Commercial Drones PilotsExpert drone pilot’s skill shines in spectacular videos | Newcastle Herald

September 24, 2021by helo-10
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our-newcastle, cover-stories, Drones, Clifford Wakeman

As a child, Clifford Wakeman was absolutely obsessed with flying. He was flying remote control helicopters and airplanes from a young age. As a teenager, he was making his own electric foam planes “or whatever I could keep in the air”, he says. “And then, it just got out of control to the point where my bedroom looked like the Bermuda Triangle.” “I had planes and helicopters everywhere,” he says. There was no end in sight. Wakeman, appearing as a guest a few months ago on US-based podcast Quad Talk (all about drones), recalled, “I had planes that wouldn’t even fit in my car.” It was a passionate hobby for him. “As I got older and was working and had a bit of money I started to build the bigger ones with petrol engines where you could only fly them at a club. And you do stunts, and fly them in pattern formations. This was all just feeding my obsession with flight.” And then drones appeared on the horizon for the Newcastle man. Australia was one of the first nations to take notice of drones, adopting rules for recreational drones in 2002. But the industry took a giant leap forward in the 2010s as the technology improved. The Civil Air Safety Authority, which regulates the industry, said since it updated its rules and regulations in 2016, more than 6000 had registered their intention to obtain a commercial drone pilot’s licence. A 2020 report by Deloitte for the federal Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications, estimated that drones and their services could be worth $15 billion by 2040, targeting agriculture, construction, mining, government services, ecommerce and recreation. Wakeman was keen on the challenge drones presented as they started to appear in the market (and in the skies). “As [my] hobby evolved into drones, they didn’t fly very well when we first got into it around seven years ago,” he says., “I was on the forefront there. We would just build them out of wood, or whatever we could find, and strap GoPros on them.” The GoPro cameras, of course, were a game-changer, too. The tiny high quality action cameras with video editing software revolutionised recreational and professional adventure videos, growing with the market along parallel timelines to drones. Wakeman laughs when recalling those first efforts to make a drone: “We would take electric airplane motors and run an individual speed control to each one and then use a very basic, I guess today’s equivalent, of your ‘raspberry pi’ circuit [tiny computer on a miniature circuit board], like your little control board, with a gyro out of your mobile phone, and then we would program them and they didn’t fly very well at all.” Nowadays, retail stores offer a wide range of drones, mostly AP (aerial photography). But Wakeman’s headstart on the hobby, and his own customising techniques, have kept him ahead of the game. “The drones that I fly and have been building for years are called FPV drones – first person view,” he says. “First Person View means we have a camera on board that transmits video. And it transmits video back to us, whether we are using a screen or goggles. We see what the drone sees, like we’re in it. So the whole flying experience is very surreal.” Wakeman’s technique utilises two cameras on the drone: an HD (high definition) camera, which is in a GoPro. And another camera, which livestreams video back to him. “The core of it is, an FPV drone which is hand-built out of custom components, and you see what the drone sees through video transmission, and you would usually strap a GoPro on top, and that’s how I create my video,” he says. “Basically my drones are racing drones with a GoPro on it.” Counting his experience with remote control airplanes and helicopters, Wakeman has thousands of flying hours. He’s lost hundreds of aircraft and drones over the years, all part of the learning process. Right now, he has eight drones he uses frequently for shoots, with another dozen within reach he can use if needed. His passion, combined with his skill level developed over time, has made him a pioneering expert in a very young field. “I get a lot of people who’ve seen my videos [he has a YouTube channel and instagram handle] and want to get into this,” he says. “It’s a very steep learning curve. It’s a lot easier now than it was a few years ago. You would build things from scratch and you would find problems when it would drop out of the sky, it was very difficult to keep them flying.” There are more options on the market all the time. They range from micro drones, weighing about 200 grams (battery included), which are about half the size of the palm of your hand and can be flown indoors for commercial shooting, up to a kilogram for the faster FPV drone, and on up to a bigger one with eight motors and a cinema camera that may weigh up to six or eight kilograms (“It’s getting very popular within cinema now, so a lot of directors are using the FPV drones for action shoots,” Wakeman says.) “The smaller ones, I call slow drones, where you need to move through a space, to say do real estate shoots,” Wakeman says “or, if you want to do an interesting shoot, like a recent one [at] the bowling alley where they were flying through the front door and fly around people and stuff. The small ones are very safe, because the propellers are protected by guards, and they can fly at walking pace up to 80 kilometers an hour. Whereas the faster drones, which are up to a kilogram, can do up to 200 kilometres an hour.” Anybody can buy a drone. You do not need a licence to fly one. There are basic rules issued by CASA , including keep the drone under 120 metres, the drone must in sight at all times, the drone must be at least 30 metres away from people, and you cannot fly it over large gatherings or within five kilometres of an airfield. But, it’s definitely buyer beware when it comes to learning how to fly one. Somewhat like video games, not only does it take time to practise and refine your skills, there is probably an innate sense of how to operate the controls that may determine your success. Wakeman offers: “It’s probably an important thing to know: the barrier to entry, I guess it’s a rite of passage to learn to fly these things. “You get to a skill level where you don’t have to think about what you’re doing and you can concentrate on just disconnecting from your body and enjoying the flight. That’s when you can really create what you want. That’s definitely a niche skill.” It doesn’t happen overnight. “You know from the hundred times of hitting something how close you can get to it,” he laughs. “And that’s where it comes from. A bit of courage there as well. “When you disconnect from your body as well there’s no fear of getting hurt. Worst case scenario is you might lose a drone or have to repair a drone. No big deal.” Wakeman’s distinctive style is absolutely captivating: High-speed flight at low altitudes. Skimming over the ocean. Along a bubbling brook in the mountains. Coming out of a cave at sunrise. Jumping from Newcastle beach into the harbour and alongside a moving ship and back around Nobbys headland. He’s shot hundreds of drone videos, plus commercial work. “My videos aren’t sped up when I’m flying fast over the coastline, that’s in real time,” he says. “You are looking for that fantasy of flight, to give people that feeling that they can fly. I don’t think there is any other way to do that other than to fly very fast and very low. “It’s a creative tool for me. It just started from racing and the fun of just building something that could fly like that. Now, it’s a creative tool where I can give people that fantasy. I can express myself with my videos.”

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There is more to being a drone pilot than just buying a machine and flying in your backyard. It can be that simple, but most of us will need to understand some drone laws before we try to take to the sky.

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