Use Animation to Tell a Story about Science

Telling stories about science can be fun and rewarding, but not always easy to accomplish with video. Animation software can help us tell our stories in a way that is appealing both visually and emotionally. Animation can be an especially good option when live action is difficult or impossible to film. You can let your imagination go wild in an animated film. The laws of physics can be suspended. Time can be compressed or expanded. The action can take place on Earth, on a distant planet in the Andromeda galaxy, or in an imaginary world populated by talking tomatoes. The hero can be a human or, just as easily, an animal or a machine. Characters in a story can have ordinary traits or be imbued with magical powers. The possibilities are endless.

Animation can come in handy telling stories about science or scientists. With an animation, a science filmmaker has much greater freedom to present a concept or to share a particular viewpoint. For example, you might want to show how an atoll develops over millennia from an underwater volcano (see video below), but there are some aspects that cannot be filmed easily. Using an animation to illustrate the different stages in atoll development, for example, lets the filmmaker depict geological processes that are too slow to film—and simultaneously makes the entire process easier to visualize. Basic animations like the ones in Birth of an Atoll can be created in PowerPoint.

Don’t want to have a human narrator or protagonist in your science video? With an animated film, a filmmaker can build a story around a non-human character with very human thoughts and feelings—one that appeals to a broad audience. A great example is the Disney-Pixar animated film, WALL-E (see movie trailer below), which features a lonely cleaning robot on a garbage-filled and lifeless Earth who falls in love with EVE, a more advanced robot sent to scan the planet for signs of life. The film quickly draws you in and makes you root for the little robot. Many things happen in the film that are far-fetched, but are readily accepted by the viewer. And the film gets across a message about what might happen to the Earth (and to the human race) if we aren’t careful. Telling the story from the viewpoint of a sentient machine helps the audience see, through other eyes, where rampant consumerism, corporatism, and human reliance on technology might lead. This approach works because the viewer becomes emotionally invested in the story and its characters and is thus more receptive to the underlying message.

Of course, the production of WALL-E required a vast team of scriptwriters, designers, animators, sound specialists, and more. However, you don’t need an army of professional animators to create a short film to illustrate a scientific concept or to tell a story. As I mentioned above, simple animations can be produced in PowerPoint. And for more sophisticated animation, there are a number of animation software packages that are available for both professionals and non-professionals. However, the learning curve for these applications is usually steep. And to create comic-type animations, you need some serious drawing and design skills.

What’s needed is something a bit more user-friendly. A few years ago, I discovered  MotionArtist, a Comic Animation software by SmithMicro and tried the beta version of the software to create a graphic story (Brown Marsh Apocalypse). It’s been upgraded since then, with several improvements and bug fixes. This software basically lets the user create story panels (like the ones in a cartoon), import media and then add motion to individual on-screen objects as well as to sequence everything in a timeline to tell a story. MotionArtist was designed primarily for comic artists to import their illustrations and then to animate the artwork, converting it to digital format for posting online. However, use is not limited to this narrow purpose. The import function also lets the user bring in images, video clips, and audio tracks—and these can be sequenced to tell a story—in much the same way movie editing software works to sequence video clips. Layered Photoshop files can also be imported—as a composite or as individual layers, which can then be individually animated. The screenshot below shows the MotionArtist workspace in “Director view” (click on the image to see full view).

screenshot_ma1

In the timeline (at the bottom of screen), the user creates scenes to build a storyline. Each scene contains one or more panels. A “camera view” lets the user pan across panels or zoom in or out of a panel. The scene pictured above contains three panels, the size and shape of which can be customized with shape-drawing tools. The top-left panel contains an imported video clip. The top-right panel contains a photo and a word balloon. Word balloons are easily created and animated, allowing the user to produce conversations by the characters in the story. The bottom panel contains a background photo and several individual objects (images of plant stems and snails) that were imported separately and that can be separately animated. For example, I can have a sequence in which the snails are moving up or down the plant stems. Each imported object or panel is represented in a track, stacked in the timeline. Stop points (like keyframes) are used to set the timing for each track. I wanted to add some background sound and so imported an audio file of waves lapping on the shore (this audio track is the top-most track in the timeline). The user can play the working files back in real time, which helps in editing. Once the animation is completed, the user can preview the HTML5 file online in a browser window or export as an interactive HTML5 file or as a video file.

