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Notebook Technology

Filming on the fly

Jim McAndrew with his drone (Leah Hickman)

Technology

Filming on the fly

An app developer shows how filming by drone is easier than ever

Jim McAndrew drives up in a Tesla Model 3. He parks the shiny white car on the side of the quiet street in Austin, facing orange construction barrels. Those barrels and the dust raised by heavy machinery are the only evidence of highway construction visible from his car. McAndrew has come to take aerial footage of the construction, but he’s not getting any closer: Thanks to the latest drone technology, he can do it all while sitting in his car.

McAndrew’s first exposure to drones was in 2014, when he bought himself a drone for fun. Growing up, his interests included action sports and cinematography. Later, he worked as a private pilot. As he put it, drones were “the nexus of all of those interests.”

This hobby-level interest in drones helped him recognize gaps in drone technology. Back then, little software existed for drones, and pilots could only fly them manually. Capturing good footage required rare skill with the remote control, making drone piloting an inaccessible task to average people. McAndrew had something the average person did not: a background in software and app development. So he set out to create an app that would simplify the job for drone pilots.

Five years later, McAndrew is still looking for ways to improve his already successful drone software and to make drone usage more hands- and hassle-free. His latest app is the one he’ll use to film the construction site.

Sitting in the driver’s seat of the Tesla’s immaculate interior, McAndrew pulls out a Mac laptop and an iPad. On the laptop, he opens the software for planning the drone’s flight over the highway construction. Although he’s dragging and dropping points onto a 2D map, added features in the new app allow him to preview the shots that the drone’s camera will capture while following that route. The preview resembles Google Street View, except the perspective is from the air. Using this rough footage for reference, he increases the planned speed of the drone to 20 miles per hour and adds another point onto the map. He opens the app on his iPad and locates the mission. Now it’s time to fly. 

McAndrew reaches out of the window and places the drone—a gray contraption with four retractable rotor arms—on his Texas-tinted sunroof. From the drone’s camera, a live feed of the blue Toyota Camry parked ahead appears on the iPad, which is connected to the remote control and will provide the drone with the information it needs to capture the construction site. With a single touch on the iPad, the drone rises from the sunroof, buzzing like an oversized bee. As the drone heads toward the cloud of dust, Jim holds the remote control. He’s not using it, though. “I’m not doing anything,” he says. “This is all 100 percent automatic.” 

There’s little to see through the windshield now, but the iPad on the center console shows a crisp, smooth video of the construction site—live feed from the drone. It resembles the view from an airplane window. “So now you drink your latte and let the drone make you money,” McAndrew jokes. 

But maybe it’s not quite a joke. He’s hoping that this software will make it easier and faster for drone pilots to gather useful data that will benefit industries including construction, real estate, and cinematography. The software stores each component of every mission, allowing users to reuse the same flight patterns and instructions later. Whether it’s locating equipment in a construction site for project managers, capturing the condition of a golf course green, or assessing the damage on a tower for cell phone providers, getting the necessary data won’t be such a pain.

In the meantime, though, drones face some opposition. “Like any new technology,” McAndrew says, “there’s the potential for people to be hysterical about it.” To him, concerns about privacy are the most legitimate. He acknowledges that drones, like any other technology, can be misused to take advantage of others—but he hopes social norms will prevent people from flying their drones into neighbors’ backyards or disrupting natural landscapes.

McAndrew’s neighbors used to complain when he tested drones in his backyard. Some approached him with their concerns, and McAndrew sensed that face-to-face conversations helped them realize he wasn’t spying on them. In his words, “I’m just a normal guy with a wife and three kids who lives in the suburbs, and I film a construction site every now and again.” 

A little over five minutes later, the drone returns to the Tesla. McAndrew uses his remote control for the first time to land the drone on the glass roof. And, just like that, he has filmed a whole construction site without leaving his air-conditioned car.