This filmmaker dismantled his GoPro to make it light enough for his tiny drone

Dec 8, 2016

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

This filmmaker dismantled his GoPro to make it light enough for his tiny drone

Dec 8, 2016

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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Here’s the thing with micro quads, they’re small. Real small. The clue’s in the name, really. And when they’re carrying a load, every single gram of weight saved counts. This was the issue faced by filmmaker Robert McIntosh when he wanted to attach an already rather small GoPro Hero 4 to his micro quad. Why? To fly it through very tight spaces, of course.

When I first came across Robert’s film Fresh Squeeze, I’ll admit I was a little confused. The quality is that which we’ve come to know and love from GoPro cameras. But drones capable of lifting a GoPro are generally too large to fit through such small holes. So, I got in touch with Robert to find out a little more about how the film was made.

While cameras on micro drones are pretty common, they’re often very low quality FPV cameras. They’re simply an aid to let the pilot see where they’re going while they fly. They’re usually not all that great for recording usable film footage. Mounting a GoPro onto a micro quad, though, took a little creative engineering.

To give you an idea of how small this drone actually is, Robert sent over a comparison photo. Of the four drones shown, the one that shot Fresh Squeeze was the tiny one on the left. The largest of the three quads is about the size of a DJI Phantom.

progression-towards-miniature
Left to right : 3″ propellers, 5″ propeller model, 8″ Phantom Class model, and a 15″ propeller heavy lift octacopter.

In order to have the small quadcopter be able to lift the GoPro Hero 4, Robert had to get the camera down to its lowest weight possible. Essentially, removing anything that wasn’t absolutely essential. This meant the entire outer shell, including the front faschia and power button cover. Removing as many screws and other non-essential items as possible was vital.

The stock GoPro Hero4 Black weighs only 88g to begin with. So, it’s not exactly heavy. But it’s still too much weight for the little micro quad. By removing the above parts, Robert managed to save a very impressive 24g. This brought the camera down to a slender 62g, knocking a little under a third of its weight.

gopro_parts_weight

The camera’s guys were then mounted inside a super lightweight polystyrene “case”. Robert’s second problem, of course, was balance. Even weighing as little as it now did, the quad would become extremely front heavy. It’s a lot for those little 3″ props to try and counter. Robert’s solution was to simply extend the camera’s battery connector to the back of the drone which would balance things out nicely.

gopro-battery-extention-cord

On a quad this small, there’s obviously no way to mount a gimbal. Even the lightweight 2 axis motorised gimbals come in at around 160g. So, Robert created an ingenious tilting mechanism using a simple tiny servo motor. With this, he could easily adjust the pitch of the camera to point it up or down as he saw fit.

closeup-of-tilt-servo

I mentioned FPV cameras earlier, and here you can see it mounted below the GoPro, along with the battery which powers the quad itself. This transmits a video feed back to the pilot so that they can see exactly where they’re going as they fly. FPV is a wonderful way to fly, and takes a lot of the guesswork out of whether or not you’re actually getting the shots you want.

underside

So, without a gimbal, how did Robert get the footage so stable? While there are various software options out there, Robert used an Adobe After Effects plugin called ReelSteady.

To further enhance the feeling, the footage was also played back in reverse. This allows for some fantastic reveals that simply wouldn’t have the same impact if played forwards. The footage also had some subtle retiming to help these reveals match up with the music. Robert says that the timing was pretty close to begin with, and actually gave him the initial idea to tweak things and make them match perfectly.

One of the benefits of working with such a small and lightweight setup, Robert told me, is the ability to practise indoors very easily.

You certainly couldn’t practise with a Phantom that easily indoors!

Robert also posted the unmodified footage so we could see exactly what the GoPro mounted to the micro quad originally captured.

It’s an impressive final result, and well worth the effort, although it came at no small cost. Robert also sent me a photo of his “GoPro Graveyard”, filled with failed GoPro science experiments.

gopro_graveyard

The things we do and sacrifice for our passions.

You can see some more of Robert’s drone work featured in the ReelSteady gallery. Or you can see some of his other filming work on his Vimeo channel.

What do you think? Are you ready to start hacking up your GoPros? Or will you stick with slightly larger drones for your filming? Have you made similar modifications to shoot footage you couldn’t otherwise get? Let us know in the comments.

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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5 responses to “This filmmaker dismantled his GoPro to make it light enough for his tiny drone”

  1. udi tirosh Avatar
    udi tirosh

    That pass through the concrete hole is a pure miracle

    1. Kaouthia Avatar
      Kaouthia

      I’m sure he took a few practise runs, first. :)

  2. James @raspjamberlin Avatar
    James @raspjamberlin

    is it wrong that I want to try this with a raspberry pi and camera

  3. Renato Murakami Avatar
    Renato Murakami

    Results are awesome and it’s really impressive at that size… that’d be, what? Like half a DJI Mavic Pro?
    Still, kinda curious as to why he didn’t go for a Session, considering the GoPro graveyard. Guessing maybe still too heavy, and then taking it apart to remove the casing would not only be harder, it’d also shave less weight, ending up the same as a regular GoPro?

  4. KugomAidem Avatar
    KugomAidem

    Would love to get ab exact parts list and try this!