We like to think what we are doing is new, however some folks have been pioneering the way for us for a long time. People like Bert Wagner of Advanced Aerials can remember a time he would use film to capture images and then run to the 1 hour photo to have them developed. Only when the film was developed did they find out if they got the shot or if they had to go back and re-shoot. This article I am linking to is from 1998 Rotary Modeler Magazine about Bert's quest to provide aerial imagery for civilians. This is a fascinating read and a step back into to time on how the original pioneers operated aerial imagery on model helicopters. 

Original Article with Photographs link here

Developing the "Hornet"

This article is by Bert Wagner of Advanced Aerials, and was edited by Malinda Brent.
It has been reprinted with permission from The March/April 1998 Issue of Rotory Modeler Magazine.
Many thanks to Bert Wagner as well as Mike Mas of Rotory.

A television and a recliner huddled in the corner are the only items remaining in my living room that indicate it used to be a place for rest and relaxation. A couch used to occupy the space where the three and half foot tall Formica-topped work bench sits, bearing the tools of my avocation, pieces of twisted aluminum tubes of adhesive glue, metal lubricant and miscellaneous nuts, screws, bearings and bolts.

The fireplace mantle provides a perch to keep the Hornet - the l9-pound helicopter that is the product of and reason for the industry that mattered more than anything else in my world for the last three years. My marriage and financial security were sacrificed on the altar of my mission, my passion to create the radio controlled helicopter that takes superior aerial photographs.

Despite the hard times and the long road, I wouldn't trade a minute of the journey - a quest to combine remote controlled flying and photography to create a unique product. It was nearly four years ago when I was taking photos of a bridge under construction in Loudon County, Virginia that the inadequacy of ground-level photography hit me. I could either shoot from under the bridge in progress looking up or from the bridge looking across. To me, as a photographer who is always seeking a unique way to see a subject, these two options just weren't creative enough. It was a perspective everyone could have. The construction company who hired me was happy enough with the photos, but I wasn't.

"The inadequacy of ground-level photography hit me"

So I set out to find an eye in the sky. I first tried a tethered helium-filled balloon, which had to have at least a nine-foot diameter to carry my camera gear and accompanying electronics. Storage was a problem because of the balloon's size, but deflating it to bring it inside and reinflating it later wasn't cost-effective due to the high cost of helium. Wind also decreased the payload, interfering with lifting capabilities. And it was difficult to shoot straight down anyway. That's when I started looking into helicopters.

But getting information was difficult; people didn't seem to want to give up their secrets. I bought an instructional videotape but it was nothing more than a promotional selling the helicopter's electronics. And it told me nothing about how to take photographs using a helicopter. It just showed other people doing it.

As a radio-controlled enthusiast since I was a child, I decided I would just have to figure it out for myself. When I was seven, a next-door neighbor gave me an old fashioned airplane using rubber band powered servos. I couldn't fly it but I was intrigued by it. When I was 21 years old, I finally had enough to buy a $600 remote controlled airplane, radio and starting equipment. It survived one brief, but spectacular flight.

But eventually I taught myself how to fly. Now convinced I needed a helicopter, I put the word out to family and friends. The following Christmas, 1993, I got my wish, a MFA Sport 500. It was a fixed pitched helicopter that used a radio-controlled airplane engine and radio. Too impatient to wait for better weather, I spent the winter teaching myself how to fly it in a parking garage with 10-feet ceilings. The noise, smoke and height limitations made flying nearly impossible but I couldn't wait for the spring.

When warmer weather finally came along, I moved my practice field outside and continued to improve, teaching myself forward flight. But I got cocky, trying to fly beyond my abilities and crashed the helicopter. Every time a gift-giving occasion came along I'd be asking for another helicopter. My wife, Claudia, always asked, "Why do you need another one?" And I would say "Well, why do you need another lipstick?" But she didn't understand, so after a while I stopped asking.

"I started to realize the money-making potential in this type of aerial photography"

I quickly learned I could get more control from a helicopter with collective pitch, like full-sized helicopters use. I borrowed $2,500 to buy a model Gas X CELL and a Futaba Super Seven radio transmitter and accompanying electronics gear. As my interest grew, I started to realize the money-making potential in this type of aerial photography. Flying at altitudes from a few hundred feet to the ground, a small helicopter with a camera mounted on the craft could take pictures far superior in detail and perspective than a full-size airplane or helicopter for a fraction of the cost.

I thought of asking Claudia to invest, helping me realize the dream that was slowly and painfully but surely becoming a reality. But the debts mounted as I became more and more preoccupied with building this helicopter. When I would scrape up enough to buy another piece of equipment she would ask, "Do you know how many bills we could have paid for that?" I knew she was right but I had to keep on going.