To relearn how to use the software and examine the various features that might work with my media, I used MotionArtist to 1) illustrate a biological process and 2) tell a graphic story. I first tried to animate a leaf falling from a tree canopy to the forest floor where it fragments and decays (see video below). I used only four photographs to create this animation. You can see this brief animation below. In a future tutorial, I will show how I used MotionArtist to animate the leaves.

I also wanted to create a longer animation that told a story….one that would require me to use more of the tools and features of MotionArtist. I decided to do a sequel to the Brown Marsh Apocalypse and tell a new story about how climate change may affect coastal ecosystems in the Mississippi River Delta. Warmer temperatures during the past few decades have allowed the spread of tropical trees (called mangroves), which are replacing salt marsh grasses. How will such changes affect the coast? The tale of this environmental change is again told from the viewpoint of a marsh snail who was the hero of the previous video. This story follows Perry on a quest to find out how climate change may change the snails’ home and way of life. As you’ll see in the video below, I was able to tell the story with mostly photographs and text balloons.

In conclusion, I had a lot of fun playing around again with the MotionArtist application. I found this latest version of MotionArtist relatively easy to use, although some tasks took a bit of trial and error to figure out. As the examples I’ve shared here illustrate, animation software can be used effectively to demonstrate a scientific process or to tell a story about science…and it need not require artistic skills that the scientist videographer lacks. All it takes is imagination and the ability to visualize the story you wish to tell or the process you wish to convey.

Video Interviews: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Unless you’re a member of the most isolated tribe on Earth, you probably know that we’ve all become potential reporters, capable of shooting video of unfolding events with our phones and instantly sharing it with the world through the Internet. New technologies have given the average person the means and the inspiration to chronicle and share their observations with a global audience. Citizen journalists have documented street demonstrations, natural catastrophes, political uprisings, wars, police shootings, and terrorist attacks. No longer bystanders, people are getting involved by capturing video that becomes key evidence in investigations, that informs search and rescue operations, and that provides spontaneous, person-on-the-street viewpoints. The massive contribution of these amateurs can be seen at CNN iReports where more than 100,000 people posted their stories in 2012.

An increasing number of science professionals are also interested in reporting on their experiences conducting field research as well as at conferences and other scientific gatherings. Some people tweet about talks they heard or about a workshop they attended at a meeting. Conference attendees can become reporters through blogging and vlogging, which is blogging through the medium of video. Vloggers capture footage of various conference activities, such as poster sessions, provide commentary about some aspect of the conference, or interview other attendees about their research. Despite some reservations about premature dissemination of unpublished research through live tweeting and blogging, many conference organizers welcome these new reporting methods because they raise the visibility of the conference and generate excitement in attendees. Small conferences in particular can benefit from these activities.

In this post, I would like to focus on one of the most difficult tasks for the scientist videographer. And that is: interviewing other people. Conducting interviews on camera is always difficult, but trying to interview someone at a conference is particularly challenging because of all the noise and distractions. I recently attended a small conference (~300 people) and conducted a series of video interviews with the conference organizers, sponsors, and attendees. My overall goal was to produce a short video that explained what the conference was about, why the topic of the conference was important, and who some of the attendees were. I wanted to see if I could accomplish this by myself using a simple recording setup: my iPhone (6) and an inexpensive lapel microphone. The end result was a bit longer than I intended, but it pleased the conference organizers who posted it on the conference website. Check it out (direct link) and then I’ll talk about some of the pros and cons below.

