The flying of drones at Burning Man was highly-regulated in…
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A maximum of 200 drone registrations were accepted in the weeks leading up to Burning Man; they filled up quickly, and by event’s start date, there was a waiting list of nearly 100 people. To claim a drone registration, one had to go to the Black Rock City airport and sit through a registration meeting. The one I went to was nearly 90 minutes long, which is probably about 75 minutes too long. The rules were straightforward and conservative, but unfortunately, also made it impossible to capture compelling aerial footage. The blanket “25 feet, laterally, from any person” and “100 feet, laterally, from any structure or art car” prevented drones from getting in close, which is what they are really good for. Flying above things was not allowed, even if, say, the owner of an art car and everyone onboard gave a drone pilot permission to fly above. The resulting aerial footage from 2014 will suffer accordingly, but such are the costs of allowing newbie pilots to register drones. In fact, the majority of pilots I met (all of whom were carrying DJI Phantom 2 quadcopters—I didn’t see a single non-Phantom quadcopter at the event, although I’m told some were there) were new pilots, and many of them brought brand-new Phantoms to Burning Man in the hopes of getting great footage of their art cars. Being a new pilot at a crowded event is a terrible idea, and giving out registrations to new pilots was a mistake.
Still, I didn’t see very many flagrant rule violations. During Andrew Johnstone’s wedding at the man, I took off 25 feet away from any people and at least 100’ away from the nearest structure, but I was inside the man’s safety ring, which wasn’t allowed (I thought it wasn’t allowed only after the man’s pyrotechnics setup started). A fellow drone pilot came running over and commanded, “You need to land that thing right now.” After I landed, he showed me the rules and asked, “Do you see the rules you violated?” He spoke with misplaced authority, which was really annoying, because even the volunteer Rangers at Burning Man don’t do that. There was definitely a better way he could have approached the conversation. I wished I had written in a final rule to my copy of the list, which might have said something like, “Don’t be a douche bag.” Then, I could showed the guy my list and asked if he could see the rule he was violating.
Most burners seemed to be excited to see drones in the air, and would engage with the quadcopter’s cameras, waving and dancing around. Many people came up to me during flights to peek at my screen’s live-view, which was streaming from the camera. I only had a couple instances in which people were annoyed. One of the lamplighters came over while I was carrying my quadcopter and said, “Thank you for not flying during our procession.” The tone wasn’t friendly.
A BLM ranger came by once and stated, “You can’t fly here. There are designated areas where you can fly. This isn’t one of them.” That was total bullshit, but I said, “OK,” landed, and moved 100 feet away for the next flight.
I didn’t see many drones in the air, even though there were 200 registered pilots, each of whom might have brought more than one to the event. At most, I saw 3-4 in the air simultaneously, and those instances were at the major burns. At other times, I saw at most 2 quadcopters in the air at once (including mine). There were a couple people flying aerobatic RC planes, which were lit up and could be seen zooming around in the night sky. Only once did I see a flagrant violation of the rules. A pilot flew his Phantom 2 over the man during the main burn. Later, I saw pictures of the quadcopter Jim Graham’s Facebook page (it had been confiscated). The owner certainly deserved to have his Phantom taken away!
The main reason I went to Burning Man this year was to see if we could stream aerial video in real-time to the web, in the harshest conditions possible. We used DJI Phantom 2 quadcopters with Zenmuse H3-3D gimbals and DJI Lightbridge wireless HD video systems to make this work. Lightbridge can be configured with both master and slave ground ends; We configured the master to be the unit attached to my radio, and left the slave unit elevated above the streaming media container behind Media Mecca in Center Camp (near the anti-technology yoga platform—har har). Tests showed that we could stream in solid HD 720p from way past the man, which was about half a mile away. As it turned out, this was much higher quality than we needed, because the Burning Man Ustream webcast was throttled to 480p, anyway.
Lightbridge is ideal for long-range streaming in crowded wireless environments. There were nearly 70,000 people at the event, many of whom were trying to use phones on mobile bands and to try to connect to various wireless access points. There was a mesh of Ubiquity network transceivers across the entire playa, which also didn’t affect Lightbridge. I knew Lightbridge would work after seeing it stream without even a hiccup at NAB in Las Vegas. No Wi-Fi-based system worked in that environment, yet we were able to stream HD across the entire conference hall.
