You’ll Never Fly, But Your Robot Can

Werner Herzog’s terrific new movie about the Grotte Chauvet, the “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, has a striking opening shot. You’re looking at rows of grape vines in a vineyard in France, and start to walk down one of its aisles.  As you come close to some trees at the end, you start to rise into the air.  “Nice crane work”, you think, if you’ve been watching movies for too long.  Then the camera rises up some more, and actually goes over the trees.  Beyond them is a river with a magnificent natural stone arch across it.  The camera flies along and right underneath it:

Pont D'Arc, ~70 mi NNW of Marseilles

You think “That is the bravest helicopter pilot I’ve ever seen.  How on earth did he take off from that vineyard?  Was the camera dangling below on some kind of mount?”

No, it’s an example of one of the niftiest new devices of recent years – a  multi-rotor electric helicopter:

About four feet across, and folds up into a travel case

They’re also known as Micro Air Vehicles, or MAVs.  This one is built by British Technical Films. It can loft single or stereo HD video cameras with on-board recording. The cameras have gyros to stabilize them separately from the copter itself, so the copter can bank while keeping them still. It sends a video feed back to the controller so the shots can be accurately framed. The rotors make a fair amount of noise, but not enough to disturb the tigers being filmed here:

More videos, including one of the camera descending through an oak tree, can be found here.  Footage from them has a wonderful floating feel, like being a soap bubble blown on the breeze.   Herzog must have loved the contrast between the free flight of the copter and the cramped and dark interior of the Chauvet Cave.  It’s not until the very end of the movie, when it descends into someone’s hands, that you realize how this footage was done.   I think it’s the first use of such a vehicle in a 3D movie, and perhaps one of the first uses period.  It’s some of the most advanced technology in the most technically advanced art form, and Herzog used it in a movie about the oldest art known:

All apparently done by one artist. The horse at the bottom is whinnying.

The paintings in the Cave date back to 32,000 years BP, and copters like this can only have been built in the last couple of years.

They’re made possible by light high-power light lithium polymer batteries, by light low-power electronics, and by vast amounts of open-source software.    They’ve advanced to the point where they can be offered as toys, such as the AR.Drone quadrotor from Parrot:

For $300 you get four motors/props, two cameras, an ultrasound altimeter, and a Wifi video link to your iPhone controller!    Sadly, the main use for it seems to be for augmented reality aerial duels, but that’s consumer tech for you.

The video links on these aren’t very good yet, but that’ll improve.  Soon you’ll be able to have stereo cameras on them feeding a fast video link to a set of stereo goggles.  It’ll let you fly.   You’ll be able to  float within a forest canopy, or through the buildings of a city, or among the clouds.   People may be somewhat afraid of these rather insectoid robots, and annoyed by the noise and possible use by Peeping Toms, but they could be as liberating as that opening shot.

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