New Airborne Cinematography System Designed & Built In The Midwest

BUFFALO, MINN. – Have you ever tried to shoot video footage from a moving car? How about video footage from an airplane in turbulence? If you have, you know that it is next to impossible to obtain high quality, consistently smooth footage, especially with telephoto lenses.

James Aarestad, an aerial photographer from Buffalo, Minnesota, learned this when he was trying to shoot video footage out the side window of a Cessna 172. “I figured it would be easy to film out the side window,” Aarestad explains. He quickly realized that this was not possible to do well.

“No matter how carefully I held the camera, even with image stabilization, it was impossible to shoot quality video footage from a moving Cessna while circling above the target,” said Aarestad. “The video quality was poor and my field of view was severely restricted with the wing strut and landing gear in the way. I ended up not charging my customer because the video footage was not up to my standard.”

This led Aarestad on a yearlong endeavor to design and build a low-cost aircraft video stabilization system. As he puts it, “I wanted to develop a system able to do 80 percent of what the multi-million-dollar helicopter video systems can do for a fraction of the price.”

The first step was to determine which type of airplane would be the best platform for precision airborne filming. After looking at dozens of airplanes, he eventually decided a camera system could be attached to the outboard portion of the wing strut of a Cessna 172. This would allow for a completely unobstructed view looking straightforward with no obstructions to the field of view. A Cessna 172 would also be the least expensive and safest aerial video platform for 95% of the video he wanted to shoot.

Over the next 12 months, Aarestad designed and built a self-contained removable camera pod that clamps to the wing strut. The size, shape, and weight of this system all had to be carefully considered as these factors affect flying characteristics. Designing the internal components of the camera pod was just as challenging as designing the outside. Wiring up all of the electronics within the camera pod was extremely tedious work.

“I would spend months in the garage just working on the camera controls, much of which was based on trial and error. I would often take three steps forward and two steps backwards, having to redesign the entire system after discovering a problem,” he explains. Mitigating and eliminating aircraft vibration to the camera was by far the hardest part of the entire project. This process took hundreds of hours of research and trial and error experiments in his garage. The smallest airframe vibrations had to be eliminated, because otherwise the footage would be blurry.

Finally after six months of building, the system was ready to undergo an extensive FAA certification process, including structural load tests, aerodynamic calculations and a lot of paperwork (the FAA does not allow aircraft modifications like this without going through an extensive certification process). Eventually, Aarestad obtained FAA field approval for flight operations in June of 2015 on his C-172.

Inside the pod, the camera is mounted on a three-axis gyroscopically stabilized gimbal, which keeps the camera steady to within .001 degrees. Using state-of-the-art accelerometers, and brushless gimbal control motors, the system can film in 4k resolution in moderate turbulence and achieve perfect results. The entire system is wirelessly controlled from the cabin, with a live video feed to the operator for composing shots. The end result is an airborne cinematography system that rivals the multi-million-dollar helicopter systems.

“This system works great! I can now provide my customers with low cost, high-quality video footage for an affordable price,” Aarestad explains. The potential uses for this service are seemingly endless, with applications like real estate marketing, filming for the motion picture industry, power line/pipe line patrol, insurance claims documentation, property showcasing, construction progress, crop surveys, wetland studies, live high definition video broadcasting for sports events, and many others. For additional information call Eagle Eye Photos LLC at 952-882-8570 (www.blimpguy.com).

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