Friday, 27 October 2017

Drones and social housing savings.

I've just been directed to an excellent blog post entitled 'Superfly guy' from 2014 which strongly suggests that Drones will be the future of housing surveillance and surveying. From this, from the same author Tony Smith, recently tweets, asking ....

were going to save the world, what happened to them?

The tweet also contains a link to the original article, which is well worth a read here.

Now, I'm not sure how drones alone could save the social housing world especially with the current state of underfunded affairs. Nevertheless, the idea that they could, or should, save housing companies significant amounts of money and time by simplifying seemingly costly and time consuming survey work at height, is a realistic assumption and one that really needs to be addressed.

The article also mentions very briefly, one of the major obstacles that I believe is causing drone operators the biggest headaches in undertaking such work.

I've recently been approached by a housing association with a portfolio of over 300 properties. They need all of their estate's chimneys to be examined due to a recent failure. Without drones, this challenge could take years; to get a 'top down' view of the cement on top of the chimney stack, scaffolding would be necessary. For 300 houses, the cost would run into the 100's of thousands. Then there is the time to erect the scaffolding. The time required to call the surveyors out, to climb the scaffolding, capture the images required and subsequently the time to dismantle the scaffolding. Imagine that, times 300. It's insane with the technology we have, surely?

So the obvious answer, you'd assume would be to contact a drone operator. The first street I looked into was a relatively wide street with terraced houses down either side. 90% of the houses are owned by the company. Legislation dictates that the safe take off for a drone needs to be 30 metres clear of people or other property that's not 'under the control' of the PIC (Pilot in Command). With the property being owned by the housing association, a safe take off point was easily identifiable by looking on the plan, at one of the largest back gardens. Googles 'measure distance' tool is a handy and accurate enough mechanism for covering a site survey. This particular site was 30m clear of other peoples property. So far, so good.

However, several of the houses on this one street weren't owned by the housing association. Also, google street view showed that the road had a number of privately owned cars parked on either side of the road. Now here's were the legislation becomes prohibitive. When the drone is operating, legislation again dictates that it should be 50 metres clear of 'people or property'.

To tick all of these boxes. Either the housing association, or the PIC would need to remove all of the cars from the road and the owners of the privately owned houses would need to be 'under the control' of the Pilot in Command. The legislation also warns,

So woe betide any pilot who dares fly directly over someone else's car, but as the properties would be under the control of the pilot (via the housing association) that would be ok.

But even taking into account the altitude of the drone, getting 50 metres away from the cars parked by the side of the road is nigh on impossible (assuming you want to capture a decent image of the terraced houses chimneys). So, here's the sticking point for lots of operators.

  • Do you leave the permissions aspect to the housing company having clearly stating what work you expect them to do to notify residents?
  • Do you charge for your time, contact the council, close the road, clear the cars out, set the date, and then find out on that particular day, the wind is higher than your operations manual states you can fly (or simply too windy for you to risk it, as 100% control and low wind is required for close up inspection work), or ..... worse still, it's raining? 
  • Do you assume complete responsibility (I have complete faith in my ability to pilot a drone around a row of houses without incident) and just get the job done, grumbling that the legislation is prohibitive and that certain aspects of it make it clear that the risk is yours so it's 'ok'ish? 

To be honest the CAA guidelines which drone operators are required to adhere to is poorly worded frequently contradictory and at times utterly baffling. See articles such as this one. I spoke to a NQE trainer about this particular job, and he advised me that written consent to fly wouldn't need to be obtained from other home owners, but they would need to be 'under my control' which is fine. I can work around that. But any pilot with any apprehensions or anxieties would be understandably reluctant to carry out the work full stop.

Until we agree that the risk is with the Pilot, that the skills of the pilot have been assessed as safe (as they have) and we honour pilots with more authority and autonomy to make their own decisions on what constitutes a safe flight. I fear the housing industry will see a very slow uptake of services offered to them or simply a reluctance to take work on. When busy bodies know about the 30 metre - 50 metre guidelines it takes a brave pilot indeed to fly within an 'urban area'. It's simply impractical to vacate a street of vehicles at short notice (as is often needed when the work relies on the weather).

It's a veritable omnishambles of a situation and one which needs a common sense approach to start to see an uplift in this sort of time and cost saving work. As a country we're fantastic at keeping people safe, but we're morons when it comes to making things easy for ourselves.

Monday, 16 October 2017

4k camera upgrade - for iOS (and maybe Android).

So, if you have a Retina display or a UHD display on your TV or your computer, you'll know just how amazing 4 and 5k can look. But if you've investigated UHD camcorders, you'll also have noticed how the market is divided. Cheap action camera's from China claim to record UHD content. But the results are lacklustre at best and downright ugly if we're being honest. Most struggle to process the data that's required fast enough, meaning blocky results and unsightly artefacts.
At the other end of the market is the branded camcorders, and digital cameras. £300 seems to be the entry level, but the sky really is the limit.

