There are so many different uses for drones: cinematography, 3D surveys, thermal imaging, search and rescue, police work, you name it…Drones are positively changing many different industries. A lot of this is due to their low cost barrier and ease of use. But these positive changes do impact other industries, most notably, the rotorcraft services.
Breaking down a common debate.
Drone vs helicopter video services.
I came from a commercial helicopter background. After being in the industry for only a short time, I decided that the future of helicopters was bleeding, and bleeding pretty good. I enjoyed flying both helicopters and drones alike, but looking out for my future, I decided to stick with drones. Below are my reasons to make the full-time switch.
NOTE: For the sake of this article we will only be focusing on the aerial filming industry. See Part 2: Helicopter Benefits for our list of helicopter benefits.
Top 5 Reasons for Choosing Drones over Helicopters
1. Helicopters are way too expensive
This one is so obvious it almost goes without saying. But since it is so obvious, it deserves the #1 spot.
If you think hiring a drone company is expensive, you probably have never dealt with any sort of helicopter operation. We’re talking CRAZY expensive. Helicopter prices are usually set by two components: aircraft cost and insurance. Insurance prices have gone up loads recently. They have high liability factors and the lives of the individuals in the aircraft.
Cheaper commercial models like the Robinson R44 typically run a commercial price of $800/hr. That is about as cheap as it gets. One of the most popular commercial helicopters in the world is the AS350 (AStar). The Astar runs from $1,500 to $2,000 per hour. This hourly price is any time the Hobbs meter is running. So as soon as it fires up at the hanger, to the moment it shuts down, you are getting billed. So unless the job is right beside the airport, you can tack on an hour or two at least for transport.
This is bare price not including any sort of rentals or safety crews, etc. If your goal is professional video, you’ll need to be renting a gimbal system. A Cineflex gimbal rents for roughly $4,000- $10,000 per day on top of the helicopter hourly rate.
We could start adding on camera rentals, crews, and all the rest. But I think we all got the point.
AStar with Cineflex mounted on the nose
2. Drones can go places helicopters can’t
Some of the most scenic and creative drone footage is shot in places that helicopters simply can’t go. This creative edge is down close to the ground flying through trees, cresting over a ridge, and flying near structures. These are dangerous positions to put a helicopter pilot, much less the legal ramifications of this type of flying.
To be fair, there are a lot of places that helicopters can reach that drones can’t. But those cases tend to be fewer.
3. Missed the shot? Let’s do it again…
It is very easy to do reshoots with a drone. The director is usually watching FPV and seeing exactly what the operator is doing.
However, reshoots in helicopters add in another layer of complexity. Usually the camera operator is in the helicopter and director is on the ground. Communication gets rather complex and doing another take will require more time!
Performing a shoot a few times over in a drone doesn’t require the client much in additional costs. But in helicopters, keep an eye on the Hobbs meter because you are paying per hour.
We did our latest shoot with a Hollywood crew up in Montana. Initially, they only wanted one shot…this turned into 5-10 shots when they noted our capabilities. But with a drone, it only took slapping in another battery and a couple more flights to get all the shots. Try that with a helicopter!
4. No Refueling Problems
For any operation beyond a couple hours, helicopters need refueling. This is pretty obvious, but can be a royal pain in the butt. Operations can run a fuel truck out to location, but what if your shot is off-roads, or not close to a suitable landing zone for the helicopter? You are stuck with more costs and more logistics headaches.
This problem isn’t the end of the world, but one more reason why drones make it just that much easier.
Ran out of juice with your drone and you just throw in another battery.
Note: If you fly a DJI Inspire, you can go all day with a charging station like this one from the Drone Owners Network.
5. Helicopter can be hard to find
Helicopters are much more difficult to find, not to mention schedule and nail down dates. Commercial helicopter operations requiring charter services will need a Part 135 certificate. A Part 135 certificate is pretty difficult for air operators to get. Think of getting your Section 333 on steroids. Businesses need to get on a drug testing program, create training manuals, obtain a secure location for their aircraft, etc. Not to mention the piles of paperwork required and multiple FSDO meetings. Aerial film work can be conducted under Part 91, but the aircraft must land at the original point of departure. This might not always be possible, especially if you are shooting outside of town.
Lots of helicopter based businesses don’t have Part 135 certificates because of how difficult it is to get them. So more often than not, if you want to charter a helicopter or use it remotely for film services, you’ll need to find a Part 135 operator. When you are paying a helicopter per hour, you want one close to location, and that might be a big problem.
Drones are not only shaping the future for aerial video, but also the countless other operations that helicopters traditionally owned. Search and rescue, police work, engineering, and architecture are just a few examples.
In all fairness, helicopters do have their time and place. It is pretty hard to provide transportation services with a drone, or fighting fire for that matter. Although the latter isn’t that far off… Helicopters will almost always provide a key component for EMS and patient transfer, and any sort of heavy camera equipment is still limited to helicopters. However, as cameras get smaller this may change as well.
We continued this discussion to Part 2: Helicopter Benefits. Part 2 focuses on the benefits helicopters have over drones. We have to keep it fair, right? ;)