I spent the summer of 1994 practicing hovering. Then I decided to bolt my $1,100 camera onto the helicopter. Always the voice of reason, my wife was skeptical. "What if it crashes?" she asked. My first photo taken from the helicopter was an out-of focus shot of curb and gutter taken at a construction site about a half-mile from my house in Manassas, Va. I was ecstatic, sharing the picture with polite but puzzled friends who had no idea what it represented to me.

"I knew I would have to get some sort of micro-video camera and downlink system"

Realizing the necessity of isolating the camera from the helicopter's engine vibration, I made my first gimbal, the bracket that tilted back and forth via electronic command. Of course, this function also gave me new options of perspective. It was right around this time that I teamed up with my first pilot, Peter Hirschburg because I realized that it would require two people to man the controls, one flying the helicopter and one operating the on-board camera. Together, we were getting closer. Out of two rolls of film, one or two photos would be usable, but they still weren't sellable quality. I knew I would have to get some sort of micro-video camera and downlink system.

With that $2,500 purchase, I went further into debt. And my wife walked out of the home we had purchased together two years ago. At that point, I seriously thought about giving it all up. But as she carted the sofa out of the living room, I realized that spot would make a perfect place for my workbench. Suddenly the equipment in the workshop that had been cramped into a back bedroom migrated into the living room.

We continued to work on vibration isolation to the point that our photographs started to improve. The shutter speed was between 2000th and 1000th of a second but limited in F-stop. Because of the vibrations, we were forced to use a fast film that didn't work on anything other than a sunny day. And with the camera six inches away from the engine, I knew we needed to improve vibration isolation. A few months later, with a new gimbal design that incorporated camera stabilization, we managed to lengthen shutter speed to between 500th and 1000th of a second.


By this time, we were able to start selling our aerial photos. But our ground-based viewing system, which consisted of an old television, severely limited my mobility as well as my ability to see the screen in the glare of the sun. A Sears tool belt and a camcorder viewfinder finally made us portable. And in July 1995, we started calling ourselves Advanced Aerials. It was winter 1996 that I met Jim Langley, right around the time Peter's wife had a baby and he decided to limit his involvement with the project.

Jim and I quickly discovered we shared the same mechanical aptitude and a keen interest in low-altitude photography using model helicopters. He was also willing to invest time into improving our abilities and equipment. At the same time, we continued to do jobs, taking photographs of golf courses, buildings and construction job sites. Six months later, the Thing we knew would happen sooner or later did happen-we crashed. We'd been having vibration problems earlier in the week and as we're photographing a golf course, the power supply to the on board controls shook loose and the helicopter went down.

"The craft dove into a retention pond"

From an altitude of 200 feet at about 40 miles an hour, the craft dove into a retention pond. Both of us stood there watching in horror as the graphite blades splashed into the water. The last I saw was the tail rotor still spinning, spitting up water. All I could do was yell "*&%$#@ !" We had just watched about $8,000 worth of equipment and the blood and sweat of years of effort lost. I spent the next three hours in 4 feet of sewer water at the spot where we saw it go down. But it must have drifted. We couldn't even find an oil slick to clue us in on its whereabouts. Finally, a few pieces of paint surfaced and we found the water soaked helicopter.

We managed to salvage the majority of the craft but the $1,100 35 mm camera was totaled. Most of the film and the electronic gear were usable. I thought it was all over. We got arrogant and that's what happens when you get too sure of yourself. But we have solved that. Now we do a pre-flight check that rivals full-scale aircraft. Despite his apprehensions, Jim decided to stick with it. With what we had left of the old helicopter and what we had to replace, we now had the equipment for two helicopters.

Then we started modifying the pan and tilt function and came up with a system that allowed us to record video on board. It wasn't exactly Hollywood, but it was good for video acquisition. Through word of mouth, through contacts in the hobby community, people expressed an interest in our gimbal design. With our new video capabilities, we were finally able to start sending out demos to interested people throughout the country. Because of my unsuccessful attempts to obtain information when I embarked on this journey, I want to share my knowledge with people who wanted to know.

Today, we are shooting film at a 60th of a second and recording on-board video. We call the helicopter prototype the Hornet because of the vehicle's yellow body and the engine's buzz-like sound. My goal is to start educating people about the capabilities of such a helicopter and create an industry. I would like to have a nationwide network of trained operators working with Advanced Aerials to respond to disasters for news organizations and insurance companies.

The possible number of commercial uses for this type of helicopter are endless. I also envision a unified professional organization whose members follow uniform safety guidelines. Anyone who would like more information is encouraged to write to us at 8909 Cherry Tree Lane, Manassas, Va., 20110 or www.advancedaerials.com.

The above address and information is not current

Please follow Bert Wagner (@a2usacustom)  on Twitter.

Please follow Rob Thompson (@learntoflyva) on Twitter

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  • It still seems to cost $8000 for the highest end systems, nowadays.  The high end is a lot higher but the kinds of shots they can get for a certain amount of risk hasn't changed.

  • Any questions for Bert please send me a private message on this forum or to my twitter account.

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