The following are some tips that I gleaned from the experience:

  1. First, decide on the objective and length of the video and stick to it. This tip may seem obvious, but often videographers reporting on an event such as a conference will not have a clear objective in mind. The result is a meandering video that fails to send a clear message. In my video, I had been asked by the conference organizers to shoot a video that basically explained the purpose of the meeting and that featured some of the organizers, sponsors, and attendees. In other words, I was somewhat restricted in the “story” I could tell. I also needed to keep the video brief. My target length was under five minutes, which I overshot. However, the organizers liked everything I included, so the final length turned out to be fine. I shot a lot of extra footage (answers to some spontaneous questions) that I would have loved to include but couldn’t without making the video drag on too long. If I had set out to do a video about mangrove researchers and what challenges they face, I would have used that extra footage. However, I was committed in this case to making a video about this particular conference. If you find yourself struggling for a topic, consider asking a single question of a particular segment of conference-goers such as, “Is this your first scientific conference? If so, what are you finding most surprising or interesting about the experience?” or “What one piece of advice would you give to students and early-career scientists about giving their first oral presentation?”
  2. Select interview subjects carefully. When it comes to interviewing, you will likely have to deal with a variety of people: some who shine on camera and others who ramble or have distracting mannerisms. Also, most people become a little nervous and stiff when on camera.
    1. One way to deal with this problem is to carefully select your interview subjects—if possible. I tried to select people to interview who seemed to be articulate and able to answer my questions without too much rambling. In some cases, I knew the person and was confident they would perform well on camera. In other cases, I watched people deliver their conference talk and, based on their delivery, decided whether they would be good interview subjects. In a few cases, I spoke with people beforehand to get an impression of how they would be on camera. In my case, I had a secondary objective in selecting subjects. I wanted to use people who would be good interview subjects but I also wanted be challenged by interviewing people who had no prior experience on camera. I wanted to see if I could still get useable footage from people who were extremely nervous or had other on-camera issues. I found that I could get decent footage from everyone I interviewed if I just kept filming and asking questions until I got something good.
    2. Sometimes, the scientist videographer is restricted with respect to choice of interviewee. If you are making a video of a small workshop, for example, you are limited by the people who are in attendance. They all may have varying levels of difficulty speaking on camera and so you must work with what you have. The best way to deal with this is to try to put the interview subjects at ease by asking them easy questions first, ones that they should have no trouble answering quickly and concisely. Also, you can begin by just having a conversation with them and then turn on the camera after they have relaxed.
    3. At an international conference, you may need to interview people whose native language is not English or who have strong accents. One solution is to prepare and upload a word-for-word transcript along with the video, which can be used for closed captioning. Viewers who have difficulty understanding an interview subject can turn on closed captioning and read the transcript.
    4. In general, if you are covering a large gathering like a conference, it’s a good idea to interview as many different types of people as possible. For this particular video, I wanted to have a good cross-section of people: conference organizers, sponsors, and attendees; established scientists, early career scientists, and students; male and female; people from different countries, not just the U.S.; and people working in different subfields.
  3. Ensure quality audio. Dealing with ambient noise at a conference is probably the biggest challenge for the scientist videographer. On the one hand, you want your interview subject to be clearly heard without distracting noises. On the other, shooting the interview in a crowd of people helps convey the reality and excitement of the conference. I tried a couple of approaches: interviewing people in a noisy poster session as well as outside the venue (either outdoors or in a quiet foyer). I found it easier to interview people in the quieter settings. They had less trouble hearing my questions, and there were fewer distractions for both me and my subject. But these quieter interviews did not have the same energy as the ones captured in the thick of things. In this case, the lapel microphone did a great job of recording the subject’s voice, which is heard clearly above the background noise.
