How to Capture China’s Wildest Formations? By Drone, of Course.

(Chad Copeland)

Professional photographer Chad Copeland traveled to some of the most remote areas in China to shoot pro climbers Emily Harrington, Matt Segal, and Cedar Wright for National Geographic. To capture some of the more difficult shots, he took along a 15-pound carbon fiber FreeFly Systems Cinestar Octocopter drone. Turns out that shooting from the air pays off in spectacular imagery.

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(Chad Copeland)


The only way to reveal the massive beauty of these delicate formations is to backpack a drone in. Putting a camera in the sky became a critical part of telling this story.

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(Chad Copeland)


“Stand by,” I yell over the hum of eight powerful electric motors. I’m performing a checklist of pre-takeoff functions: calibrating the GPS and barometer, activating the camera’s shutter switch, and cycling the motors. The North Face athletes Emily Harrington, Matt Segal, and Cedar Wright are 75 yards in front of us, climbing the new 5.12c sport route named Red Dragon.

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(Chad Copeland)


Almost ready to go, I look at the monitor next to Keith Ladzinski, the ground-based videographer for this National Geographic expedition. “The wireless video feed is operational. “Watch your fingers, and standby for takeoff,” I alert everyone as I hit the throttle. The 15-pound carbon-fiber aircraft lifts off Carsten’s fingertips and into the air.

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(Chad Copeland)


It’s still difficult to travel with small commercial UAVs. After landing in China from the Unite States, Chinese customs confiscated $5,000 of my drone batteries and almost arrested me when I tried to negotiate a way to send them back home. In the end, the supervisor pulled one of the 22 batteries out of my battery-safe Pelican case and said, “You take one.” Knowing this was a make-or-break career moment, I decided to go forward with the single battery.

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(Chad Copeland)


From the unbelievable Stone Forest to the epic Great Getu Arch, I flew more than 40 missions without a single incident. On the last morning, I wanted to fly through a beam of light that shines through the arch at certain times of the day. I set up the monitor and the aircraft for flight. Ready to go, I plugged the sole battery into the power board. Then I heard the explosion. A single drop of water had fallen from an overhanging tree and onto one of the electronic speed-control boards that regulate the drone’s motor. Upon close inspection, I saw that a node the size of an M&M had split in half.

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(Chad Copeland)


The trip began and ended with close calls like that. The limitations of battery life, wireless receiver strength and terrain pushed my skills to the limit. In the end, this new technology permitted me to capture never-before-seen perspectives, proving it can operate in extreme conditions.

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(Chad Copeland)

Filed To: Gear / Design and Tech / China / Drones
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