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Drones rising as valuable tool in commercial film industry

Steven G. Smith for The Boston Globe

Mike Gearin has a tendency to drone on and on. But it’s OK — because he’s droning about drones.

Gearin is a sky diver, airline pilot, and former flight school instructor who has taken to the skies in a new way: flying commercial drones capable of carrying cinema cameras that shoot amazing shots at low altitudes.

Drones have flown outside of their military origins to become versatile equipment used in everything from firefighting to farming.

Now Gearin’s company, PhotoFlight Aerial Media, based in Manchester, Conn., is tapping into the commercial potential of drones for real estate, surveying, marketing and cinematography. PhotoFlight has hovered over Quincy for a shoreline project to analyze beach erosion, taken promotional videos for an indoor go-kart track; and filmed live news coverage for TV stations, among other projects. Gearin’s “weapon of choice” is a flying platform that is fast and nimble, and has two-operator capability — that means the jobs of operating the drone and the camera are split between two people. The Globe spoke with Gearin about whether the sky’s the limit for drones.

“People are very curious about drones. The running joke of this industry is that bystanders predictably ask the same standard set of questions: How high does it fly? How far? How long? How much? And finally, of course — can I try it?


“Drones neatly fill the space between ground cameras and helicopters. The sweet spot is at about 50 to 300 feet, which is an eye-catching perspective not typically seen. At this angle, the subject fills the camera frame, offering dynamic detail, much more than would be seen with a long lens shot from an aircraft or helicopter.

“It’s assumed that the best use of a drone is high up in the air, but in reality, for production shots, drones are very low to the ground. We were recently shooting a movie off Block Island. There were 7- to 8-foot swells and the ocean was very turbulent. The ground crew couldn’t keep the camera steady and the guys got seasick, but we were able to launch a drone that hovered just off the water and got exciting scenes of the actors.


“Other uses for a drone: a casino wanted to install a zip line over a half mile of forestry. They needed to know what plants to remove or top off without having to go in and measure the height of every tree. We flew the drone at treetop level and the engineering company created a 3-D environment from the overlapping photos. They were able to minimize environmental impact by figuring out and extruding tree heights very accurately.

“As the regulatory environment surrounding unmanned aerial systems grows increasingly complex, much of my time is spent dealing with legal compliance, airspace authorizations, and permitting issues.

“Many commercial drone operators had to go through the process of becoming a licensed aircraft (or hot air balloon) pilot, just to be able to fly drones for money. Since then, there’s regulatory framework that allows aspiring commercial drone pilots to obtain a remote pilot license instead. And the FAA is working to streamline the processing of special waivers such as flying at night, operating over people, or from a moving vehicle.

“It’s amazing to watch drone technology evolve at an incredible speed. The drones available now are technologically light years ahead of past units. Early on in the industry, drones had a common failure with GPS and would just start flying away. That feeling of having lost control of a drone is the worst feeling ever. Now it’s gotten to the point where safety redundancy has pretty much eliminated this, with features like 360-obstacle avoidance, return-to-home functions, and high-wind warnings.


“Still, after 30 feet, it’s easy to lose depth perception. Drones are expensive equipment and the last thing you want to do is fly into a tree. It’s important to know how drones operate down to the core, and I’m glad that I’ve assembled a drone before and put all the components together.

“Today, when my kids, they often see a TV commercial or movie, and start yelling, ‘Drone shot! Drone shot!’ They almost instantly recognize the look and feel of drone photography, as it’s very fluid and compelling. After being a pilot for many years, my head still spins when I see the ease of getting the same perspective without getting on an airplane and going up in the air.”

Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at