  4. Choose an appropriate backdrop. In general, you want to avoid interviewing people against a blank wall or in front of a window or bright lamp. Also, you want to avoid a situation in which people can walk behind your subject—because the viewer’s attention can be distracted by what is happening in the background. In my interviews, I tried out a variety of backdrops, including conference or institutional posters and blank walls. As you can see in my video, the footage shot in front of a poster or other colorful background worked best. Getting the right combination of backdrop and good audio can be challenging, however.
  5. Avoid the “talking heads” syndrome. The best way to bore a viewer is to show a series of interviews in which the frame never deviates from the head and shoulders of the subjects. Even though the subject may be talking about something really interesting, the viewer’s eyes tell them nothing is happening. Instead, use cutaways to show what the interview subject is talking about. By frequently changing the view, you will add interest to your video. In my video, I used footage and images of mangroves and the conference from my personal library to augment the video interviews.
  6. Prepare interview questions beforehand. Think carefully about what questions you want to ask and have them on hand during the interview. As you saw, I started with a question about what the conference was all about. Next, I asked why the viewer should care about the conference topic: mangroves. I posed that question to someone I knew had extensive experience in many different countries and got a great answer. I next asked why this particular conference was important. That question elicited information from organizers and sponsors about the level of global interest in mangrove science. I then asked attendees to describe their particular topic of research that they were presenting at the conference. Here, I wanted to show how varied the research topics were as well as how varied the researchers themselves were. For example, I interviewed one of the plenary speakers, people who gave regular talks, and students presenting posters. Their answers provided a broad picture of research topics being reported at the meeting and also showed people at various stages in their career. Finally, I asked all of my interview subjects how they first became interested in mangroves, which prompted a variety of interesting, personal responses that told the viewer something about what motivated these scientists to study mangroves. Don’t restrict yourself to prepared questions, though. If you think of an off-the-cuff question during the interview, ask it. Such spontaneous queries often elicit the most interesting answers.
  7. Use camera equipment that is easy to carry, set up, and use. Filming at a conference is really difficult, especially if you also wish to attend the sessions. Using a setup that can be carried in a purse or backpack really simplifies the process. As I said above, I used my iPhone and an inexpensive lapel microphone to conduct the interviews. Having been interviewed by news reporters using only their cell phones to record, I knew that this was an approach used by professionals. This approach made it really easy for me to attend the sessions and then quickly set up during the breaks for the interviews. Basically, all I had to do was plug the mic into my phone and clip it to the subject’s shirt…and I was ready to film. In some instances, I attached my phone to a selfie stick, which helped me stabilize it and also position it to frame my subject correctly.
  8. Review footage (both video and audio) immediately. It’s good practice to do a brief check of your equipment before starting each interview. I usually do this by myself–I simply clip the mic to my shirt and turn the camera on myself. If I’m going to interview in a noisy poster session, for example, I’ll record a brief clip of my voice to make sure it’s audible above the background noise. When you finish an interview, it’s a good idea to review your footage to ensure there are no technical problems. I always take a quick look and listen while I’m still with the interview subject. In one case, I discovered that I had somehow tapped the record button twice, so that I failed to record anything at all. I was able to quickly redo the interview.
  9. Use movie-editing software to edit the interview footage. In interviews, you will capture a lot of footage that is unusable. Editing is essential to remove or minimize bloopers, shaky clips, loud noises, and other problematic footage. Subjects who are nervous tend to ramble and may also string together sentences without a break between, making it difficult to cut and splice footage. Sometimes, it’s necessary during the interview to ask the subject to pause a few seconds between sentences. These pauses will let you more easily extract short statements without cutting off the speaker mid-word. Once you have removed unusable parts, you then need to cut further. Resist the temptation to include everything you filmed. Also, avoid long sequences of one person talking. Edit the footage so that the scene changes frequently. I partially accomplished this by asking a question (in a text title) and then showing a series of clips of different subjects answering each question. I’ve already mentioned the use of cutaways to augment an interview—these cutaways will really help the viewer stay engaged and interested in what the interview subject is saying.

