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Bolt from the blue – THE HINDU

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it superman? Nope, says Esther Elias. It’s just one of Chennai’s drones, now increasingly being employed in commercial photography and aerial filming

Bolt from the blue – THE HINDU

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it superman? Nope, says Esther Elias. It’s just one of Chennai’s drones, now increasingly being employed in commercial photography and aerial filming

It’s a splendidly bright afternoon at Marina Beach. The sun is at its hilt; fluffy, white clouds float away into the distance, and there isn’t a speck in the sky as far as the eye can see. The lighthouse by the beach has just opened its doors for visitors and as the crowds climb up to viewing galleries on the eleventh floor, a tiny, whirring object silently rises with them outside the lighthouse walls, unbeknownst. With four legs and blades on each madly buzzing, it climbs higher and higher until it meets them at the windows, eye to eye, winking a moving camera at them. Suddenly it flips away from them to click the sea sloshing at the shores on one side and a bustling city on the other, from an eagle’s eye view. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it superman? Nope. It’s just one of Chennai’s growing number of drones, now increasingly employed in commercial photography and aerial filming.

A photographer for 25 years, C. Ganesan, who runs Viewpoint, first used a drone late last year at the request of real estate developers, who wanted top view shots of the 18-acre plot over which they proposed to build. Ganesan rented a Phantom 3 at about Rs. 32,000 a day, including a drone operator to navigate it efficiently, and captured some stunning images of the land. “Our minds are so acclimatised to thinking along the x and y axis, that any footage we capture along the z axis is immediately dramatic to us,” he says.

Ganesan has since used drones far more frequently at wedding shoots, once at a Christian ceremony, for instance, to capture, from the roof’s vantage point, the groom’s dramatic entrance into the church as he meets the priest up ahead. “Drone photography at weddings is now all the rage! Just as a while ago, people had a regular photographer, and a candid shot photographer; a drone will soon become the third addition.”

Drones, the broad, casual name for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), have been used in India for military and defence needs for a while now, but made news in the commercial sphere when a pizza outlet in Mumbai used it for deliveries in early 2014. In Chennai, cinematographer Aravind Kamalanathan began building his own remote-controlled helicopters almost 14 years ago. With a deep interest in aeromodelling from college and even a private airfield built with actor Ajith Kumar, where he teaches besides flying himself, Aravind says drones are the filmmaker’s latest tool to deliver a diametrically different perspective. What once took helicopters, rented for the thousands per hour, is now possible with drones. “Even low-budget films, can now get Hollywood-like shots with drones.” Aravind has used these skills in recent Tamil films such as Soodhu Kavvum, Jilla, Nimirnthu Nil, Veeram Vingyani and AI.

“We’ve just begun exploring the numerous possibilities with drone photography,” says A. Suresh Babu, who runs Puhaipadam Films, and has worked primarily with the Tamil Nadu Fisheries Department, for periodic in-construction documentation of the Royapuram Fishing harbour, and several other projects at Chetpet Lake, Nagapattinam, Nagercoil and elsewhere. Besides real-estate shoots, and factory profiles, he’s also covered four marathons in the State with drones. While he operates a quadcopter fitted with a GoPro camera and an hexacopter capable of carrying heavier DSLRs or film-shooting cameras, both imported from the U.S., Suresh says the majority of the city’s drones are purchased in Mumbai or Delhi, or assembled from scratch with imported components. And that’s exactly what students of SRM University’s UAV group have done for a wind-mill inspection drone they’ve conceived of and built on campus. With autopilots imported from Israel and most of the electronic components such as motor drivers and sensors sourced from China, the students have built a hexacopter capable of shooting high-resolution images of wind-mill blades to capture even its tiniest fractures, and will be industry-ready by this January, says Bharat Mathur, team leader.

There’s a growing interest, both among students and working professionals, in aeromodelling, says Dhinesh Karthick, an aeronautical engineer, who founded Adler Aerospace with two of his college friends. Together, they run short courses in multirotor building, teaching the basic components, uses, fabrication and essential flying skills. The friends have themselves hand-built three drones and now cover weddings, film shoots and a handful of other indoor and outdoor events, besides offering their pilot services to those who own drones but aren’t adept enough at flying them. “It barely takes a few hours to learn how to fly a drone, but it takes days and months of practise to become a skilled, safe pilot. Most owners of drones today take off for events as just beginners and that can lead to dangerous accidents.”

Reason enough for the Directorate General of Civil Aviation’s October stall on the flying of all UAVs in civilian airspace until better pilot licensing and regulation rules are in place. “Just a ban won’t stop people from using it though,” says Aravind, “They will continue to because of its commercial viability and the excitement of trying something new. And when used without safety measures, the damages could be fatal.” For Bharath and team, the ban has been a major dampener from testing their wind-mill inspection UAV in open air. They have their fingers crossed that India will soon adopt a law similar to Japan where UAV pilots are trained and certified at schools with special licensing procedures, thus opening up vast research possibilities for students like them. Until then, Chennai’s got to be happy with fewer eyes in the sky.

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