A conversation with 3D Robotics’ Colin Guinn
Currently the chief revenue officer at 3D Robotics (3DR), Colin Guinn is a major advocate of the drone industry and has held positions at DJI North America and testified before Congress. He paused from his busy schedule at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, to chat with RotorDrone. His enthusiasm for the industry was apparent and contagious right from the beginning.
RotorDrone: How did you end up at your current position at 3DR?
Colin Guinn: I partnered up with Chris Anderson [of 3DR] to develop a drone that would be based from the user experience standpoint versus just starting with the technology. I started at the beginning of 2014 at 3DR developing Solo. We launched it in the summer of 2015. Here we are almost a year later. We keep making it better—that was the whole goal. We wanted expandability through physical hardware as well as expandability with software updates and firmware updates with the onboard computers. That’s what makes Solo different, and that’s why I went in that direction.
RD: In your opinion, what will it take for the general public to stop being afraid of drones? Do we need to drop the word “drone” altogether and just call them “UAVs” (unmanned aerial vehicles)?
CG: It’s funny you asked that. That was our initial strategy with the DJI Phantom. We would never use the word “drone.” It was “flying camera, flying camera, flying camera!” But finally we said, “Let’s embrace it; let’s take the power out of it. “That’s a drone, that’s a drone, that’s a drone.” A drone is not a big scary thing that’s killing people in Afghanistan. Four years ago, that was the basic thought of the word “drone.”
RD: That takes us to January 2015 when you testified before the House of Representatives. What led to that day, and how were you chosen?
CG: I was asked by the Science and Technology Committee of Congress and they said, “We’re having a hearing about drones and integrating drone technology. We want to have the perspective of the consumer market and feel you’ve been a big part of that.”
RD: So you were already recognized by them, obviously.
CG: Yes, they knew me. I said, “Yes, I’d be honored to. I should fly a small drone in there so you can see what it looks like.” I think that this speaks to me as being an advocate for the drone industry. I didn’t take an Iris+ in there because that would be inappropriate. I didn’t want people thinking, “Oh my God, that could get me stitches on my face.” So I called my friends at Parrot and said, “Hey, bring out a Bebop; that’d be the perfect drone.”
The point that I wanted to make was that we should at least start allowing lightweight drones to be used for commercial purposes. The fact that our small UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] category is 55 pounds or less (which means the 55-pound monsters that you see hanging around [at NAB] are categorized in the same family as Phantoms, Solos, or Bebops. That’s crazy, right? So the point I was trying to make was that there is so much that we can learn.
We can use the 80/20 rule. Literally 80 percent of the commercial work out there can be done with these drones that are 20 percent of the weight of the heavier drones. We can start getting these into circulation and learning about the bad things. If one zooms off and flies away and, heaven forbid, happens to hit an airliner, it’s not going to crash it. It’s going to be an incident, but it’s not going to be a 50-pound helicopter flying up there. That’s a whole different ball o’ wax. I was trying to get some kind of provision for micro UAS.
RD: Do you see less stringent guidelines in the future for flying in restricted airspace?
CG: I think that there may not be less stringent guidelines, but there will be a mechanism to allow for it. I think the more restricted the airspace, the more risk there is, [and] the more hoops we’ll have to jump through to get approved. So it’s all going to be a risk model, right? “Oh, you’re shooting some farmland out in Kansas? Cool!” It’s under X weight; you have insurance; you have your FAA certificate. “Go shoot, have a ball!” If you want to shoot over Times Square at a live concert, [you’ll need a] parachute, tether, 48-hour notice, pilot’s license, visual observers … I’m sure they’re going to require all kinds of provisions. I think there will be a mechanism to do all kinds of shooting.
We just shot the rocket launch for Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’s rocket company [that competes] with Elon Musk. We’re at a full-lockdown no-fly zone because it’s a rocket launch. The FAA is on-site, and we’re within a couple miles of an airport. We had nine drones flying two and a half to three and a half miles away to shoot this launch. The whole thing was fully approved by the FAA—all section 333 pilots.
RD: That was an official event, and it needed to be documented.
CG: My point is [that] even in a situation like that—a strict no-fly zone—we’re flying drones three miles away and capturing a launch. There was a bunch of red tape that Blue Origin had to go through to get that approved. I think that a year from now there will be less red tape because they won’t have to figure it out. They knew they had to document this big event and had to figure out how to work together with us. The next rocket launch will be like, “We’ve been here before. This is what needs to happen. Let’s do it.” So as they figure out those rules, there will be hoops to jump through but at least they will be clear. You can go jump through them and do your work. That’s what I think will happen.
RD: Living in Southern California, I’ve tried to take my drone out to state parks like Vasquez Rocks and Castaic Lake and eventually been told by rangers to pack it up. You get frustrated. If I can’t take my drone to beautiful places like that, what good is having a drone?
CG: I think that was an early reactionary measure. “We don’t know what these things are. We don’t know if they will harm the wildlife, scare off ecosystems. National parks … state parks, can’t fly here!” They will figure it out; “if it’s this weight, what are the possible downsides?” Maybe you’ll have to ask the park ranger 24 hours in advance and show your FAA certificate—show that it’s a licensed drone. So it’s an early block and then we’ll start bringing it back to something more manageable.