 

Guest Post: Aerial Photography with Drones

The use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones as they are popularly called, for aerial photography has increased dramatically in recent years. This guest post by Thomas Foster provides a brief background and a few basic instructions in the use of UAVs to conduct aerial photography.

Aerial photography is a popular type of photography, which can be done using various approaches. One of the easiest methods is to photograph from the top of a tall building, mountain, or other place that provides a good vantage point. An even better way is to hire a balloon or helicopter. However, this latter approach is expensive and may not reach all the areas you need to photograph.

Photo of Norwegian landscape. Taken in May 2014.

Photo of Norwegian landscape. Taken in May 2014.

With the development of small UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), commonly called “drones”, photographers have a new and more flexible way to capture aerial photos. These aircraft can be operated by remote control to fly according to the wishes of the pilot on the ground. Drone technology has enabled photographers to reach even more areas and make even better photos than in the past. Their small size means that photographers can more easily access specific spots from where they can get a good view of their subjects. Their cost can vary a lot depending on quality. The cheapest drones (with camera) cost $100 or more, but higher quality models may exceed a few thousand dollars.

A brief history of aerial photography

The first known aerial photograph was taken of a French village in 1858 from a balloon piloted by French photographer, Gaspar Felix Tournachon, known under the pseudonym “Nadar”. The technology was not well developed—for example, Tournachon had to develop his photographs in the air and needed a darkroom in the basket of the balloon. This procedure was difficult and as a result, the quality suffered.

Other artists of that time copied his technique, but the results were generally not much better. Even so, these early aerial photographers captured some important landscapes and events of their times (see image below) and paved the way for further advances.

Photo of San Francisco after 1906 earthquake. Taken by George R. Lawrence in 1906 (public domain)

Photo of San Francisco after 1906 earthquake. Taken by George R. Lawrence in 1906 (public domain)

During the First World War, aerial photography advanced quite a bit, driven by the need of warring countries to determine the enemy’s battle positions. Over half a million aerial pictures were taken during the war. After the war, aerial photography was used for commercial purposes. Companies needed aerial photos of cities and landscapes, for example. Another advance occurred in World War 2, again driven by the need to record the enemy’s front lines. After the war, aerial photography continued to advance and eventually developed into the modern technology we know today.

Aerial photography is evolving again with the development of drones. People are using drones to capture aerial images in such diverse areas as agriculture, wildlife monitoring, environmental research, commercial delivery, filmmaking, mapping, disaster relief, and search and rescue. Drone technology and associated photographic techniques are advancing rapidly as people discover new ways of using them.

Some common-sense rules to follow

There are many things that you should be careful about as an aerial photographer. Most of all, it is important to respect the rules of flying, listed below and also available on the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) website:

  • Fly below 400 feet and remain clear of surrounding obstacles
  • Keep the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times
  • Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations
  • Don’t fly within 5 miles of an airport unless you contact the airport and control tower before flying
  • Don’t fly near people or stadiums
  • Don’t fly an aircraft that weighs more than 55 lbs
  • Don’t be careless or reckless with your unmanned aircraft – you could be fined for endangering people or other aircraft

Those rules apply in the USA where it’s also necessary to register your drone if it is more than 0.55 lbs. (250 g) and less than 55 lbs. (25 kg) (larger aircraft require a different procedure). In other countries, there are different rules, although many are similar to those listed above. In general, you should ensure you don’t endanger anybody or their property while using drones to capture aerial images. Another important point to consider is that when you are recording footage of private property, you need the permission of the property owner if you want to publish the footage anywhere.

About the camera

Camera quality is important in aerial photography, and there are a few points you should consider when buying a camera. The most important features are the ISO settings, which determine the camera’s ability to adjust to the light conditions, and the image resolution. Other important features to look for when buying a camera are the field of view (FOV) and the weight of the camera. Many quadcopters (and drones) offer a so-called FPV (First Person View) system. This option allows the drone-mounted camera to transmit video in real time, making the experience of flying the same as if you were in the aircraft. The camera quality of FPV is usually not great because the transmitter cannot send a high quality picture in real time. In other words, this type of camera provides a lower quality image, which may be unacceptable to some users. To compensate, many photographers attach an extra camera to the FPV drones to enhance the flying experience while simultaneously recording a high quality image. This combination provides a preview of the scene and gives more control to the pilot in deciding when and where to take a photo.

