Based in Oxfordshire, Aerial Motion Pictures touches just about every aspect of the aerial filming business. They film using drones and helicopters, as well as capturing video on the ground; they provide mapping and surveying services; and they even retail hardware. They also runs ICARUS, one of the UK’s leading professional drone training courses, responsible for qualifying some 500 pilots a year. DronePunks caught up with Matt Williams, AMP’s Managing Director, a former military helicopter pilot, to discuss his experience with all things aerial, the challenges of training and the future of the industry.
DronePunks I’ve heard you have an interesting background – could you tell you us a little bit about it?
Matt Williams I was a helicopter instructor in the air force before I got into this. I joined the air force at 18 as a pilot and spent 6 or 7 years on the front line and then did my instructor’s course and became an instructor at the Defence Helicopter Flying School at RAF Shawbury. And then I spent a couple of years there, then I moved back to the front line as an instructor on the Puma 2 as they brought the new Puma 2 helicopter into service for the air force. So that included time in the Middle East, in America, Norway, lots of other places in between.
DP How did you get into drones after that?
MW From a very young age really. People at work thought I was quite sad because I flew helicopters for a living and then at the weekend I’d go and fly model helicopters as a hobby, and I always have done since I was a kid, flying model helicopters and model planes. And a long time before drone evolution came round, almost in combination with me flying helicopters for film and TV commercially as well as flying in the air force, I got asked if we could put a camera on a model helicopter – so we did. So, we worked out a way to put a DSLR, back in 2006, 2007, on a large model helicopter. So, we refined it from there, we built our own gimbal, built our own custom model helicopter, and that was it. We were one of the first really, to start providing that service. It just ticked along in the background because I was away a lot flying for the air force. Unfortunately in 2013 I had an accident, a flying accident which now means that I can’t fly full-size helicopters. When I was getting discharged from the air force, my wife and I said, “What are we going to do next?” And the drone thing looked as though it was about to take off. And we allied my aviation knowledge, my instructional experience with our knowledge already of drones and about piloting and combined all that together to set up ICARUS and Aerial Motion Pictures officially.
DP Are the skills transferable?
MW The physical flying aspect is very different, very much so at first when there was no stabilization, there was no GPS on a helicopter. It was model piloting skills. Now, there’s even less commonality between flying a real aircraft and a drone because they fly themselves, pretty much. Those skills in themselves, the hand-eye skills probably aren’t transferable, it’s the aviation knowledge and awareness of the environment from aviation that I think sets us apart from other people if I’m going to be honest.
DP How did you come to set up the ICARUS course – is the name an acronym?
MW It’s the International Certificate of Approval for Remote Unmanned Systems – ICARUS. Really it came about as we were already operating in what is now the drone space, the unmanned space as it was at the time. Obviously, I had a background in aviation and training, and instruction in particular. When I had the accident my wife and I said we could do one of two things, we could either sit here and wait and see what happens with the air force or we could just try and make something of what we’ve got, and that’s what we did. We thought long and hard about it, we saw that there was a need for an international aviation safety-based course. And that’s what we created, and we showed it to the CAA and they were really impressed with what we showed them and they allowed us to set up as an NQE, a nationally qualified entity.
