In the beginning years of photography, early
pioneers invented different ways of capturing
dramatic images that were previously
impossible to achieve. Innovations like the first
airborne camera, photos of Earth from space
and underwater photography come to mind.
Thankfully, in recent years the advancement
of UAS (unmanned aerial systems or “drones”)
have kept photography and videography on
their exciting path toward enormous changes.
Several industries are utilizing or beginning to
explore the use of drones in different applications
for industry growth, improvement … and of
course, increased sales.
In December, retail giant Amazon
announced a previously secret research and
development project. Amazon’s CEO, Jeff
Bezos, informed Charlie Rose in a CBS special
that they had been working on a project called
“Prime Air.” Bezos’ venturesome plan: to
utilize drones for residential package delivery.
These Octocopters will pick up small packages
from fulfillment centers and whiz through the
air to deliver them to customers a mere 30
minutes after the items inside are purchased
online from Amazon.com. The drones will be
capable of delivering items up to five pounds,
which Bezos says will account for 86 percent of the items that Amazon currently delivers. While
Amazon still must clear a few hurdles in safety testing
and Federal Aviation Administration approvals
before Prime Air will be functional, Bezos intends to
have Octocopter drones delivering packages as soon
as four or five years from now.
Grounded by Red Tape?
Since drone technology is so new and unexplored,
information and legislation regarding their
operation are constantly changing. As of the writing
of this article, the FAA has just finished a rigorous
10-month selection process for research and test sites
for six drones. The sites: the State of Nevada, the
North Dakota Department of Commerce, Griffiss
International Airport in New York, Virginia Tech,
Texas A&M University—Corpus Christi and the
University of Alaska.
Currently, all UAS operations for commercial or
business purposes in the United States are subject to
FAA regulations. The FAA’s written laws regarding
drone use are somewhat grey and open to interpretation.
(I would recommend checking with your local
and state laws regarding drones before taking flight,
as legislation is changing on a daily basis.)
The first case of a person being charged and fined
by the FAA for operating a drone occurred in 2011,
when a photographer was hired to film video of the
University of Virginia campus for promotional use.
The FAA was alerted about the flight and charged the
photographer with recklessly flying a UAS. He was
fined $10,000, but the fine was overturned quicklyby the presiding judge in the case. Pilots
and hobbyists were overjoyed by the quick
ruling and the news spread rapidly across
the web. And no wonder: if the ruling had
not been overturned, the precedent would
have had significant impact on several
industries utilizing drone technology.
One such industry that has embraced
this new technology with success is the real
estate industry. Real estate agents across the
country who have been using drones say
the marketing edge is invaluable. Increased
interest and sales are attributed to the
drones’ ability to capture footage from tree
heights, show elevation changes and offer
more extensive views of the homes’ landscaping
The agriculture industry is also on the
forefront of the drone movement. Drones
provide agriculturists a faster way of monitoring crops, which allows farmers to
identify diseases and insect problems quicker.
The data collected can potentially allow more
efficient application of chemicals and fertilizers,
which will help reduce excessive product
applications. Thus, drone technology may
greatly reduce the amount of chemical runoff
that flows into our rivers and streams.
Finally (and most pertinent to we ponderers),
the photography industry is really
absorbing every bit of this drone movement.
Drone aircraft photography even won an
Academy Award for Technical Achievement
this year, beckoning Hollywood studios
seeking dramatic aerial footage at low cost.
Drones and Ponds
In fact, seeing drones in the photography
industry is how I came to utilize
this exciting new technology for the
water feature industry! It was toward the
end of 2013 when my brother, Joshua
Timmermans of Noble Visions, informed
me that he had acquired a drone for his
photography business. He was approached
by DJI, the leader in UAS development
for commercial and residential use. DJI
had offered to supply Noble Visions with a
Phantom 1 drone to use for a multi-concert
event in Mexico, since their units had not
yet been used in this application. My first
response after being informed: “I’ve got
another application for it!”
We may not be Amazon, but I believe
the water feature industry could benefit
greatly from drone technology. Drones allow
cameramen to send their equipment up into
the skies, opening a new world of possibilities.