Some aerial photography tips

When you are finally recording aerial images, you want to ensure that they are of the best quality possible. Here are some tips to improve the quality of your pictures;

  • Before you begin, think about what you are trying to capture and how you are trying to capture it. Then decide on a plan of action. For example, think about how much you need to zoom in relation to how far away from the target you are. At a minimum, make a list of shots you wish to take and from what perspective and altitude. By having a clear plan prepared beforehand, you will save a lot of time and effort in the field.
  • Watch the weather forecast because unfavorable conditions such as strong winds can ruin your photos. The position of the sun is also important because of how it affects lighting. Keep track of the sun in relation to the drone’s flight path and adjust accordingly.
  • Always adjust the camera settings prior to a flight and select the proper lens for the situation. For example, sometimes it is beneficial to use a short lens when you plan to make pictures of a large area and you want to make it look bigger. Long lenses are useful if you are focusing on smaller objects. By preparing the camera properly for lighting and other conditions, you will be more likely to get the desired image.
  • Try experimenting with moving the camera during flight. Some drones have a movable gimbal, which is a great feature. For example, you can adjust the point of view when you are at different heights. With this approach, you can better synchronize flying and taking photos.
  • As mentioned above, some drones have FPV mode. If your drone has this option, give it a try. You may find that this mode makes aerial photography easier and also improves the quality of your images.
Photo of Norwegian lake. Taken in May 2014.

Photo of Norwegian lake. Taken in May 2014.

About the author:

Thomas Foster is a quadcopter enthusiast and a big fan of quadcopters with cameras, which he uses to record aerial photographs and videos. He is also an active observer of the changes in drone industry. In addition, he hosts a site about best quadcopters with camera where he compares best quadcopters currently on the market. You can also find him on Twitter.

Using a GoPro Hero Camera to Film Underwater

The GoPro is a great camera to shoot action footage of surfing, skiing, and mountain biking. However, there are lots of other ways to use this versatile, little camera. If you are a student or scientist studying the marine environment, you will find this camera useful in capturing underwater footage in tide pools or tidal creeks.

I just finished a new tutorial to show how to set up the GoPro to film underwater in a tide pool or other shallow water setting. I also cover three ways to approach filming in a tide pool as well as some safety suggestions to avoid damaging your camera.

Here it is (direct link to video in case the player window is not visible)–be sure to select 1080p quality setting and full screen for best viewing:

Field Testing a Phantom II Quadcopter for Scientific Research

When was the last time you had fun doing field research? What’s that you say? Not ever? Then you probably haven’t tried using a quadcopter yet.

A quadcopter is a remotely-operated, miniature helicopter that is lifted and propelled by four rotors. These unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly called “drones”, can carry high-definition cameras that are able to capture spectacular aerial video at a fraction of the cost of a full-sized helicopter rental. Quadcopters are increasingly used by business owners such as sports photographers, wildlife photographers, hunters (feral pig spotting), travel agents, and real estate agents (although commercial use of these aircraft was ruled illegal by the FAA in the US). Scientists are just getting started finding ways to use UAVs in field research such as these agriculture researchers.

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Last week, I had an opportunity to go out with some colleagues who were testing one, specifically a Phantom II sold by DJI. As you will see in the video, my colleagues are using the quadcopter to acquire low-altitude video of some coastal ecosystems, which can often be remote and/or difficult to traverse on foot.

