COURSE CARE
Aerial Photography And Videography Are Practical And Affordable July 8, 2014 By James F. Moore

For over 50 years these were called radio-controlled aircraft and viewed as toys for hobbyists. Thanks to media coverage, now they are often referred to as drones, which sounds much more ominous. Properly used, they can be a valuable new tool in golf course management.

Superintendents have always used photography to document course conditions, communicate with golfers and identify problems. A few early adopters have taken their cameras to new heights through the use of radio-controlled aircraft – primarily quadcopters. Aerial photography/videography holds a great deal of promise for golf course management.

Free access to online satellite photos has proven invaluable to the golf course management team but suffer one major drawback – the images are invariably dated by months or even years. To get current imagery a course can commission a flyover by a fixed-wing or rotary-wing aircraft but these are expensive, often running $1,500 an hour or more. Fortunately, a new type of aircraft has made it possible to take high-quality digital photos and video in a matter of minutes with very little expense. Radio-controlled aircraft have been around for over 50 years, and hobbyists long ago figured out how to add cameras to their models. The introduction of small, lightweight digital cameras made it possible to take many more shots and see them immediately. However, RC aircraft have always been difficult to fly and this is especially true of the helicopter models.

All these “roadblocks” have been overcome with the introduction of easy-to-fly, electric multi-rotor helicopters. Commonly referred to as quadcopters (there are hexacopters and octocopters as well), these small aircraft are highly computerized and equipped with GPS and IMUs (inertia measurement units) that make flying so easy you can be safely flying in a matter of few minutes. All that is necessary to get amazing photos and videos is to attach a small camera (the GoPro is the most often utilized) and start flying.

A rapidly growing number of golf course superintendents are using this technology to identify irrigation problems, product application issues, traffic patterns and even pest issues on turf and trees. Of course video flyovers of various beautiful areas of the course make great additions to course websites and other marketing efforts.

The most popular aircraft among the superintendents I have contacted is the DJI Phantom equipped with a GoPro camera. Introductory cost is around $1,500 but like any high-tech device, there are many add-ons that can change the price significantly. In my case, I began about a year and a half ago with the Phantom 1 and added FPV (first person video) which allows me to see what the camera is seeing in real-time. By the time I added extra batteries, a carrying case and other accessories I had invested about $1,800 into my new hobby. The really good news is that prices have come down and the technology has gotten better. I recently acquired a Phantom II and added FPV, iOSD (allows me to see flight parameters such as altitude, speed, battery life, etc.) and ground control (allows the creation of flight plans for autonomous flight) for less than $1,500. Note that there are other companies offering similar equipment which is driving prices down even more so a little shopping is worth the effort.

The price depends largely on how many of these types of modifications you are willing to make yourself. If soldering irons are not your tool of choice, you might choose to buy a model that has been modified by the supplier and ready to use right out of the box. Regardless of how you equip the aircraft, be sure to order from an authorized dealer for the aircraft you choose.

You should also be aware that the Federal Aviation Administration is trying hard to figure out how to regulate the use of these devices. Understandably, there are privacy issues as well as safety concerns, particularly when flying around airports. Try to determine if there are local regulations regarding where you can fly, how high you can go, and how you can use the video. I use the word “try” because it may be impossible to determine exactly what you can and cannot do. This technology is so new and exciting that local and federal authorities simply cannot keep up with the onslaught of new users and applications.

If you would like to see a few of my admittedly amateurish videos, I have included a couple links below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WjTRMzdDWLs  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AP-W7y5DGeM  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HEAmgBkiTlw (shows the aircraft itself in flight)

On a personal note, I would like to start a user group of those of us in the golf course maintenance industry using these aircraft in our jobs. If you are interested, or if you know of such a group that already exists, please feel free to contact me at jmoore@usga.org.

Source: James F. Moore (jmoore@usga.org)

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