So what if you've got a standard iPhone or iPad? Something that might be a couple of years old, but only has 1080p or 720p options in the menu? Most apple devices have wonderful lenses on them, and significant processing power, which is whats required for recording 4k. Well, I may have some good news for you. Because of their processing capability, they're most than powerful enough to record in 4k, and furthermore, the limitations of the OS menu aren't enough to stop you harnessing that power. In theory, the same should be true of Android devices, but my Octa-Core P8 isn't powerful enough with the apps I've tried.

Firstly iOS - The app I tried for this is called ProMovie recorder. As well as a whole host of manual camera controls that geeks like me might find useful, there's also the option to boost the resolution to way beyond 1080p. To test the app costs nothing but to unlock the app (and remove the watermarks) is a relatively affordable £2.99, well, more affordable than an iPhone upgrade anyway.
You can download it here.

On Android, the 'Open Camera' app has a hidden feature to 'force 4k' although it does state that this is very much experimental and, as previously mentioned, it didn't work on my Huawei P8, which, to be honest, I thought would have been powerful enough. You can download this for free from this link. It gets lots if positive reviews, so I can only assume many people have succeeded. Let me know if it works for you and which phone model you have.

Upload your 4k content to youtube to show off your phone or tablets hidden power!

You're welcome.

What drone upgrade?

So, after a week of some pretty challenging weather and flying, I've come to the realisation that it may be time to upgrade the trusty Phantom 3 professional.

But what a decision this has turned out to be.

After some estate agent work mid week, I returned to the studio to find that the capture was suffering from vibrations coming from the gimbal. This isn't the first time I'd seen this, but I thought I'd resolved it. Since then, I've stripped the gimbal down, found a fan with a couple of loose screws on top, and a worn part that is still rubbing against the gimbal arm, which I've bent into a better shape that gives the arm a few microns of clearance. I've reassembled it and done a couple of test flights and it appears to have fixed the problem. The video footage I captured was so still, my wife thought it was a photo until she saw the trees moving. I was able to find many usable clips from the work and put together a video which the client was happy with. But if you look carefully on a 4k or higher screen, you'll see the vibrations.

Anyhow, I have some other work looming which will involve more skilled piloting, and the Phantom 3 pro isn't renown for it's in flight stability. Take a look at this video comparing the 3 with the 4 and you can see how much more difficult it is to fly the 3, especially for close inspection work, which may be required.

So, all things considered, I'm thinking perhaps it's upgrade time, however my budget is limited. £1000- 1500 is the ideal cost, well, no to be honest nothing would be ideal, but £2000 is my upper budget. However the options here are surprisingly limited.

The obvious choice is the Phantom 4. This is the natural upgrade to a Phantom 3 and has a number of significant upgrades. The stability is much better than the 4, and the Pro version has a 4k 60fps camera, which is significantly better than the 4k 25fps of the phantom 3. The camera quality has also been improved with a 20mp unit, with a mechanical shutter. But, and here's the rub. It still looks like a hobbyist machine. It's totally competent, it's a minor miracle of technology, but image is everything. And showing up for a paid job, with one of these, makes you look like you are on a budget. I appreciate the quality of the work and overall level of professionalism should be the key for a client to do business with you, but, well. In the back of my mind, I know..... it looks a bit like, well, a toy.

So that brings me on to option 2. The original inspire 1. Now available from a number of outlets for around the £1700 mark, this machine oozes professionalism and high tech. With it's retractable landing gear and futuristic looks, it would impress most clients who've never seen one before. And it comfortably crosses the boundary from amateur to pro (in my opinion). But, it only shoots 4k in 30fps, it has no collision avoidance (like the Phantom 4) and is a bugger to set up. Not only that, I'd also know my flight time was more limited, as it's so much heavier than the 4, it only last about 2/3 of the time in the air! The accessories are more expensive and well, I'd also know, in the back of my mind, it was yesterdays technology, and I think, the 4 is a better all rounder.

So how about option 3? The Yuneec Typhoon H Pro. This Hexacopter also looks professional. But, well, it isn't. 10 minutes on youtube will show you the video is soft compared with either of the previously mentioned DJI products. It has an incredibly impressive controller, but it runs on Android 4.4 and won't allow you to install apps or share footage easily and is clunky and horrible to use by comparison to the Dji Go app. It has collision avoidance, which is nice, but whilst it's an incredible budget option, it's still obviously a budget product. Although it might impress the client, ultimately, they'd get worse footage as a result and, well I couldn't live with that either.

So none of these choices aren't without their compromises. The head says that the Phantom is the best all round option. The heart says the Inspire, but common sense says hang fire for now. This generation of entry level prosumer drones is just not quite there yet. And if the gimbal of the 3 is working, then perhaps I should see if I can get another 300 miles out of it?

Or, perhaps the heart will win? Lets just wait and see how long the Phantom 3 lasts. Interested in others opinions, bear in mind, the video work I do is mainly, survey, corporate and estate agent, not music video or movie.

Google Drive for Desktop.