I drove with two colleagues to Golden Meadow, Louisiana where we met Dr. Mark Byrnes of Applied Coastal Research and Engineering and his son Dylan, who is the expert at piloting their quadcopter. This group has been studying some of the salt marshes in south Louisiana and want to use the quadcopter to assess vegetative recovery from disturbance as well as changes in the geomorphology of the shorelines. We convened for dinner at a local restaurant and discussed the plan for the following day. After sampling the local cuisine (grilled shrimp and sweet potato fries for me), we headed to the hotel where we fired up the quadcopter in the hotel parking lot to check that all systems were functioning properly. Dylan flew the quadcopter, with its lights flashing red and green, around the hotel and periodically up to a couple hundred feet overhead. Before long, we had drawn a crowd of hotel employees and guests. The next morning, we drove to where the study site was located and spent several hours flying the Phantom II around the area. The main objective was to get an idea of how the quadcopter would perform and to begin working out a survey protocol to use on future field trips.

Here’s a video showing some of the highlights:

The following is a more detailed description of the Phantom II that we tested and how it performed.

Description. The Phantom II is a radio-controlled quadcopter (made by DJI) that is DJIquadcopter_KLMcKeeoutfitted with an HD camera. It is relatively small and light and has four rotors. There are also running lights that flash red and green. The system that my colleagues purchased came with a GoPro Hero 3+ (Black Edition) camera, which was attached to the quadcopter via a special gimbal. The gimbal is essential for steady video; earlier versions did not have a gimbal, and the resultant footage was quite jerky. There are also cinema-grade gimbals that can be purchased for more serious filming. The power source is a lithium “smart” battery with four LED lights to indicate charge status; it slides into a slot on the side of the quadcopter. One battery charge is supposed to last 20 to 25 minutes, although it’s recommended to stop flying when 15% charge is reached (our flights did not go longer than 17 min). There were two extra batteries, so we had a total of about 50 minutes of flight time initially; we were able to recharge the batteries for the afternoon flights when we stopped for lunch at a local restaurant.

The quadcopter is operated with a remote control console, which has altitude and yaw movement knobs that are operated with thumb motions. The viewing position (oblique/vertical) of the camera is operated via a lever on the console. Attached to the console is a viewing monitor that shows real-time video from the camera as well as flight information such as altitude, GPS position, distance. The Phantom also can be used with iOS devices (iPhone, iPad) to view flights and to control the camera. Manual navigation can be accomplished by watching the quadcopter (if within sight of the operator) or the monitor. The GoPro Hero 3+ camera can be set to shoot “narrow” (90 degrees), “medium” (127 degrees), or “wide” (170 degrees) fields of view at different frame rates (e.g., 24, 30 or 60 fps) and resolutions (e.g, 1080p or 2.7k). The camera, set to video mode, is turned on at the beginning of the flight and runs until turned off at the end of the flight. The GoPro will also shoot high-resolution, still images, but requires a way to control the shutter (the system we tested did not have this). Another option, which we did not test, is to use the time-lapse feature on the GoPro to shoot a series of still images. Images and video footage are stored on a micro SD card and transferred to computer with a card reader (or by connecting the GoPro via cable).

There are other Phantom packages that can be seen on the DJI website, some of which are equipped with a different type of camera and gimbal system (Phantom II Vision+).

Cost and Performance. This product is not a toy–at a cost between $959 and $1,299 (depending on model), not counting accessories such as extra batteries. However, it is affordable for the professional or serious photography enthusiast. If you already have a GoPro camera, you can save a few dollars by purchasing just the quadcopter and a gimbal. Extra batteries are a must–20 minutes is simply not enough time to do much, and charging takes up to an hour. The quadcopter body is constructed of plastic and is lightweight, weighing in at 1030 grams (2.3 lbs), which means that if it crashes into a building or parking lot surface, it may suffer some serious damage. The rotor blades are the parts that are easiest to damage, but are easily replaced. Neither the quadcopter or the camera is waterproof (unless the GoPro underwater housing is used), so using it in the rain or landing it on wet ground is probably not a good idea (although some people have apparently flown it in light rain or snow). Flying in a marine environment will expose both aircraft and camera to salt spray and high humidity, which will likely take a toll over time.

