, for example, will use a drone to make recorded films but it’s obviously more challenging to meet all the requirements when it’s a live shot.”

One example of dramatic TV news drone use was the Nepal Earthquake which vividly showed the sheer devastation of whole neighbourhoods. The images were also very useful for search and rescue teams on the ground.

Qualified to fly

Tim Curtis spent around nine months getting his licence as a qualified drone operator. This included an exam and covered such aspects as aeronautical and weather charts alongside practical flying. “It’s similar to the requirements for a pilot’s licence,” he notes. “You have to demonstrate that you can fly but you also have to show that you understand flying conditions and the rules of the air.”

The good news for amateur and professional drone pilots alike is that prices have dropped dramatically in recent years. Whereas 10 years ago you could have paid up to £10,000 for your first drone, you can now pick up a basic model for as little as £500. This is what Sudbury arable farmer Richard Maddever paid for a six-rotor model for scaring away pigeons. A drone flown high, he suggested, could be particularly frightening to pigeons, because they saw it as a bird of prey.

Inevitably there are caveats, not to mention recent scare stories as to who should be using a drone and where. At Heathrow Airport recently a drone came within 20 feet of a landing Airbus A320 while in another incident a plane had to suddenly climb 200 feet to avoid a drone while trying to land at New York’s Le Guardia airport. A drone which crash-landed in the grounds of the White House earlier this year served to heighten concerns around security.

In the UK the message from the Civil Aviation Authority, which licenses drone operators, is read the rules as you are legally responsible for each drone flight. To use a drone commercially you must have a licence and be insured.

While there are undoubtedly hurdles to jump, Tim Curtis believes that drone photography has a spectacular future.

“Used properly, drones are a huge advance on traditional aerial photography,” he says. Anyone who has seen John McCarthy’s Woodbridge or other examples of the genre are likely to agree with him.

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