God’s- Eye View

Using drone imagery to see Vietnam from above 

If “selfie” was the word of the year in 2013, the “dronie,” made popular by none other than Captain Jean-Luc Picard himself, Patrick Stewart, brought drone technology out of science fiction and into popular consciousness in 2014 when he tweeted a selfie taken from a drone in Cannes. No longer relegated to spy novels and military operations, drones now allow even the common man to possess superhero- like powers, traversing the boundaries of space and gravity to see everything, to be everywhere.

Oi Vietnam - June 2014 - PhotoEssay - Vincom & Govt Horiz - ARY

With drones retailing for less than USD100 (including a built-in camera), almost everyone can play God, or at least see what He sees. Not only have the materials come down in price, but we all have in our pocket almost everything needed to make unmanned flight a reality ― the GPS capabilities, cameras, sensors and computer processors located within our smartphones. Another model costing USD157 comes with a remote transmitter with a built-in screen so that you can see exactly what the drone sees in real time. For just a hundred more, you can secure a drone that travels upwards of 45 miles an hour. For those more interested in stunning photography than piloting (and willing to plunk down a cool grand), the Lehmann LA100 can be programmed to fly where you want it to go and then come back to where it was launched, landing completely on its own.

Cheaper than helicopters and more flexible than cable-suspended camera systems, in the past year alone, drones have been used to bring us images previously out of reach ― everything from a new perspective on Olympic skiing and a bird’s eye view of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement and Hawaii’s migrating whales to going places too dangerous for people, like into a volcano in the South Pacific or straight into a fireworks display in Florida. They’ve been used to locate missing people, spruce up real estate listings and survey disaster areas. Hollywood movies can’t be far behind.

Drone technology has moved so fast in recent years that laws regulating their use haven’t been able to catch up. More than a model airplane but less than light aircraft, drones occupy a grey area. What prevents someone from piloting a drone to film you from outside your 10th story window? Or what happens when a drone interferes with a commercial aircraft’s flight path as is happening with increased frequency?

Whatever the case, drone technology looks like it’s here to stay, allowing us to see the world from a vantage point before known only to birds…

In the cockpit

Jan-Mathieu Donnier, drone pilot and CEO of GlobalVision Communication, a company specializing in visual communication and 360° imagery with offices in Geneva and Ho Chi Minh City, talks to Oi about aerial imaging in Vietnam.

“Like everyone else, the first time I saw a drone was in the news, something to do with military and defense-related matters. Later, when I saw one flying overhead in real life, I thought it was just so awesome. In my mind, I thought there would be a big market for something like this because it allows us to see life and the city from a different angle.

“It’s funny, but my background has nothing to do with drones. The technology is so new that there is no training for this. 

Aerial Photos and Videos by GlobalVision

But I’ve always had a creative mind. When I was 15 years old, my brother and I acquired a one megapixel camera. It seems like a million years ago! We took photos of bars, restaurants and hotels in Geneva. One Christmas, we were looking at an ornament when we noticed that if you looked at it from below, you could see everything in the room. Naturally, it led us to think about 360 degree imaging. We did our own coding to create visual tools and our company started growing very quickly. Then we thought: If we can do this with photos, why not with video? At the time, there was just one company in Japan and one in the US who were doing 360° video. We had a eureka moment, an idea that would take over the next 10 years of my life, including working with Firefox and Google Business Views.

“We remained focused on R&D, always searching for the next big thing, and that was drone imaging. But at that time, the cost was really high. It was a professional machine for wealthy individuals who could spend USD1,000 on a toy. I immediately thought: ‘How could I integrate this [new technology] into my professional world?’ Our first drone was a quadcopter with only four propellers. It was really stressful because the components were made by different manufacturers and it didn’t even come with a manual. You had to figure it all out on your own – what to do with a propeller, a screw and an arm. Now you have the Phantom, an easy to use drone where you just screw on the propeller out of the box and it’s ready to use.

“In those early days, it wasn’t about learning how to fly the drone. The actual flying is well- assisted. There are physical tools to help it stay flat so you don’t have to worry about balance. But we had to figure out what was going to be the best camera and the best settings to use. Our first drone used a GoPro but we soon realized our customers were into high-end broadcasting, cinema and tourism so the GoPro wasn’t the way to go.

Aerial Photos and Videos by GlobalVision

“After getting my second Master degree in Communication and Media Science [my first is in International Relations], I was looking to expand our business. I came to Vietnam a few times as a traveler, backpacking my way on motorbike. It was the thrill of my life to discover the country on my own. I was so touched by the people and the landscape, I remember crying on the plane on the way back to Switzerland. I said to myself that I would come back one day, and come back with a purpose. I didn’t know how, but I would find a way. Five years later, we opened our office in Vietnam. At that time, I called Vietnam “the forgotten economy”. The West was focused on China and Singapore, different “tigers.” But I thought Vietnam was at the beginning of the curve, going up. We wanted to bring Western standards to Vietnam. Now, we’re working mostly for industries and national-scale tourism applications and other big projects like television.

“There are so many beautiful places in Vietnam, like around the Mekong Delta. Our work covers both natural and man-made areas. I always tell my colleagues that when we’re shooting images, we’re capturing history. What we’re doing now is recording Saigon from the past. It’s changed so much in the last five years and will change so much in the next  five to 10 years. There’s still some greenery now, but they’re going to build. It will never go back to its original state. I want to document those changes. In 5-10 years, when people look for pictures of Saigon, they can go to our platform and enjoy the views of what it used to look like. While we work for man- made facilities most of the time, I love nature, too, and preserving nature. It’s good to see things from another angle, to help people not to think from a selfish ground-based perspective but from a higher view. That’s my wishful thinking.

“The drones themselves can go as high as I want, but it’s a matter of security. I care about the people around. I would prefer to come back for a project than to cause harm or damage. You have to plan for enough time and battery to land the drone smoothly, so our working altitude is between 80-150 meters, where you can show the aerial perspective while keeping the details. We fly with two batteries, a main and a backup. Swiss people are very safety- minded. We have five machines [including hexacopter and octocopter models] and have never crashed any.

“Of course people are very curious. I try my best to satisfy that curiosity. When we arrive on site, I explain what we’re doing. People are familiar with helicopters, but they haven’t seen drones so they look with big eyes. Already in Vietnam, people look at foreigners with big eyes, but when one comes with a drone, people look at you like you’re an extraterrestrial! But really, I pride myself for being very respectful. We won’t go close to a monastery without asking for permission. If I show something belonging to someone, we’ll ask if we can film. It’s lucky that I speak a few words of Vietnamese, so I can tell them it’s a “may bay.”

“When I was a kid, I wanted to be a helicopter pilot. When I was older, I wanted to become a journalist, to help people see the world in a different way, to travel the world. I’ve had to change my dreams, or more accurately, my dreams have evolved. Now I’m a drone pilot for a communications agency so I’ve been able to combine my two childhood dreams to make it my perfect life.”

Images provided by Asia Flycam

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