Last July, expedition photographer Corey Rich was hanging from the side of Pakistan’s 20,508-foot Trango Tower, filming climbers David Lama and Peter Ortner as they negotiated the granite spire’s 3,000-foot face. After a few shots, Rich put his camera away and radioed Remo Masina, a 22-year-old Swiss pilot who was standing in a talus field about a mile away. Masina grabbed a remote control, turned on a Dedicam Quatrocopter—a lawnmower-size drone aircraft that looks like an inverted spider, with spinning blades for feet and a GoPro camera for a head—and sent the thing flying. Masina navigated the drone from the ground, using custom goggles that allowed him to see what the GoPro was filming. The Quatrocopter made three cinematic passes above the climbers, then touched down just before the battery died 10 minutes later. It made four such flights during the team’s 10-hour climb, and the final one caught Rich, Lama, and Ortner as they waved from a snowcapped summit. In September, video of the expedition went viral, with 450,000 views in two months, thanks mostly to the novelty of the footage.
Unmanned drones, once used primarily by the U.S. Department of Defense for wartime operations, are becoming a staple in the adventure world, deployed to do everything from monitor endangered orangutans in Indonesia to aid in search-and-rescue efforts in Colorado. But they’ve become especially popular with filmmakers. This is partly because, even at upwards of $5,000 per day, a drone runs a fraction of the cost of a helicopter rental. It can also get close to athletes without propeller wash kicking up snow or dust. And since drones are unmanned, they allow filmmakers to take greater risks in pursuit of the ultimate shot. In the past few years, unmanned drones have captured innovative footage of surfers in Australia, mountain bikers in England, and skiers in Oregon.
There are currently more than 100 companies in the drone market, with products ranging from a somewhat flimsy $300 model from Paris company Parrot to the million-dollar converted military chopper used by the production house Brain Farm. Most of these, including the $3,000 Dedicam, still require an experienced pilot like Masina, who learned to fly remote copters as a child. That could change, though, thanks to an unlikely source: former Wired editor in chief Chris Anderson, who began tinkering with drones as a hobby back in 2006. In 2009, Anderson founded 3D Robotics, and in December, after receiving $5 million in venture capital, the company unveiled a GPS-enabled craft, called FollowMe, that eliminates the need for a remote pilot. Essentially a personal homing device, the FollowMe includes a small waterproof box that communicates via radio link with the quadcopter-style drone, which is propelled by four rotor blades. A surfer wearing the box could press a button to summon the drone from land, which would then fly over and capture his ride. When the drone senses that its charge is low, it automatically returns to its launch spot. Anderson is the first to sell a ready-to-fly drone-and-box combo to the amateur adventure set, for about $800. “The idea is to make this simple enough that no special skills are required,” he says.
But don’t expect a bunch of flying weed-whackers to be crowding the local surf break just yet. Although Anderson’s drones have a gyro-stabilized camera like the high-end Dedicam model, they have a battery life of only about 15 minutes—approximately a mile’s worth of flying time. And because they lack sense-and-avoid technology—the ability to navigate away from, say, a wall—they work only in wide-open spaces. There’s also the nagging issue of privacy and safety. According to U.S. law, non-commercial filmmakers can use drones to film as long as they stick to unpopulated areas and keep the craft below 400 feet and within sight, but it’s illegal, according to current FAA regulations, for commercial filmmakers to use them at all. A bill passed last year by Congress requires the FAA to update those regulations by 2015, and new laws should pave the way for even more user-friendly drones. “The fantasy I have is that Apple decides to get in the drone business and puts Siri on board one of these things,” says Matthew Waite, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln communications professor studying the use of drones in news reporting. “You just say, ‘Siri, follow me’ and away you go.”