Because of our background in aviation and training, we try to do things the right way and we try and look after people, and it’s all about making people safe and competent commercial operators, we really make our money elsewhere as a business. This is about education and flight safety through education, that’s really what it’s all about for us, and I can’t stress that enough to be honest, that’s the bottom line. With the increased proliferation of the aircraft and the drones, it’s only a matter of time unfortunately until there is a collision in one way or another between a manned aircraft and an unmanned aircraft. It seems like a big sky to people who haven’t spent any time in it but it’s actually very small, particularly in the UK. It’s only a matter of time, as and when that happens. You get some people in the industry who say it’s just a drone, it’ll bounce off the side, but we’ve got some very interesting photos that show a bird strike I had in Iraq in 2008 which almost took the aircraft down. It knocked me unconscious and it severely damaged the aircraft – my co-pilot had to take control and land. That’s the kind of energy that you’d expect to achieve in an impact between something like a Phantom, for example, and a helicopter. So if you took that and it was an Inspire or a larger aircraft against a fast jet or a passenger aircraft, the result would be catastrophic. And everyone seems to think that a drone hitting an engine would be the thing that brings it down, but actually I’d argue differently, because an airliner doesn’t get into the air or come on its approach unless it can survive with an engine out. If it was to hit a control surface or, heaven forbid, come through the cockpit, it would cause the most trouble. Our course is very much tailored towards making sure the operators we qualify are the best in the business. What is great is that the ICARUS qualification has been recognized, which is a mark of that. There are film and TV crews in production now, who, whereas at one time they were asking do you have a PfAW, or as it is now, a PFCO, they say now, do you have an ICARUS qualification, because they know that there’s a level of understanding there that’s above the rest. Which is good for us!
DP And how did Cineflow [AMP’s video filming and production arm] come about?
MW We just saw that there was a space for a company to step into production, where we specialized in motion and stabilized motion, and that’s where Cineflow was born out of, really, as an offshoot of Aerial Motion Pictures.
DP What have been the greatest challenges of training people?
MW There’s a couple. The first one is that a lot of the people who come through have absolutely no knowledge of aviation, no real awareness of regulations. The fact that the regulations are actually in some instances quite restrictive as to what you can and cannot do legally, and because we’re trying to get that information across, we’re really fighting the battles on behalf of the CAA. People are quite frustrated, I think, with the regulations and the fact that they’ve bought a drone thinking it was going to take photos of people’s houses for a local estate agent and it turns out that in a lot of cases you can’t because those houses are in the centre of a town. I think that’s the main battle that we’ve seen. The second one is the potential for regulatory change. The regulations in the UK are fairly well established but there have been, as I’m sure you’re probably aware, a number of proposed amendments to the regulations that have come out of Europe and that’s causing a lot of concern in the industry at the moment and amongst our trainees because they don’t know quite where the regulations are going to leave them in a year or two’s time.
DP Do you think the CAA have it right on standards?
MW I think so. I know there are a lot of people in the industry who will think differently to this, but personally, because we sit quite uniquely on both sides of the fence, between the manned world and the unmanned world, the rules and regulations, I feel, are appropriate. I think they’re quite pragmatic from the CAA, without being too restrictive, but they limit the risk appropriately to third parties and other people. So I think it’s about right at the CAA. I think it would be a shame if it became far more restrictive or far less restrictive. There’s a good balance at the moment.
DP Do you think they have the right balance on commercial and non-commercial pilots?
MW I think so, because, traditionally, the recreational side of the flying industry, unmanned flight, is very much one where until a couple of years ago people would buy a helicopter or a model airplane and spend four months building it, they would go to a club, they would learn to fly safely and appropriately, and build awareness up that way. When you look at it from that side of things, the recreational regulations are appropriate. The problem we’ve got now is that anyone can pop to Maplins, or they could give us a call and we could sell them a Phantom or an Inspire, or an ImmersionRC Vortex and, without knowing the regulations, they can very easily set that up in their back garden and go flying, not knowing potentially that they’re breaking the rules and that they’re breaking the law and that it’s actually quite dangerous if something goes wrong. The balance between the two is there if things are done correctly, but I think there’s an amount of due diligence that needs to be placed on retailers, for them to make sure that people are appropriately aware of the regulations at the point of sale.
DP Do you mainly get professional pilots on the course, or do you see hobbyists as well?
MW It’s interesting, actually. We’ve seen a marked change in the last couple of years. When we first started, I would say ninety, ninety five percent of the people who came through the course were model helicopter pilots or model aircraft pilots who had done it for years and realized very quickly that they could put a camera on their aircraft and go and make some money – and a lot of them did. And now that’s changed significantly and what we’ve seen is that it went through model pilots and then twelve months later everyone on the course was a cameraman or a wedding photographer or a director, for the BBC, for example. And now we’re seeing that it’s big corporate, blue-chip companies that are sending their personnel through the courses so that they can use the aircraft commercially for collecting data for mapping and surveys and that kind of thing. So it’s been very interesting to see that evolution.