Even though the Phantom II is not a toy, it is loads of fun. We had a blast watching it fly around doing different maneuvers that one might perform in a field survey. The Phantom II could hover and remain remarkably stable even in moderate wind. I was blown away by the fantastic video this quadcopter and GoPro combo could capture. The gliding footage looked like it had been shot from a crane dolly or some other expensive filming set-up. Comparable footage shot from a helicopter using a gimbal-mounted camera would cost you thousands of dollars per day—little wonder that filmmakers and wildlife photographers are adopting it. The Phantom II can be set up to fly a GPS path on a map, although we did not do this; instead, transects were flown manually using visual cues (flags) and onscreen video as a guide.

Learning curve. I did not fly the Phantom II, but could see that one could learn fairly quickly. The controls are simple and if you get into difficulty, releasing the sticks will cause the quadcopter to stop moving and hover in place until you get your bearings again. However, people have crashed these things, especially when in tight quarters…near trees or buildings, for example. We were out in the open and only had a few power lines to worry about. It’s also possible to navigate using only the monitor and live feed from the camera, although it’s easy to get confused about direction when you can no longer see the aircraft in the sky. Some experts recommend learning to fly an inexpensive UAV before trying to operate something expensive like the Phantom II. Another option is to get a few lessons from an experienced Phantom II pilot before striking out on your own. Also, it seems obvious that a beginner should learn somewhere with wide open spaces–a park or field–where there is plenty of room. I’ve watched several videos of first flights attempted in an urban setting with numerous obstacles such as buildings, power lines, signs, trees, and people….quite a number of these end with a crash.

Fly responsibly. It became clear to me that a UAV should not be flown in a populated area by an inexperienced pilot, and even with an experienced pilot there is still the possibility of a crash due to mechanical failure or loss of communication with the aircraft. People and property have been struck by them, so liability is something to keep in mind. Stories of flyaway quadcopters abound on the Internet; there is even a Facebook site providing psychological support for folks whose aircraft have crashed or gone rogue and flown away. For many research scientists and outdoor photography enthusiasts, these quadcopters will more likely be used away from population centers where there is less likelihood of hurting people or damaging property. Probably a bigger concern in those cases is disturbance of sensitive wildlife.

Although the Phantom II supposedly can go as high as 1000 feet, the FAA in the US restricts UAVs to 400 feet or lower. Also, there is a built-in warning system that will not allow you to fly one near an airport (a warning sounds and within a mile of an airport, the quadcopter stops flying). We were mostly flying low altitudes (6 meters/20 feet) along transects across a marsh; however, it’s wise to have someone spotting for aircraft if flying at higher altitudes. In the US, the FAA allows non-commercial (i.e., hobby and recreational) use of UAVs as long as they are flown responsibly and according to regulations. Update: Research is not currently considered a recreational use by the FAA and may require a Certificate of Authorization (COA) (Public Operations-governmental) or Special Airworthiness Certificate-Experimental Operation (Civil Operations-nongovernmental) (see comment by Victor Villegas for more). At the moment, it appears that a researcher at a public institution such as a university will need a COA to operate a UAS. However, the FAA regulations regarding small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) are in a state of flux; a new FAA rule governing operation of sUAS is expected later this year to address the recent demand for their use for commercial purposes. Other countries may have different rules and regulations–best to check before purchasing or flying.

Well, that is a brief overview of my observations of the Phantom II Quadcopter. There are many more detailed reviews and videos online…so I recommend watching a few of these to get a more in-depth look. I see a lot of ways these aircraft might be used in scientific research and will perhaps write a followup post as more scientists publish their quadcopter videos and descriptions of how they are using them in research.

I wished there had been time to film in some other habitats, but it wasn’t possible on this trip. However, this brief taste was enough to make me consider buying one.

Where to find aerial footage.  A couple of handy sites to find aerial video shot anywhere on earth are www.travelbydrone.com and www.dronetrotter.com. Both sites feature a world map with site markers showing where a video has been shot. You click on the play icon and a player window opens with the video.