Mar 23, 2020

Helicopter vs Drone: Which Is Best for Aerial Cinematography?

Helicopter vs Drone: Which Is Best for Aerial Cinematography?

While helicopters have been a prime means of capturing elevated footage for decades, the use of drones as a legitimate aerial filming method has only been legal since 2014. Since then, many film producers have jumped on board with this seemingly cost-effective means of attaining breathtaking shots from a bird’s eye view.

This begs the question: are helicopters or drones best for aerial cinematography?

The answer depends on your specific production needs and the logistics required for your film. To help you determine which method of aerial filming is best suited to your project, we compare the pros and cons of aerial cinematography helicopters versus drones below.

These pros and cons are divided into 7 key considerations:

Range capability

An aircraft’s range is a measurement of how far it can get on a single load of fuel before it must be refilled. (Or, in the case of a drone, how far it can travel on a single set of batteries before they have to be replaced.)

When comparing the range capabilities of helicopters versus drones, helicopters win every time. These powerful aircraft can fly for several hours and for hundreds of miles at a time, making them the more cost-effective option for projects requiring the filming of vast areas.

At Helicopter Express, for example, the four helicopters we recommend for professional aerial cinematography have range capabilities between 300-400 miles:

The range for a drone is based on battery life. Several factors can affect the battery life of a drone, including its size and cost (a larger, cheaper drone will drain its battery faster). Ten minutes is a common battery life to expect from a cheaper drone, while more professional-grade drones typically last for 20-30 minutes.

You also have to keep in mind that, for every minute the drone flies away, it needs another minute to fly back. So, if a drone’s battery life is 20 minutes, the operator can only fly it away from the controller for about 10 minutes, as it will need 10 minutes to return to its starting point.

Toy drones typically offer a range of around 65 feet, while more expensive, long-range drones may have range capabilities between 500 feet and 4.5 miles. When you compare that to the 300-400-mile range of a helicopter, it’s really no contest.

Height limitations

Many countries are establishing their own regulations when it comes to how high aerial cinematographers are allowed to legally fly their drones. In the USA, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has ruled that drone owners are permitted to fly their drones up to 400 feet high.

Drone flying over forest capturing aerial photography.

The height capability of an aerial cinematography helicopter depends on the type of aircraft you choose and the power of its engine. Many aerial filming helicopters offer a maximum altitude capability of 8,000 - 30,000 feet.

Additionally, helicopters can fly as low as necessary, as long as the pilot can operate the aircraft without posing a risk to the people or property on the ground.

Drone cinematography may be the best choice if your project requires only low-altitude perspectives captured from under 400 feet. The versatility of drones also makes them a solid option for wide-angle shots and close-range, intimate footage recorded from near to your subject.

But if you’re looking for elevated footage delivered from breathtaking views, an aerial filming helicopter is the only way to go.

Load capability

The FAA ruled in 2016 that drone operators “may transport property for compensation or hire within state boundaries, provided the drone–including its attached systems, payload and cargo–weighs less than 55 pounds total and you obey the other flight rules.”

The required weight of less than 55 pounds offers drone cinematographers enhanced agility and maneuverability for capturing new and traditional types of shots.

However, helicopters are capable of carrying bulky equipment and the heaviest camera rigs that drones are incapable of lifting due to their small structure and minimal weight. Many aerial cinematography helicopters have a maximum weight capacity between 3,000 and 5,500 pounds.

While newer and smaller high-definition cameras are capable of capturing footage nearly equal in quality, video captured in the highest-possible definition still requires a helicopter that’s capable of carrying the very best camera gear.

Accessibility

Due to their size, power, and agility, helicopters are better equipped than drones to perform well in potentially hazardous locations, such as in high altitudes, high temperatures, and elevated atmospheric pressure.

Their extensive range and higher speed capabilities mean they’re capable of reaching more remote locations–and transporting your key production crew members to these hard-to-reach locations.

The aerial filming helicopters available from Helicopter Express, for example, are capable of carrying 4-6 passengers, depending on the type of aircraft you choose.

Additionally, the high maneuverability of helicopters means they’re often more efficient than drones in congested urban areas.

The advantage that drones possess is their small frame, which allows them to capture footage in places helicopters cannot go. Drones are capable of flying lower to the ground, closer to buildings and other structures, and in the spaces between trees.

Inclement weather

There are positives and negatives for both helicopter cinematography and drone cinematography when it comes to the weather.

Hazardous weather can potentially halt operations via both methods of aerial filming. Drones are too lightweight to fly effectively in adverse conditions, and a professional helicopter pilot will never risk the lives of their crew to fly in risky or dangerous conditions.

However, an advantage of helicopters over drones is that helicopters are designed to brave the elements, whether that means remaining stable in the midst of furious crosswinds or flying safely through moderately threatening climates.

Aerial filming helicopter flying over a mountain through the clouds.

The drawback for helicopters–and advantage for drones–is that helicopter flights require more prep work. If you’ve already rescheduled your shoot due to bad weather when suddenly the skies clear up, you may find that a drone cinematographer has more flexibility and can return to filming without as much advance notice.

Safety and liability

Drones can seem like a safer option when it comes to aerial filming, and in some ways, they can be. For example, drone pilots don’t need much in the way of safety equipment apart from head and eye protection and a high-visibility vest. You also don’t have to leave the ground to get the shots you need.

Drones operators do, however, need to take precautions against a few potential risks:

When you’re operating a drone from the ground and have limited visibility, these types of accidents may be more likely to occur.

Helicopters pilots, on the other hand, have full visibility and control over their aircraft at all times. Of course, certain types of safety equipment may be required for the camera crew, and there’s always a slight risk to the pilot, passengers, and crew when an aircraft takes flight.

But a quality aerial cinematography company will employ only the most skilled and experienced pilots and crew members. They will continually perform the necessary maintenance and inspections to ensure the highest standards of safety, reliability, and precision.

Budget considerations

In most cases, your budget will play a key role in determining whether you should hire helicopter film services or drone film services for your video project.

Drones are the more cost-effective option for film producers seeking to achieve their cinematic vision on a tighter budget. When you hire a drone cinematographer, the rate you pay will cover the cost of the drone rental, camera rental, drone operator and/or crew, and insurance.

The aerial cinematography rate you’ll pay to work with a helicopter film team will typically be much higher. That’s because you’re paying for a Screen Actor Guild-carded pilot, highly experienced crew, fuel, insurance, helicopter ground transport (if necessary), and rental of high-performance camera systems.

However, helicopters can be more cost-effective for shoots covering expansive locations.

And, when you hire a helicopter cinematography company like Atlanta-based Helicopter Express, the rate you pay includes access to your own aerial filming team. From initial scouting to nailing the final sequence, this team will walk you through every step of the aerial production process to help you bring your masterpiece to life.

Helicopter Express: Providing aerial film solutions to producers in Atlanta and the Southeast for 25 years

Think helicopter filming is the right choice for you?

Whether your project requires a picture ship or a camera ship, Helicopter Express’ diverse fleet and SAG-carded pilots are fully equipped to handle all of your aerial production requirements.

Learn more about our fleet, our crew, or reach out so we can discuss your project today.

Make us your go-to team.

Our highly skilled pilots have the experience and equipment needed to rise to any challenge. When you need experts you can trust, give us a call.