In the end, we successfully streamed a few random flights around the playa, the Embrace burn, Andrew Johnstone’s wedding at the man, and a flight in a light dust storm. Unfortunately, we had a two glitches that caused failures in broadcast. We traced the first problem to a GoPro that stopped outputting HDMI; a battery pull solved the problem, but we weren’t able to try that until we returned to camp (dust storm!). The second problem was during the man burn, which was really unfortunate. My local setup in the playa worked fine, but for some reason, the signal never made it into the webcast. Still, webcast viewers reacted really well to seeing an aerial perspective of the playa, which made it all worth it. If you want to see what the live feed looked like from the webcast container, check out Gerard Mattimoe’s BTS video.
Speaking of Gerard, he was my spotter for most of the week. Niels Joubert and Peter Davies also helped out as spotters, and George Krieger spent most of his time in the streaming media container setting up and babysitting the Ustream webcast. None of this would have been possible without the whole team’s involvement, and a huge, special thanks to George for inviting me.
There will be the unavoidable questions about gear and settings, so I’ll address them preemptively. Here is the full gear list (not including redundant systems I brought):
- DJI Phantom 2 w/Zenmuse H3-3D gimbal
- GoPro HERO 3+ Black
- DJI Lightbridge (full set)
- DJI Lightbridge, extra ground end for slave
- DJI Lightbridge 5.8G Transmitter and Receiver combo (replaces Phantom 2’s 2.4G Tx and Rx so the control signal doesn’t collide with Lightbridge)
- DJI Lightbridge accessories kit (for transmitter mount)
- Lilliput 7” 664/o/p monitor w/included Canon battery adapter
- Tarot FPV monitor mount (I hate this thing—do not recommend)
- LayerLens GoPro Lens protector for GoPro 3
- Polarized lens for LayerLens
- Prototype Phantom backpack
- Burner bike
- Burley Nomad bike trailer
- Mini-HDMI to HDMI cables (2)
- Teradek VidiU H.264 encoder and streaming box
Here’s how the video path worked. The GoPro outputted HDMI to the Lightbridge air end, which streamed it wirelessly to two locations: 1) the master Lightbridge ground end, which was connected to the Lilliput monitor for on-location FPV (both attached to my RC transmitter), and 2) the slave Lightbridge ground end, which was elevated above the streaming media container and connected to the Teradek VidiU via a long mini-HDMI to HDMI cable. At times, there were also various HDMI switching boxes between the slave Lightbridge ground end and the Teradek.
During the day, I shot GoPro mostly at 2.7K / 30p Medium or 1080p / 24p / Narrow. In general, I hate shooting Narrow, but because we were streaming live, I had to choose a field of view suitable for live webcast. I turned ProTune off to get good color during the streaming. At night, I shot 2.7K / 30p Medium with Protune turned ON. I wanted a balance between the best-possible, locally-recorded footage, and something that looked OK during streaming. Shooting at night without Protune yields unusable footage, and the combination of black sky and pyrotechnics necessitated the use of EV compensation, which only works when Protune is turned on.
Assorted, random notes:
- The Embrace burn streamed was missing a color channel, giving viewers blue fire. We traced this to an HDMI switching box—maybe a cable was loose.
- The GoPro stopped outputting HDMI once, which required a battery pull (all other functions appeared to be working fine).
- The Tarot FPV monitor mount is not robust. I ended up taping the monitor and mount to the receiver.
- The alkaline dust on the playa is really nasty. I taped up all non-essential ports on the Phantom, GoPro, and Lightbridge units.
- Hand launch and retrieval of quadcopter is much preferred in a dusty, desert environment.
- BRING SPARES OF EVERYTHING if you cannot afford to fail! I had 3 Phantom 2 quadcopters, 2 Lightbridge setups, 1 analog FPV setup, 2 GoPros, 6 batteries, 4 Phantom 2 chargers, gaffer’s tape, masking tape, and tools.
GoPro vs Vision+
We had to stream long distances, in HD, so GoPro with HDMI out and Lightbridge was the only solution.
That’s about all I can think of, for now! Going to Burning Man was an incredible experience, and being there to stream aerial imagery, live, to folks who wanted to be there but for whatever reason could not, was a privilege. I am no longer a playa virgin!
More: see some of my still images from the event, and check out aerial footage of the man burn, below.