Drone keeps eye, and lens, on Baltimore sights

New regulations let Owings Mills couple program unmanned aerial vehicle to shoot photos

September 16, 2012|By Jill Rosen, The Baltimore Sun

During the Patterson Park pagoda's 120 years of existence, it has been photographed, painted and otherwise rendered too many times to count. But never in all that time did anyone depict the landmark the way Terry and Belinda Kilby just did.

No one zoomed in close enough to count each roof tile. No one let you see right over the balcony rail and onto each of the three decks. No one swooped in like a pigeon would, coming in beak-level with the weather vane to take in the observatory's 60-foot span and the city's northeastern neighborhoods stretching behind it.

The Kilbys did it with their feet planted in the park grass — but with their camera soaring through the air, attached to a drone.

The husband-and-wife team from Owings Mills is among the region's — and the country's — first drone artists, taking the essence of what had been the military's purview, unmanned flight, and using it to photograph urban attractions.

"You're going to start seeing these a lot more, all around the skies of cities from coast to coast," says Terry Kilby. "We are really ahead of the curve on this."

President Barack Obama threw open the door to possibilities for civilian drone use this year when he signed a law allowing the unmanned aerial vehicles to be used commercially. Those immediately jumping on the opportunity included the entertainment industry, which has started using them to film movies, and the real estate industry, which hopes to capitalize on the unique bird's-eye vantage to show off available property.

The Kilbys' art started as a lark when Terry Kilby, something of a technology geek who designs smartphone apps for an advertising agency, bought a ready-made, remote-controlled helicopter from a hobby shop because a buddy had one. He let it take off from his high-ceilinged Bolton Hill living room, freaking out the cat.

Though the flimsy device was fun to fly and crash, Kilby, who grew up building remote-control cars with his father, started putting together more powerful and complex versions, ordering some parts from overseas, designing others himself, and adding bits and pieces from the hardware store. One day he attached a camera to one of his early drones and took it out to a field behind a school. Though the images were awful and his control of the machine shaky, he felt he was onto something exciting.

Unlike the radio-controlled planes that hobbyists have played with for years, Kilby's drone can be programmed to fly itself. While someone flying a radio-powered craft must stay with it to steer and guide, Kilby can punch in coordinates and go get coffee while his drone takes off on its own and flies where he told it to go.

The vastly more sophisticated military drones can cost millions; Kilby's, which costs several thousand dollars, is a scaled-down, civilian take on the concept.

Kilby spent a winter practicing with a flight simulator program on his computer before venturing out onto Eutaw Street, hands shaking, to try to photograph the bronzed Francis Scott Key memorial. From there, it's been steadily taller monuments and more advanced drones, partnering with his wife, an art teacher.

This summer, under the name Elevated Element, the couple began showing their work.

The technology did it for him; for her, an art teacher, it was the inspiring perspective. "It gave it that romantic, mysterious feeling," she says. "A haze and a sense of the gritty side of the city — we were hooked.

"Little did I know," she adds, "when he started flying a little helicopter in our Bolton Hill living room that it would get to this point."

Now they shoot with a custom hexicopter, an approximately $3,000 flying photography studio that can climb as high as 400 feet. It's outfitted with two cameras, GPS to lock and hold an altitude, and a gyroscope to keep it level. There are goggles Kilby can strap on to see exactly what the drone is seeing.

Altogether, the drone is not quite 6 pounds. Belinda Kilby jokingly calls it "the other woman."

"All of this is brand-new, and it would have never happened without smartphones — it's all the same controllers," he says. "The guts of a phone is inside the guts of the copter."

When Kilby turned it on recently in the middle of Patterson Park, it buzzed like a massive insect, thousands of insects really, agitating leaves and blowing back the grass. The six blades spun at 4,000 revolutions per minute and a tiny light on board blinked, airplane-style.

The drone rose, almost smoothly, up and over the grassy hill the pagoda sits atop, cresting when it reached the landmark's upper tiers. It was close enough to capture the structure's detail, like the bronzed weather vane on top, but high enough to include the northeastern cityscape. It was a shot no photographer on the ground could ever hope for. And equally impossible for someone flying at the greater altitude of a plane or helicopter. Until the Kilbys got there, the birds and dragonflies had it all to themselves.

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