That’s kind of what the FAA did with drones in general! People were using drones in film in the mid ’90s. It was no big deal because there were very few people doing it. As it started getting more and more popular in 2011/2012, the FAA just said “Stop.” People have been doing it for 15 years! But they said, “Stop! Don’t use them anymore. Until we come out with regulations, then we’ll tell you what you’re allowed to do.”
RD: If someone is interested in making money flying a drone, at what level should they start?
CG: I think the minimum level would be something like a Solo or a Phantom … a Phantom 3 Pro, a Phantom 4, a Solo with a (GoPro) Hero4 Black.
I shot for 13 hours with Michael Bay with a Hero4 Black and a Solo. We shot Transformers 4 [Age of Extinction] with that. They had heavy lifters flying with Red Epics and things like that, but really good cinematographers and great directors care about the shot and the perspective. That supersedes the quality of the drone. Lower-end productions might say, “We’re only going to shoot on Epics. If we can’t get this into a small area, then we won’t do the shot.” Michael Bay said, “This is the shot that I want. Can we get a Red Epic in there? If we can’t, let’s get a smaller drone in there.” These smaller drones can get a shot that the bigger ones can’t—like getting a little closer to the explosion, for instance. The bigger ones can’t go through a window or get into a tight spot. If the postproduction team knows what they’re doing—taking 65 megabit per second Protune footage off of a Hero4 Black, tweaking it, color correcting it—it’s in the theater and it looks great! They can match the stuff being shot back on the ground.
Honestly, the investment necessary, the hassle, the danger involved with flying a Red Epic–size octo or something like that, it’s a point of diminishing returns. You might get a few extra jobs because you can fly an Epic, but you don’t get paid that much more day rate for it. It’s a major hassle to travel with those-size drones; they’re very expensive. I think the days of people spending $30,000 on Red Epic–carrying octos so that they can go charge big day rates are numbered. If you look at an Inspire with an X5, it’s phenomenal video quality for, what, five, six thousand bucks all in? So I think that’s your range. Solo, Phantom, Inspire X5, you’ve got all that in your bag. Sure there’s going to be occasional-use cases for flying a Sony a7R II with a 24–240mm zoom lens, being able to do active-zoom, follow-focus, and flying Red Epics. There’s always going to be that very, very niche market, but I think it’s definitely a point of diminishing returns.
RD: Compare the technological advancements of drones of a few years ago to the advancements of today’s drones. What has been the most important technological feature to date?
CG: In my opinion, these are the key features that have made the drone industry what it is today. First, it was the autopilot. Before autopilot, you had to fly remote-control helicopters. They didn’t even have gyros; it was fully manual and very difficult. There was a super-small amount of people that flew them. Some people put cameras on them. Richard Emmanuel from Flying-Cam won an Oscar in 1996. They didn’t have autopilot or any of that stuff. Then autopilots came out. DJI came out with the XP 3.1 and then the Ace One. That was the first big technological breakthrough that started making it easier to fly. It became easy to pilot at long distances. Without that at 50 or 100 feet away, you’re manually flying that helicopter and it is difficult.
I think the second breakthrough in technology was the brushless stabilized gimbal because now your footage is usable. That was launched in 2011, I think, with the Zenmuse. Now brushless gimbals are everywhere.
Honestly, I think the next big breakthrough to happen after that was Smart Shots. Once you had a stabilized gimbal, if you had a pilot and a camera operator, you could get these really great shots. You could be a single operator with a Phantom and it was easy, but you’re only getting these one-axis moves: pushing in, bumping up, moving across. But with a Phantom, you are limited to doing combinations of those; you’re only one person, and you can’t do that much with your fingers. Getting an orbit shot around a lighthouse while you’re climbing and it’s tilting down on top of it—you can’t do that as one person. Then 3DR released Smart Shots, which is basically aerial-motion control, and that allowed the use of autopilots and stabilized gimbals. Computers basically set key frames and hit play. Let these complex shots happen where the gimbal is being controlled by the onboard computer. Everything is fully coordinated.
I think the next big breakthrough after that might be object-oriented visual-target tracking and follow and more computer learning. Automatic inspection might happen. You could say there’s a wind turbine in front of you—go find it and inspect it. People are working on that!
RD: Where do you think the thermal imaging and UV imaging are going in aerial photography?
CG: There’s always a place for thermal. We have a Flir integration with Solo; we can do the Flir-Vue with our
Solo app and do Smart Shots and Orbits and Multipoint Cable cams with thermal. I think it will always be a niche market: search and rescue, surveillance. There are a lot of great uses for it. I think it’s always going to be a niche market, though.
RD: Do you think we’ve seen the end of the guy hanging out of the Bell Helicopter with a Tyler mount?
CG: No. In my aerial-photography company, we did full-scale [helicopters] and small UAVs. When we did the Blue Origin shoot, we brought in a full-scale with a gimbal on it, plus we had all our drones. You’re not going to do a car-chase scene, going 90 miles an hour down the 101 for 10 miles with a drone. You need a helicopter with a camera mount on it.
Are the days of people hanging out the side of an R44 with a Tyler mount shooting a wakeboarder gone? I think so. There’s no reason for that. You can shoot that with a drone all day long. It’s a heck of a lot safer, lower cost, more efficient, and you get better shots!
Are the days of flying an R44 over power lines to take pictures of them numbered? Absolutely! People die every year from doing that. I think that you will always need full-scale helicopters for their appropriate aerial shots. Right now, there is no reason for these helicopters to be getting the risky low-altitude shots that they used to. These shots should be done with drones!