DP So you’ve seen an explosive growth in industrial use?
MW That’s it, the media market, which was the initial one, that is one of the definite applications for the aircraft, but I think it’s getting to the point where everybody knows someone who has a drone, even if they’re not necessarily all qualified and insured to do it. Big film, and TV and live broadcast have got their preferred providers now while smaller production companies have got their preferred providers or they’ll do it inhouse. It’s the commercial application of the aircraft now which we are expecting to, and are starting to see, flourish, as Pix4D and particularly DroneDeploy, now that those platforms are becoming available to people, it makes it very simple. And that’s what we’re starting to see.
DP Under AMP, you have ICARUS and Terramap and Cineflow – what’s your main area of focus?
MW Really we’ve got the ICARUS side of things, which is the training arm of what we do. Aerial Motion Pictures is very well established, we’re doing full-size helicopter work, now, we’re doing a lot of heavy lift and super-heavy lift work, so over 20 kg work for film and TV and live broadcast. The Terramap side of things is very much focused on the commercial delivery of data – survey grade 3D models and mapping solutions for large blue chip companies, and tendering for large contracts. Cineflow, now, we’re starting to take our own commissions on. Whereas we would have traditionally plugged in our drone capability and our ability to carry stabilized cameras on cars and electric 4x4s, and things like that, for other productions, we’re starting to do that ourselves. That is really exciting – it’s an exciting in time for us. We’re also exploring the 360 and VR space with Cineflow. We’ve just had a couple of big commissions for that to do virtual tours, 360 tours and 360 documentaries, so it’s quite interesting, it’s quite exciting. The difficult thing almost is to work out what not to do, there are so many avenues that you could go down with these things, but you have to say, you know what, we’d love to do that, maybe we can look at it in six months time, let’s concentrate on x, y and z rather than the rest of the alphabet.
DP Are there any particular projects that stand out?
MW We’re about to do, through the summer, a 360 documentary on the RAF Falcons parachute display team. We’re going to be doing some aerials, some ground-based stuff, some traditional camera on a tripod, camera on an RV, stabilized shots, the idea is that the whole production will be contained within a 360 sphere of what’s going on as a reference piece to what’s being talked about at the time. If we’re interviewing one of the chaps about a particular display or how they exit the aircraft, that’ll be in the front frame if you’re looking on an Oculus Rift or an HTC Vive or something like that, the traditional viewpoint of an interview. But, then whilst they’re talking about that, if you were to look around in 360 you’ll actually be experiencing them jumping out of the plane whilst they’re talking about it, or coming in to land, while they’re talking about it, or packing their parachute after a jump, while they’re talking about it. We’re hoping that that’s something we can demonstrate through this process and then develop further. It’s quite exciting looking into that.
DP What do you see as being the developments in the future of the industry?
MW I think the shift is going to be towards more commercial-based applications, we can already see that from the aircraft that DJI, for example, have started to produce. We saw the M600 come out late last year. Almost an all-in-one solution, if you like, for high-end, heavy-lift aerials. Then they’ve recently announced the M200, very much a commercial grade, data-collection aircraft. The cameras that they’ve started to bring out since they bought Hasselblad are starting to get to the level that, traditionally, we’ve always needed to use RED or ARRI Alexa, those kind of cameras, for. DJI aren’t a million miles behind. So, I think we’re going to start to see the aircraft getting smaller, flying for longer and being more capable. All the manufacturers seem to be picking up on the idea that redundancy is the key for making the aircraft safer. Double batteries, double flight controllers and GPS solutions. I think that’s the way we’re going to see it starting to move to now. When you think, you can now get 4K footage from a DJI Mavic, that you can put in your pocket – that’s incredible from where we were twelve months ago. So the next twelve months are going to be very interesting.