We Need Gimbals

The UAV market is booming and companies are scrambling to position themselves for the next biggest thing since the deregulation of the National Science Foundation.  That singular act by President Clinton paved the way for the public Internet.

Right now, UAVs or “drones” are being marketed in all shapes and sizes.  From 450mm quadcopters, all the way up to 1000mm octocopters and everything else in between.  UAVs also come in various shapes and configurations ranging from circular to triangular; single-bladed to coaxial bladed.  It’s crazy.  Currently, the biggest application for these machines involves some form of aerial photography or videographyUAV aerial imaging has a wide range of applications.  Everyone from law enforcement to farmers are learning that this relatively inexpensive  alternative to traditional aerial imaging has enormous potential at a fraction of the cost of traditional manned aerial platforms.  Here are just a few examples.

  • Fire fighters could launch a relatively inexpensive UAV to monitor the progression of a wild fire in realtime.
  • 9-1-1 emergency response systems could be enhanced with “ambulance” drones that are capable of flying straight-line distances quickly to a fallen individual.  Once there, the onboard camera of the UAV can observe and transmit live images of the situation back to the operator so life saving techniques can be conveyed to a good samaritan or loved one.
  • Construction sites can now be over-flown by a small drone that scans the area and creates high-resolution images that can be used to create orthomosaic maps of the job site.  This new form of photogrammetry is changing the construction industry.
  • A soybean farmer can now purchase and launch his own drone in order to analyze the changes in chlorophyll of his crops allowing him to react to crop stress long before his eyes can detect a problem.  The list goes on and on.

Underlying all these potential applications is some form of aerial imaging.  Whether it’s high-resolution photography or video, or near-infrared, a camera or sensor of some sort is required.  Used in this application, imaging involving a high-resolution digital camera will also involve a stabilizing gimbal.  These gimbals are sophisticated mounting cradles for the camera.  The gimbal/camera system then gets mounted to the UAV.  Using small motors and inertial measuring units, the gimbal smooths out or dampens rapid movements of the UAV.  In other words, the camera is held steady despite the aerodynamic forces acting on the craft.  The latest gimbals can stabilize a camera on all three axis (pitch, roll, yaw) leading to very smooth and steady video.  Previously, only highly skilled camera operators using cranes could achieve such smooth sweeping motions of a camera.  In addition, you would need to hire an airplane or helicopter with a pilot and a camera operator, costing thousands of dollars, in order to get that low-altitude shot at 500 feet.  Not any longer.  Now you can achieve the same effect hundreds of feet in the air or near the ground using a drone and camera mounted to a stabilizing gimbal.  

The key to quality aerial imagery lies not only in the camera but in the gimbal technology.  Numerous controller boards are available along with gimbal frames that can be assembled to allow a DSLR or other kind of camera to be mounted to a drone.  The gimbal has to be balanced and calibrated for the specific camera/lens combination and tuned using custom software.  If you need to change cameras or swap a lens then you have to calibrate and tune again.  A tedious and difficult task.  Currently, there is only one commercial company producing quality, integrated, plug-n-play gimbals for a variety of camera platforms ranging from DSLRs to the popular GoPro action camera.  And they are expensive - ranging from $2000.00 and up.   In my opinion, the camera manufacturers are not taking advantage of a huge opportunity.

In the same way that each manufacturer produces their own lenses and accessories for their cameras, so should they start producing UAV gimbals.  Each manufacturer can create a proprietary receiving mount that they use as an attachment standard for their gimbals - the same way they standardize on a lens mount for their cameras.  This proprietary gimbal mount would then be attached to the UAV and capable of accepting various gimbals that they produce for their camera line.  Once attached, you simply communicate with the gimbal using your tablet or smart phone and tell it the camera/lens combination you have mounted to it.  The gimbal would self calibrate to the camera/lens combination,  auto-calibrate and away you go.  The gimbal mount on the UAV would require power; an input for remote shutter-release for taking still images; an input for remote focus; an input for start/stop of video recording; and an HDMI output that can be used for streaming realtime HD video of what the camera “sees”.  The requirements are easily identified.  For example; Canon could produce a UAV gimbal for the different line of cameras that they already sell and support allowing a photographer or videographer to leverage their current investment in to the world of aerial photography or videography.  In addition, I can easily see them expanding their offerings by creating a custom line of UAV cameras specifically for the purpose of low-altitude aerial imagery.  Each product line would require it’s own distinct gimbal and software interface.

Now, that $2,000.00 doesn’t sound so bad.