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Drone vs. the Volcano

A DJI Phantom 2 flying near the Holuhraun volcano eruption, Bardarbunga volcanic system, Iceland.

An inside look at an amazing journey

In the world of Rotor Drones, one of the primary functions of the aerial vehicle is to shoot amazing and interesting videos and photographs. From the start, RotorDrone Magazine has searched out those individuals who go above and beyond the ordinary and commonplace. To produce truly inspirational results, the drones and equipment used have to be topnotch and their operators have to be dedicated and driven. Recently, we had the pleasure of chatting with Eric Cheng, who exemplifies the type of individuals who constantly raise the bar and set new standards that truly inspire us all.
To help showcase the use of quadcopters for shooting high-quality videos and digital images, DJI came up with the Feats project. The idea was to produce videos that could not be shot any other way except with a small aerial vehicle. Highlighted on the DJI YouTube channel, the first professional quality video is of the Bardarbunga Volcano Eruption in Iceland. Here is what Eric had to say about this epic project.

Icelandic sheep hang out by the guesthouses at Mudrudalur, Iceland.

Icelandic sheep hang out by the guesthouses at Mudrudalur, Iceland.

 

RotorDrone: The production quality of your video is topnotch! What equipment did you use?
Eric Cheng: The flying equipment was mostly right off the DJI shelf and consisted of a DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter with a Zenmuse gimbal, and a GoPro Hero 3+ Black camera. To get the signal back to us we use the Lightbridge high-definition wireless transmission system.

Arctic foxes (Vulpes lagopus) at Mšdrudalur guesthouse, Iceland.

Arctic foxes (Vulpes lagopus) at Mšdrudalur guesthouse, Iceland.

 

RD: Tell us about your trip to Iceland. How did you get the idea for this particular volcano?
EC: I actually had been on vacation in Iceland a few months before the volcano started erupting. On that trip, I made friends with some folks who plan expeditions for photographers. After I returned, the volcano started erupting, and I had a random thought: what if we sent a quadcopter into the volcano? I called my contacts, and they said, “We can do it on Saturday.” Things like the weather, the direction of the wind and frequent storms in the region all play a part in when a possible shoot can happen, so three days later, I was on a plane back to Iceland. After landing at Reykjavik I hopped into a car and went on the 12-hour trip to the farmhouse where we would spend the night. In the morning, we had another three-hour trip driving over rough and unpaved roads to the volcano.

Cinematographer Valdimar Leifsson's bumper fell off of his car while driving the harsh, unpaved roads leading to the Holuhraun volcano eruption. Bardarbunga volcanic system, Iceland.

Cinematographer Valdimar Leifsson’s bumper fell off of his car while driving the harsh, unpaved roads leading to the Holuhraun volcano eruption. Bardarbunga volcanic system, Iceland.

 

RD: What about the logistics? Did you just drive to the volcano and start shooting?
EC: No, it wasn’t that simple. We needed to get approval and obtain the necessary paperwork and permits. We were able to drive to a location that was about a mile and a half away from the eruption sight, where we set up basecamp. I knew range would be an issue but since the quadcopter was equipped with an automatic “return home” function, I wasn’t worried about losing the drone. After a couple attempts with the quadcopter stopping short and returning back to us, we thought we were in trouble, and I asked the local officials if we could possibly get any closer. The policeman on site looked at our permits and said that it did state specifically that we could not drive any closer to the eruption. But, he continued, it says nothing that would prevent you from walking in closer to the eruption. So we hauled our equipment to about three-quarters of a mile from the rim.

PHOTO BY RAGNAR SIGURDSSON. Eric Cheng flies a DJI Phantom 2 well out of visual range, using a Lightbridge wireless HD video link and Atomos Ninja Blade display and video recorder to monitor his flight. Holuhraun volcano eruption, Bardarbunga volcanic system, Iceland.

PHOTO BY RAGNAR SIGURDSSON. Eric Cheng flies a DJI Phantom 2 well out of visual range, using a Lightbridge wireless HD video link and Atomos Ninja Blade display and video recorder to monitor his flight. Holuhraun volcano eruption, Bardarbunga volcanic system, Iceland.

 

RD: So how did it go? Did you have any difficulties?
EC: From the new location, we were able to launch successful flights over the volcano. Every once in a while we would experience RF interference, causing sporadic video and control signal loss. We speculated later that there might be some sort of radio frequency interference being generated by the molten lava as it moved and exploded out from within the crater. During the last flight, we lost video signal, and it never came back. Alarmed, I signaled for the Phantom 2 to return to home, and after a few minutes, we saw the tell-tale flashing lights of the Phantom as it came flying back home. When it landed, we discovered that the GoPro camera had actually melted during the flight! Thankfully, we were able to remove the microSD card and recover the video footage.

The front of Eric's GoPro melted when exposed to the extreme head of the volcanic eruption. The GoPro stopped working, mid-flight, and Eric relied on an autonomous feature called "Return to Home" to retrieve his Phantom 2.

The front of Eric’s GoPro melted when exposed to the extreme head of the volcanic eruption. The GoPro stopped working, mid-flight, and Eric relied on an autonomous feature called “Return to Home” to retrieve his Phantom 2.

 

Aerial image of Holuhraun volcano eruption, Bardarbunga volcanic system, Iceland. Screenshot from video taken using DJI Phantom 2 and GoPro.

Aerial image of Holuhraun volcano eruption, Bardarbunga volcanic system, Iceland. Screenshot from video taken using DJI Phantom 2 and GoPro.

 

PHOTO BY RAGNAR SIGURDSSON. Eric Cheng, retrieving a DJI Phantom 2 at the Holuhraun volcano eruption, Bardarbunga volcanic system, Iceland. The GoPro camera melted in the intense heat during the flight, and the Phantom returned to launch point using the built-in Return-To-Home feature.

PHOTO BY RAGNAR SIGURDSSON. Eric Cheng, retrieving a DJI Phantom 2 at the Holuhraun volcano eruption, Bardarbunga volcanic system, Iceland. The GoPro camera melted in the intense heat during the flight, and the Phantom returned to launch point using the built-in Return-To-Home feature.

 

Eric Cheng is DJI’s Director of Aerial Imaging and the General Manager of the San Francisco office. He comments: “I got my start at DJI about three years ago as a media contributor. DJI had seen some of my video work, and asked if they could use some of it for marketing. I originally studied computer science, and graduated from Stanford with a BS and MS in Computer Science. I started working as a software engineer after leaving school, but after only a few years, developed a love of photography, eventually becoming an underwater photographer. I started and still run a website/digital magazine called ‘Wetpixel,’ which is a community website for underwater image makers. I experimented in aerial photography using multi-rotors a few years ago, but it was mostly the improvements that DJI products made to aerial platforms that made me spend a lot more time shooting from the air.” Up to this point, Eric had been building his own multirotors from scratch. Eric says, “What I like the most about DJI is that there is no typical day in the office. Everything in the industry is happening so quickly. DJI is a global company that is headquartered in China. But really, it’s not only about selling units off the shelf, though that is a major part of the business. The main focus of DJI is to offer a means for people to use technology to expand their creativity.”

By Team RotorDrone

Updated: August 29, 2016 — 4:51 pm
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