Helicopter Drones Used by Hollywood Now Aimed at Military Buyers


LONDON — British company Colena Ltd. has sold its unmanned multicopters to shoot footage for television mega-hits such as Game of Thrones and the upcoming James Bond and Star Wars movies. Now, the company is trying to make a name for itself with potential military customers.

Military buyers have largely preferred fixed wing UAVs instead of unmanned rotorcraft that are tougher to maintain and have less endurance. Now it’s time for militaries to give multicopters another chance, said Justin Pringle, Colena’s business development manager.

This is Colena’s first time attending the Defense Systems and Equipment International exhibition, and its officials believe they can provide small multicopters with larger payload capability than those offered by most commercial and defense companies.

“Basically, these are the first heavy-lift systems that can stay in the air for about half an hour,” Pringle said. “A lot of quadcopters and multicopters, they can’t carry much weight. These are designed to carry” around 11 to 33 pounds.

The company currently offers unmanned quadcopters and octocopters with four and eight rotors, respectively. The air vehicle itself costs around $23,000. The octocopter weighs about 16 pounds fully-loaded with a gimbal and batteries. The gimbals provide 360-degree rotation to whatever camera is attached, he said.

The endurance of multicopters, or lack thereof, continue to be the product’s main limitation. Colena’s octocopter can fly for a half hour, but that drops to about 20 minutes if they are fully loaded, Pringle said. As batteries improve, so will endurance, he added.

The quadcopter can fly for up to 60 minutes with a lower payload, according to Colena’s website. The octocopter can keep going even after a rotor failure, because it has seven others to keep it flying, he said.

Colena’s quadcopter on display at DSEI was outfitted with a thermal camera, but the drone can carry multiple payloads. For full-motion video, Pringle said the military should take a closer look at using the same mega high-definition or IMAX cameras used by film crews, which could provide higher resolution imagery.

The response from its military attendees has been good so far, “but it's like anything, it's all potential,” he said. “When it comes to closure, it might take us a week, it might take us six months, but we've met the people that we wanted to meet while we were here."

The aircraft might be best suited to do surveillance in research-and-development or other less risky environments, at least until they are proven to be reliable for military missions, Pringle said.
Colena officials spoke with British Navy personnel about the possibility of powering the rotorcopters through a tether to a ship, which would eliminate the endurance problem and give vessels an additional way to collect intelligence.

“It's like having a magic telescope. [A sailor] can tell it what height to be at, he can have multiple cameras to look forward, back, 360 [degrees around],” Pringle said. “You could untether it and then let it fly off and then come back.”

The company currently is selling about two vehicles a week to the film and television businesses, and it also is expanding its use in other industries, Pringle said. For example, Google contractors are piloting a Colena multicopter equipped with a commercial Red Epic camera to get high-definition footage of Finland’s landscapes.

"Every day they fly … this exact pattern to Google coordinates using Google waypoints,” he said. “They stitch them together, and now they're going to have an IMAX-resolution map of trees in the forest of Finland." 

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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