A Superhero's-Eye View of the World: Flying a Drone With Video Goggles

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Team BlackSheep have made a name for themselves shooting breathtaking videos with remote-control planes. 

In a post-9/11 world, flying low over the Statue of Liberty's golden flame is pretty much off-limits. Flying a remote-control plane equipped with first-person-view (FPV) technology, Raphael Pirker, aka Trappy, of the Team BlackSheep collective, gave it a shot anyway. He didn't get clearance but it would pretty hard, he believes, "to get a permit for something nobody back then even knew existed." He checked the air traffic routes for the area and launched near the river, so that in case anything went wrong, he could crash into the water. Watching the live video feed from the model plane through video goggles, Pirker could navigate over the Brooklyn Bridge and other iconic landmarks as if he were on board. Posted on YouTube, the resulting video (above) went viral in 2010, and now has well over a million views.

The backlash was rough, however, leveling accusations that the flight was dangerous and stupid, potentially encouraging inexperienced hobbyists or even terrorists to imitate it. The Academy of Model Aeronautics condemned the video with a statement: "Although AMA recognizes the ingenuity and creativity of this activity, it does not condone the manner in which this flight was conducted and the threat it posed to the public." Pirker insists he took extensive measures to make sure it was safe (for his full response to his critics, see his interview with the web show Flite Test). Still, it's easy to image how one mistake while flying over traffic on a bridge could lead to disaster. 

[optional image description]The Team BlackSheep Ritewing Zephyr (team-blacksheep.com)

Controversies aside, FPV flight is enabling a rapidly growing community of aerial videographers to shoot jaw-dropping videos around the globe. The technology is getting cheaper and better and soon, as The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal wrote recently, "everyone who wants a drone will have one.Video piloting lets users fly kilometers beyond their line of sight from the ground, through cities and over mountain ranges. Unlike steady footage shot from a helicopter, a video feed from a remote-control plane in the hands of an experienced pilot skims between buidings and down cliffs. The "first person view" is thrilling; as Team BlackSheep puts it, these are "flights you wouldn't survive in a wingsuit:" 

Team BlackSheep have been posting videos to YouTube since 2007 and they sell equipment -- starter kits, video goggles, transmitters, etc -- on their website. More recently, they've been traveling around the world shooting videos from Berlin to Bangkok, with a road trip across the US in between. We caught up with Pirker over email to ask him a few questions about the team, FPV, and their videos. The other members of the team prefer to remain anonymous, he says, because they were "not directly involved with the New York City flight in particular."  

The Atlantic: Who is Team BlackSheep, and how did you get into shooting aerial footage?

Raphael Pirker: Team BlackSheep at the very core are three individuals promoting the use of UAVs for recreational purposes. We started off as regular hobbyists and then ventured to put cameras and video transmitters on our planes and do crazy stuff with it -- such as fly down mountain slopes at high speed and low altitude, do formation-flights over snowy towns or go city-sightseeing in Prague

Why did you create the FVPLab forum

The FPVLab forum was actually not created by us, due to the controversy surrounding Team BlackSheep and its members in the community. We figured a community should be based on our similarities and not our differences, therefore we have teamed up with an individual (Jason aka "SENTRY") and have supported his Forum. The idea came after our parent forum, RCGroups, started to get crowded by politics and inappropriate moderation by the founding team. 

What was controversial?

The controversy surrounds the new technology. Whenever something new arises, those resistive to change find reasons why they don't like it. Hence the name "BlackSheep." When we started, we were the black sheep of the R/C world. Flying through video goggles was a very rare appearance. These days most model clubs have at least one member experimenting with this technology.

Can you describe the plane you use to shoot? A lot of people seem to use RC helicopters instead — are there advantages to the model you use? 

We use flying wings for fast-paced and long-distance shots. The battery life of the helicopters is a severely limiting factor. Aircraft are traditionally more efficient in the air, at the cost of being more difficult to control. 

What are some of the challenges of shooting good aerial footage? 

For our videos, the challenge is flying the camera in a calm path along rough terrain. So you need to find a clear path through many obstacles without moving the aircraft too much. Quick corrective movements disturb the feeling of flight. Building equipment that is capable of flying at these ranges, in these terrains and at the speeds that we require is a further challenge. The best shots also have a fair bit of luck thrown into the mix.

Fatshark Dominator Video Glasses (team-blacksheep.com)

How did you get away with shooting New York City? Do people on the street or police give you a hard time when you shoot in cities?

The police are always the roughest in the places one would expect it the least. For example at the Grand Canyon, where we had video footage seized -- unlawfully -- and generally were treated very badly. In contrast to that, in N.Y.C., we had police officers come up to us and ask if they could ride as "passenger." People would come up to us and ask us questions about UAVs, where we're from and why we were filming. All very positive. In fact, the positive reactions across the board from the people in N.Y.C. have given us the courage to go ahead with the Statue of Liberty fly-over.

With cameras and DIY drones getting cheaper and better, more and more people can shoot aerial footage. Do you the think privacy and safety concerns some people raise are valid? 

Safety concerns -- no. The technology is relatively expensive, nobody is going to put it into harm's way. Terrorists have cheaper means of doing more powerful attacks, amateurs are very likely to practice safe operations before putting their drones into harm's way and professionals have a reputation (and a job) to lose. Privacy concerns are valid; the ability of flying a camera through the air obviously gives possibility for malice. Current privacy laws, however, already adequately cover such events, such as filming on or over private property, etc. 

Your videos have over four million views on YouTube. Are you a YouTube partner? Did you expect to find such a big audience for your videos?

No, we do not aim to collect royalties off our creative work and have strived to keep our videos as advertising-free as possible. The fact that shooting aerial video commercially is a legal problem in a few countries around the world -- including the USA  -- is a further reason why we declined all offers for becoming content partners on YouTube. Since we develop and sell UAVs for the recreational market, the YouTube ad dollars are also not such a great necessity in our budget. We never expected such a large audience and we're thankful for every person that watches our videos! It's like a dream come true.

What's next for you?

Plenty of projects are on the table and some of them are already in motion. You'll just have to wait and find out, though.

For more videos from Team BlackSheep, visit the YouTube channel. 

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Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.
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