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New app lets drone pilots customize flight path and camera movement before takeoff

Capturing cinema-quality aerial footage with a drone takes more than just an eye for photography and a few hours of flight training. More often than not, it takes an expert pilot, sometimes along with a professional photographer, to control the camera and avoid crashing the drone into its subject. There’s a bit of a learning curve, so to help bridge the gap between novices and experts, a team of computer graphics PhD students at Stanford University have developed an algorithm that levels the playing field by combining flight planning and camera control in one package.

Similar to existing 3D animation apps that provide smart camera controls to help position a virtual camera in an animation scene, the drone software Horus provides pilots with tools that allow them to plan a flight and position the camera before lift-off. The interactive app allows users to control the motion of a camera during fight by specifying key frames in a video and assigning the proper camera orientation for each frame. The app also takes the physical limitations of the drone into account when it plans a flight, allowing the user to capture the best shot while still keeping the drone in the air.

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Unlike existing flight planning tools that use a map-based view, the Stanford app provides a 3D camera preview of the footage and a 2D map of the flight to help users preview their video in Google Earth.”The real video footage is faithful to the virtual preview shown in our app,” said app co-creator Mike Roberts to Engadget. “The workflow is similar to how an animator at Pixar might set up a camera path for an animated movie.”

Drone photography professionals may disagree, but the Stanford team believes the tool has the potential to make pre-scripted aerial cinematography available to novice drone operators. “There are a hundred problems that our app doesn’t solve,” says Roberts. “But for the domain of pre-scripted aerial cinematography, we’ve made a step forward. You can use our app to express yourself and you don’t have to know how to fly a drone to do it.”