Perspective and angles that were only
previously available from expensive crane or
gimbal setups are now waiting for anyone
with a drone to explore. I have personally
set up a 15-foot ladder in the middle of
a four-foot deep pond, climbing precariously
to the top to get the perfect angle
of a waterfall. Thankfully, those days of
leaning over a pond, hanging off a ladder
and climbing trees for a good shot are over.
Drones allow us to fly seamlessly from
side to side and follow elevation changes
that we experience with waterfalls, all the
while capturing video and still images. The
ability to utilize these free-flowing videos
for consultations, websites, YouTube,
Flipboard, Facebook, Instagram and trade
shows is immeasurable.
Large pond and lake management is also
a viable outlet for the technology. Using
drones to look for invasive plant populations,
water conditions, algae growth,
runoff and wildlife populations isn’t out
of the question. I don’t use landscape
design software for water feature renderings,
but I see the potential of using aerial
photographs for this purpose.
The very day I was writing this article,
a story came out about the use of drones
in aquaculture down in Mexico. Mexico’s National Fisheries Institute utilized a
drone to measure chemical, physical and
microbiological water variables such as
temperature, chlorophyll, oxygen, algae
blooms, salinity and other parameters that
help determine sites suitable for aquaculture.
The water feature industry is always
evolving, and the use of drones is certainly
going to have a huge impact on its future.
Drone technology itself is evolving so
rapidly that its uses, capabilities and
regulations will have completely changed
once this article has gone to press.
An exciting test of drone technology
came when Noble Visions and Liquid
Landscapes set out to make a video of a
recently constructed waterscape in the
mountains of North Carolina. We utilized
a DJI Phantom 1 Quadcopter, a Zenmuse
gimbal and a GoPro Hero 3+ to capture
video and photos of the feature.
The two days of scheduled flying posed
a few obstacles. For instance, on the first
day of filming we experienced constant
winds of 12 mph and gusts up to 23 mph.
As if the wind wasn’t enough, we had to
deal with the drone receivers, which were
having a difficult time locking in on GPS
signals for flight. The Phantom operates on
GPS locators for operation unless you fly in
manual mode, which requires a very experienced
pilot. We lost complete signal at one
point, which caused the drone to take an
immediate turn toward the foundation of the
house. (Don’t worry; it was saved by a quick
grab to the undercarriage before impact.)
The second day brought more stable
conditions, as the wind was holding steady
at eight mph. We made several passes over
both ponds and both waterfalls, as well as
some high-elevation flights. The Phantom
1 is supplied with a battery providing
roughly nine minutes of safe flying
time, but we seemed to push the limits
every time we went airborne. (The newer
Phantom 2 has longer battery life, longer
flight range, in-flight camera tilt and some
added safety features).
You can download an app for the
Phantom which will allow you to monitor
the video in real time on an iPad or iPhone.
We used a GoPro Hero 3+ and set photo
intervals at every five seconds so we could
capture as many images as we could. Noble
Visions was only in from Cincinnati for two
days, so we were under the gun to capture
as much video and as many pictures as we
could. Once we were satisfied with the
video and images we had captured, we were
off to do the editing. All the video editing
was accomplished with iMovie editing
software, while the still images were downloaded
to Photoshop for touch-up.
Overall, I was really happy with the
end result of our first drone project. I have
planned another shoot for summer on the
same water feature once the final soft-scaping
has been installed. There are few things
that I think could improve the video and
images when we take flight again. First, I
would like to be able to shoot during the
“magic hour” (see “Click” article in May/
June 2013 issue) or on an overcast day for
optimal shooting conditions. I would also
want to get some shots straight down on
the feature, along with some video following
the watercourse downstream.
All in all, though, it has been a great
learning experience utilizing drone
technology with water features. I think
that this technology will open doors to all
kinds of new ideas and uses for us. The daily
changes it presents will keep us, and the commercial industry as a whole, busy for
years to come. The water feature industry
has shown growth year after year, and with
this new technology, its future looks even
brighter. We as an industry need to embrace
drone tech as it moves forward, making sure
we grow and evolve with it.
For perhaps the first time in the pond
industry, the sky’s the limit!