Profile: Skyecam

Yesterday I have the privilege of talking with JJ Trinidad, the owner of Skyecam. He first caught my attention when I read a recent article in the Wall Street Journal that referenced a BMW commercial, which included UAS video filmed in the United States.   I thought this was going to focus primarily on the BMW commercial, but after a fascinating conversation with JJ, I’m having trouble choosing what videos to include in the article.

Skyecam provided the aerial shots for the BMW commercial, shot at locations in New York and Massachusetts.  Particularly exciting for Patriots fans will be that a part of it was filmed outside of Gillette Stadium, as seen in the preview below and on the main page of the blog!  He does build his own custom UAS. He was getting the aircraft up to 40 or 50 mph during the shoot, but at those speeds the images start to get shaky.

We moved on to general drone topics.  I asked him about his interactions with the FAA and local authorities.  He has not had trouble with local authorities, and the FAA wasn’t particularly helpful some time ago when he contacted them about obtaining permission.  More on the FAA below.

I asked him about the WSJ article and how the FAA regulatory issues affect his insurance coverage.  He carries insurance through the AMA (Academy of Model Aeronautics), but that only covers him for recreational flights at an AMA location.  His experience has been that typical commercial policies will exclude any losses that occur without a permit – if one is required.  This means that any accidents during shoots over public areas requiring a permit will not be covered, but accidents during one on private property would typically be covered.  In the context of a shoot such as for BMW, he was working for the production company and under their insurance.  Technically, this insurance policy should cover a loss, but the carrier would need to know that a UAS is in use.  Because of the FAA’s position on commercial use, that notification isn’t always made.  JJ said that in the end, it isn’t that easy to get coverage for the work he does.

JJ started flying RC planes as a kid off of the cliffs of California.  He got into something called Dynamic Soaring and eventually his Skyecam Team captured the world speed record, at close to 400 mph!    This is amazing given that the planes do not have any engines and use only wind and physics to gain such speeds.  The cliffs found in California provide the appropriate natural wind patterns for this type of flying.

JJ believes Dynamic Soaring taught him more about how to fly a UAS than anything else because he needed a thorough understanding of lift, yaw, and other concepts that keep an object airborne.  Interestingly, albatross do something similar – they can fly thousands of miles using little energy by diving toward the leeward side of a wave.

He got into aerial videography around 2006, when he taped a camcorder to one of his RC planes.  The images where shaky and you could see parts of the airframe in the image, but he dreamed that one day the technology would evolve to the point that he could create professional aerial videos – and that day is here.  JJ hasn’t shied away from risky flights, either.  One story he didn’t mention to me, but which I found online, was about a flight he took over LA’s notorious Skid Row.  He set down his $3,000 custom UAS when the battery was low and someone tried to steal it.  He did get it back, only to be stopped by cops during the “get-away” (they let him off after explaining to him that the area is controlled by street gangs).  Here is the resulting video from the drone.

I asked him about the current state of FAA regulations, a subject on which he had a lot to say.  He has spoken to the FAA about flights, but found them unprepared to answer his questions or provide useful guidance.  He wasn’t enamored with the 333 Exemption process either and believes that the requirement for a traditional pilot certificate is not appropriate.  For example, a Boeing 747 pilot wouldn’t understand how to fly one of his drones, and vice versa.  He is also adamant that the proposed rules fall short in that they do not require UAS-specific training prior to being allowed to fly commercially.  He firmly believes, and I agree, that UAS users should get training on their airframes so they know how to react in an emergency; such as the loss of a propeller or loss of radio communication with the aircraft.  In his eyes, it is no different than driving a car without a license.

JJ worries that the DJI and similar platforms that allow for autonomous flight, with the amateur users they are attracting, are harming the public image of UAS and causing unnecessary accidents.  He thinks that these features should be used only in emergencies.  He does use FPV when he is flying recreationally, but all commercial work is done within line-of-sight.  In his opinion, FPV is unsafe if one isn’t sufficiently experienced or when one is flying commercially (FPV is conditionally allowed under the FAA’s proposed rules).  He also stays away from airports, except when using Apollo Airfield, which is fairly close to an airport but a sanctioned model aircraft field.

He will be commenting on the FAA rules, as any member of the public can.  He hasn’t submitted his yet, since Skyecam is working to put together a thorough comment, but I look forward to the result.

Finally, this past weekend he took some video in the clouds from the Angeles Crest in the Angeles National Forest, boasting the highest elevations around Los Angeles.  He was already at a high elevation before launching, so the aircraft wasn’t that far from him when it was up in the clouds. He does use UHF radio frequencies that have a range close to 10 miles and can penetrate through clouds.  The beach portions of the video are at Big Sur and the overhead shots of the zebras are from a prior trip to Africa.  I had to ask about the latter part, and he said he took some artistic liberty in adding that portion.

I’ll close with that most recent video.  Make sure to chose the highest resolution possible.  It is shot in 4K, better than HD, and on the Apple Retina screen it is absolutely amazing.  JJ is a highly-experienced UAS pilot and videographer, and is well-positioned to take advantage of this new technology.  His work is excellent and I’m sure he and Skyecam will continue to awe.