The chances of anything coming from Hexham are a million to one, but still they come, appearing in the sky with increasing frequency, peering down on behalf of estate agents, farmers, the National Trust, energy companies, and, of course, the many advertisers, film companies and broadcasters who recognise the benefit of a bird’s eye view.
One of the pioneers of the drone boom is Hexham-based Clive Matthews, a broadcast engineer who supplies footage for the horse racing industry and broadcasters via a company called Race Tech. Previously his role involved operating cameras and controlling camera feeds at courses around the UK – now he’s driving forward innovation by using drones to film meetings, which could obviously have been a big problem for the horses.
‘The main issue was to satisfy the horse racing authorities that we weren’t going to create a stampede,’ he tells us. ‘Initially, I approached a trainer called Alan Brown in Malton and asked if I could film some race-ready horses with a drone. Remarkably, he agreed, and very, very early one morning I arrived at his gallops and set up.
‘When the horses arrived, they were “on their toes” and reared up at the slightest thing out of place. They were clearly unhappy at the sight of my van and had to be calmed. Once they were used to this, I very warily took off – absolutely no reaction at all. Despite the noise, they were not in the least bit interested in anything in the air.’
After that, Clive approached the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) and agreed to carry out trials during flat racing at Redcar and Nottingham, which resulted in a draft agreement with the BHA about minimum heights, distances and filming positions. Now he had a new set of problems – firstly how to film horses which are moving very fast round corners.
‘On the flat, horses reach speeds in excess of 40mph,’ he explains. ‘This requires quite a powerful craft. The Ikarus Octocopter reaches these speeds, but we soon learned that getting around tight turns that fast was difficult. We now try and highlight an area of the race rather than follow horses for a distance.’
The other big problem was that because the drone is way up in the air, Clive needs to use a zoom lens, but a zoom lens needs to be steady – hard when the drone is being buffeted by the wind. The auto-pilot wasn’t steady enough, so Clive spent months perfecting his manual flying abilities. The result? Footage which is being broadcast by Channel 4, Racing UK and international TV companies, who can also now cut to ‘drone cam’.
We found out about Clive’s endeavours thanks to another North East drone professional, Steve Robins, a distinguished television producer (he used to produce Grundy’s Wonders among other shows) who moved over to the drone industry, becoming a qualified pilot and finding a job at North Shields drone firm Heliguy, which builds, sells and repairs drones, as well as provides commercial pilot training in Newcastle, Manchester and Reading.
‘It was around the end of 2013 that I heard a lot about drones,’ he explains, ‘And I just fancied having a go at flying one and seeing what the potential was for filming. I actually came to Heliguy as a customer.’
Heliguy is a big deal in the drones world, building specialist drones for television production companies (Heliguy drones were used for the filming of Game of Thrones), Hollywood (they provided drones for the new Star Wars film), and inspectors of everything from pipelines and power lines to train lines and wind turbines.
‘There are people turning up with ideas for all sorts of potential uses for drones,’ he tells us. ‘We had one guy who wanted to use it for filming pheasant shoots for clients.’
Make no mistake, this is just the beginning of the drone industry. Steve says that there are pioneers around the world coming up with new ways to use drones, including using them as scarecrows in North America and dropping lifebelts in Iran. Meanwhile, a drone operator in York called Sky Filming tells us that they were recently recruited by the Environment Agency to film flood barriers in Middlesbrough – these things are taking off.
‘In the early days there was a lot of scepticism that drones had any useful role in industry,’ says Steve. ‘It was down to a few companies who thought, “Hang on a minute, if we hire an operator who’s already qualified and experienced, we’ll test the water and see what their uses are.” Then, slowly but surely, people have realised that they have masses of potential uses.’
Estate agents were quick to spot the potential. Having previously relied on a photographer with a big pole to get elevated images of properties, they realised that drones could offer a world of possibility. One estate agent which uses drone photography is Sanderson Young – ‘Drones enable you to show the whole extent of the property, including the boundaries and how the property sits,’ explains the company’s Head of Media, Sue Tomlin.
In the past, as well as photographers with poles, Sanderson Young had even used images taken from an airplane for one particularly attractive property on the coast, but it’s not just properties in the countryside with a huge estate that benefit from an aerial view – ‘We used it for a property in Jesmond which you wouldn’t expect to have the gardens it has,’ says Sue.
One of the North East drone pilots doing aerial photography is Andrew Bryson, based in Morpeth. ‘I’ve been flying drones for the last two years,’ Andrew tells us, ‘And I’ve seen a real uptake in demand for their usage, from progress reports for construction, case study videos, estate agents and property photography, aerial surveys, 3D modelling and mapping to unique wedding photography.’
Among his clients are estate agents (though the house to the left wasn’t photographed by him), as well as broadcasters and the National Trust (they asked him to look for the Sea Stone at Cragside – a stone which appears in a Victorian oil painting – though it was an unsuccessful hunt). He’s been photographing some of the North East’s most iconic sights, including Northumberlandia, Dunstanburgh Castle and St Mary’s Lighthouse. The result is dramatic, with images of the region like we’ve never seen before thanks to the new perspective – which is the whole point of using drones.
‘Since I started researching drones I fell in love with the aspect and view you get from them,’ Andrew tells us. ‘Seeing Northumberland and the rest of the North East from the sky is fabulous and breathtaking.’
We couldn’t agree more.