The Evolution of Unmanned Aerial Systems
Unmanned Aerial Systems (or UAS) have evolved quite a bit since I began flying them in 2004. Louisiana Helicam started out as an aerial photography company that used radio-controlled helicopters long before multirotor drone technology was adopted as mainstream. My first helicopter actually used an analog rotary servo with a bicycle brake cable to activate the camera’s shutter button. A pencil eraser was shoved onto the end of the brake cable so that the shutter button wouldn’t become pitted during the process. The machine had to land each time a change was needed with respect to the camera’s settings. The helicopter was powered by a .50-class glow engine and a basic heater hose was used to vent the exhaust away from the camera to avoid smoke-filled shots. The machine was flown manually with no GPS stabilization. I would often remove the camera gear and put on an aerobatic show for the customer at the end of the session. It was just part of the package.
Lithium polymer battery technology (better known as “LiPo”) revolutionized the RC industry in the mid-2000’s. LiPo batteries offer reasonable flight duration at a marginal weight when compared to older technologies such as Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) or Nickel Cadmium (NiCad). This served as the starting point for a surge in low cost radio-controlled aircraft.
New battery technology, combined with the availability of low-cost GPS stabilization, served as a catalyst for more prevalent multirotor technology that is publicly referred to as “drones.” These machines have made it easier for entry-level pilots to jump right into the aerial photography arena with little to no need for the old art of building and tweaking. This low barrier to entry has caused a number of issues, many of which are featured in news articles almost daily. However, it has also been a positive thing. In my case, modern equipment allows me to focus more on creativity and a busy workload with less bench time. I do still keep a build project on the bench at all times though!
Fuel-powered/non-stabilized technology basically had radio-controlled aerial providers limited to simple aerial photography. Aerial video services were difficult to offer without hours of tweaking and no standards were in place to ensure over 90% usable footage. Any UAS service provider that could guarantee over 50% usable aerial video footage had to spend much time on equipment building/tweaking and hours on public forums to develop a system that actually worked well.
It’s an exciting time to be in the modern-day UAS industry and overcoming technological hurdles has really opened the door for a variety of uses. Several examples are:
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