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BBC News launches hexacopter ‘flying camera’ to give viewers the bigger picture

Camera-equipped hexacopters have been buzzing around our heads for a while now, but improvements in reliability, sturdiness and control, as well as reductions in cost, mean that an increasing number of companies and organizations are turning to the flying machines to help them in their various operations.

The UK’s BBC, for example, has just started using a hexacopter for its news reports (video below), allowing it to capture a greater variety of footage and, in more ways than one, offer viewers a wider perspective on a news event.

“A multi-bladed lump of carbon and titanium, sounding like a swarm of bees, flew towards me before catapulting itself into the sky.”

BBC reporter Richard Westcott on Monday became the corporation’s first reporter to file a piece using the flying camera, reporting on the proposed HS2 rail line, a controversial high-speed train project linking London to other major cities in the country.

In a written piece about his experience with the hexacopter, Westcott describes how “a multi-bladed lump of carbon and titanium, sounding like a swarm of bees, flew towards me before catapulting itself into the sky.”

The reporter is clearly pleased with the results, with the hexacopter able to capture footage which would otherwise have been all but impossible to get.

“The pictures speak for themselves. You cannot get shots like that with a helicopter, or a steadicam, or a boom, a jib, a dolly, a cream bun. OK, I made that last one up but you take the point,” Westcott wrote.

bbc hexacopter

The BBC’s hexacopter.

He added, “This machine is unique in being able to go close to something then soar into the air in one smooth movement. It can creep along the ground, shimmy a fence, crawl through a tree then climb to 400ft (120m) for a spectacular panorama. As television and online journalists, we are very excited about its scope to change the perspective of our films.”

The BBC’s hexacopter was built by a team from the corporation’s Global Video Unit, with two people required for its operation – one to pilot it, the other to operate the on-board camera.

“The hexacopter is able to take a camera to places it has never been before, giving people a whole new view on the world.”

On the day they filmed the HS2 report, the wind was up. However, its special design helped the camera to remain stable, offering up smooth footage for the final report.

“The camera is mounted on a gimbal, a pivoted support that allows it to rotate, that keeps it steady even when the chopper is dancing around,” Westcott explained. “Have a look at how smooth the shot is, and that’s despite the fact that the hexacopter was being tossed like a feather on the wind.”

The reporter admits the team still has a lot to learn to use the hexacopter more efficiently – the 20-second segment in the final report shot by the flying machine took “three or four hours” to capture.

Getting the shot just right evidently takes time, while the buzzing sound of the rotors is also problematic, with the team forced to “cheat the sound” to reduce the audio interference.

Despite the difficulties, Westcott is adamant the airborne camera will have a big effect on the way news is gathered.

“The hexacopter is able to take a camera to places it has never been before, giving people a whole new view on the world,” he said. “Believe me, it will transform television and online news.”