How to Make an Instant Camera Drone

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There are plenty of drones on the market these days that can take stills and video to a high-quality. However, if your needs are more specific or you want to shoot with an instant camera, then you may have to resort to a self build. This approach clearly has its plus and negative points, but you will come away with your own custom drone setup, tailored to your exact needs.

Drone technology has come a long way since the early days when it comes to a self build. Way back in 2008, I tried my own self build drone. The ‘brain’ of the drone was very basic(no advanced sensors), a cobbled together frame, a camera mount made of rubber bands and with no RC flying experience, it felt like trying to control a helicopter remotely while standing on my head. Camera vibrations were also a major obstacle. All the footage back then was like placing the camera on a washing machine. Times have moved on and I’m still amazed at how rocksteady even a basic self built drone can capture footage.

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This article was inspired by a video made by Trent Siggard who goes through the process himself. In the video Trent starts by addressing the whys of the project. Firstly, to go back to the old style of shooting by just strapping a Go pro to a drone, then choosing the best images after the event. The second as just a pure challenge, but also to slow the process which makes you think about each and every shot executed, rather than just pure volume of images.

All the bits you need

If you watch the full video by Trent, you’ll see that this isn’t a recipe or step-by-step tutorial, but rather showing you an overview of the process with the basics to inspire you on your own build. The ins and outs of building your own drone would be too lengthy to include in the video. Plus, there are loads of resources online, which go into depth about each step of the process, from the basic build, which items to buy, testing and how to fly the thing.

Trent clearly has lots of experience building drones. If you’re just starting down this road, you can buy everything from basic parts to build it yourself kit from the likes of Roboshop.com. Local hobby shops, online videos and forums are a great starting point for all the information on the build process. There will be soldering required and the more from ‘scratch’ your build, the more experience you will need. Therefore it may be advisable to buy a full kit for your first build, learn the complete workings of a drone, then progress up to a larger build.

Trent starts off with a 500mm quadcopter frame which he had lying around. This included a DJI Naza V2 flight controller, some old UBAD 20a ESC’s, 11″ props to get things going. An FPV camera was mounted on the drone to see what the Fujifilm instant camera sees and was triggered by a Futaba S3003 Standard Servo pressing the camera’s shutter button. The shutter button server was connected to the flight controller to be easily triggered.

Once the drone is built and the main camera securely mounted, its time for a test flight. Because an instant camera is used, the images are instantly produced and pop out the top of the camera. This means that it is most probable that the drone will have to land for you to extract each image. After 10 shots or so you will have to reload the camera. One word of warning, if you watch the video Trent extracts the images while the propellers are still moving at near full capacity. Trent is very experienced with drones, but for everybody else for safeties sake, land the drone and let the propellers power down before removing an image.

Flight and images

Trent got roughly 14 minutes flight time from his setup and the first battery test. The bigger the battery, the longer the flight time, but also the more weight the drone carries, making extra battery life and loaded weight a fine balancing act. One of the main stumbling blocks with the instinct camera was that the camera’s flash would always trigger. This meant that the propellers were constantly being illuminated and the shutter speed was always at 1/60th of a second. A piece of tape was put over the flash which eliminated the propellers being shown up on each image.

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The image quality that comes from the camera is more ‘creative’ than anything. Firstly, even though modern drone builds have plenty of stabilisation technology, the camera isn’t mounted on a fancy multiaxis gimbal, stabilising the whole camera. Thus, you have to expect softer images.

If the sharpest images possible is a priority, then you’d have to replace the instant camera with one that can fit with a stabilised gimbal and/or has in body stabilization. There are loads of camera options available on the market from a simple Gopro to specific drone cameras from brands such as DJI, Tuneec and SwellPro. Dedicated drone cameras have their own stabilization, produce high quality footage and even have specific imaging qualities such as thermal, interchangeable lenses and filters. Depending on the quality and functionality, you can be paying a few hundred to a few thousand dollars for a specialist drone camera, but the results will mean rock steady footage and a camera specifically built for the rigours of drone flight.

Conclusion

The idea of this whole exercise is not to take a million pictures, but to be extremely thoughtful about each image. The thought process is along the lines of using an old large format camera. Huge plates means you only have a few images to play with, which means each one has to be carefully thought out to make them count.

This is also an experiment into your own drone build. The advantage being you can build a drone to your exact needs, pick the exact camera you want and learn a lot along the way. This project will take some investment in both time and money, but if done right, the results will be worth it.

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