I stood in the corner of the small office as a remote-controlled quadcopter hovered a metre in front of me. No larger than a small pizza box, it moved from side to side, the four rotors loudly stirring the air, as its owner piloted the device beside me. On a screen next to us was a monitor displaying live footage of my face produced by the quadcopter’s camera. As the fast-moving blades spun ever closer to my body, I watched myself smile nervously on the screen.
“If something does fail – a motor goes out and it falls on a $100,000 dollar Land Rover – it will ruin your day,” said Long Chean. But the Phnom Penh-based videographer and owner of the Third World Studios production company has become an adept pilot, he assured me.
“I’ve had enough flight time that I’m more comfortable being near people,” he said.
“I used to be nervous [flying] around anything living. Or anything expensive.”
While unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), colloquially known as drones, garner the most media attention for their use in combat over the skies of Afghanistan and Pakistan, much smaller varieties have been put to civilian use, with Domino’s Pizza delivering the world’s first pizza order by drone last June. For Chean, UAVs allow him to shoot aerial photography that was once prohibitively expensive for his small media company.
“We can all shoot from the ground, and you can get an underwater camera, but it’s kind of cool that you can shoot from the air without paying an arm and a leg for a helicopter,” said Chean, who bought his first UAV six months ago.
Chean’s DJI Phantom drone, which is one of four models he owns, is capable of ascending hundreds of metres into the air at 21.6 kilometres per hour and cruises at top speeds of 36 kilometres per hour. Its battery life is around 12 minutes, and its maximum radius is 300 metres. With a retail price of $700, Chean said that it costs little compared to the UAVs sold five years ago, which ranged from $30,000 to $40,000.
His aerial photography includes private footage taken around the Kep coastline and Battambang, as well as commercial videos shot for clients, including NagaWorld and a Khmer horror movie production.
“Whether it’s for work or not, I just enjoy the hobby,” said Chean, adding that he never considered flying UAVs until it dawned on him that he could use them to take video.
Remote-controlled flight comes with its challenges, and as a novice pilot, Chean took some time to master the little machine.
“The first time I took it up was on my balcony. I strapped a phone with a nice camera on it. The thing goes up, it leans, slams into the wall, the battery goes this way, the phone goes that way, the lid goes another way, and I realised I needed more space.”
Before he installed a video uplink that allows him to watch whatever the UAV sees at a ground station, Chean said that it was difficult to know which way the drone was pointed.
“The toughest thing about flying these things is the orientation,” said Chean, adding that the symmetrical layout of the rotors makes it difficult to determine its direction from the ground.
“Once you get 100 metres out from you, if you don’t know which way the tail is and which way the nose is, you can think you’re coming back home but actually be going further away.”
Chean also said that it is important to take into consideration the possibility that the UAV may fall out of the sky if something goes wrong.
Consequently, Chean said that he prefers flying away from people, in the countryside, although he does shoot in Phnom Penh when required by a client. Fortunately, his only major accident occurred in the middle of a Ratanakkiri forest.
“I lost sight of it because it was high up and went over some trees, and then it disappeared. We searched the jungle for about 20 minutes, and found it down a ravine in a little clearing. It was upside down, covered in mud, and the camera was destroyed. But it was otherwise okay.”
Furthermore, Chean said that the UAVs were equipped with fail-safe mechanisms, such as an automatic return feature that sends the drone back to its takeoff spot if it goes beyond radio range.
With civilian drone use on the increase, concerns have been raised with regards to privacy. However, Chean said that his drones would make lousy spies.
“These things are so noisy once they are up in the air, there’s no way you [would] not know it’s there.”
Chean said local reaction to the UAVs had been positive, although most are bewildered by the sight of a hovering miniature flying machine.
“Once they actually do see it fly, you get a kick out of the looks on their faces. How often are they going to see this on some rice paddy somewhere?”