I have to thank ProductionHUB for the best drone gig I had in 2017. I received a call from Jynx Productions from Yarmouth, Maine on a Tuesday, inquiring about a drone shoot to happen in 2 days. They were having a tough time finding a licensed drone pilot in Florida who also could be the main camera on a DSLR shoot. Luckily they logged onto ProductionHUB and found my profile. Fortunately, I was able to move a day of editing on another project, because I ended up capturing the best footage I have ever shot with my DJI Mavic Pro.
Acrophobia, or the fear of heights, is one of the most common phobias. Although only 3-5 percent of people suffer from it, (which seems awfully low) I wonder how many people would actually climb a nearly 1500 foot TV tower just to change a light bulb.
The shoot was quite the test for the small but mighty Mavic. Jynx Productions shoots segments for a prime-time German TV show, Galileo. They wanted to do a segment on a company that changes the light bulbs on top of TV Towers. I was fortunate they had to change a bulb in Florida and not South Dakota, where they originally were looking.
I looked up the tower on an aeronautical chart to learn we didn't need FAA approval, we were good to go. The tower is 1514 feet tall, which is taller than the Empire State Building! My Mavic Pro has never flown higher than the standard legal height of 400 feet. If you are within 400 feet of a structure that is higher than 400 feet above ground level, you are allowed to fly 400 feet above the height of the structure. So I could have flown up to 1914 feet if the drone would let me. The maximum height using the DJI Go App and controller can be set to 500 meters, which is 1640 feet. Good thing the tower wasn't much higher as this job would push all limits of the drone.
The Producer from Jynx, Thorben Rath, my visual observer, Nick Joiner and I were very concerned about 4 things. The safety of the climbers, the guy lines, gusts of wind and being able to see the drone at that height. Fortunately, it was just as easy to see the drone against blue sky or white clouds. We came up with hand signals with the climbers to let me know if I was getting too close to the tower, if they were uncomfortable with how close I was, or if the wind was minimal and I could get closer. We were ready to roll after getting insurance through the Verifly iPhone App on-site.
I always fly with propeller guards for two reasons. Minimizing the obvious possibility of a problem if I should bump into something and the added benefit of making the compact drone more visible. We could clearly see the drone at its maximum height, but I needed to yaw left or right to double check where the guy lines were. It was next to impossible to tell, by the line of sight, if one of the guy lines was at the same height as the Mavic. The plan was to stay in the center of a set of guy lines until we passed the highest one. I could then fly around the top of the tower without worrying about hitting a line.
I have 4 batteries for the Mavic, which is usually sufficient for most jobs and Thorben brought 3 of his own. I wanted to keep 2 fresh batteries for when the climber reached the top and was changing the bulb. It took two minutes to throttle up to the top of the tower and four minutes to get down. That left me with roughly 17 minutes or so to capture footage per battery, also figuring in the return-to home-warning that was set at 20 percent battery.
Every 17 minutes went very quickly. As soon as I'd burn through a battery, we'd start re-charging it. I ended up going through a total of 10 battery cycles and captured close to 2 hours of 4k footage at 25 fps. I have since purchased a DroneMax M10 by Energen, which is one of the only chargers I know of that can charge two batteries simultaneously. I was also nice to have the DJI Goggles for Thorben to view what I was getting without having to lean over my shoulder and look on the iPad mini.
The climbers were estimating an hour and a half climb and just over an hour to get down. This would put them being on the ground before dark. It took them almost double the time to get up and we started a little later than planned because of us filming part of the segment on the ground prior. I was so focused on all the parameters with flying and filming, I almost didn't notice the great sunset going on behind me. I saw a golden hue reflecting off the climber on the iPad Mini 4 screen, I turned around and saw a beautiful golden sunset. I checked my battery level and saw 26% and knew I had to get the sunset shot now. I quickly flew around to the other side, upped the shutter speed to 100 (which is the max I’ll go shooting video) to minimize the blowout of the sun, set up the start of my shot and started my move to the right. At that moment, Mike started to climb down. Amazing!
I held my move right steadily as the battery warning went off. I quickly disabled the return-to-home and finished the shot. I tilted the camera down to see if I was clear of guy lines and started coming back down. Thorben was excited, yelling and wanting to high five. I was whooping it up as I was concentrating on getting the drone back to the ground safely. We just shot what probably is the best shot in the world of a climber changing the light bulb on a TV Tower!
This was a big job for a little drone. The Mavic Pro was pushed to all of its limits, from the highest it flies, to 5 hours of nearly continuous use, to the camera capturing a sunset with a Polar Pro ND4 Polarized filter. Planning, timing, and a cohesive connection with the climbing crew enabled us to get some rare footage of a dangerous job. I was a little apprehensive using the Mavic for this shoot, but it turned out being a great tool for the job.
I also was the main camera operator for the whole shoot. We used Jynx's two Sony AS7's and a couple of GoPro's attached to the helmets of our climbers. We replaced their headlamps and apologized profusely as they ended up climbing down in darkness. Check out the finished TV segment from Jynx Productions for Galileo below.