I was filmed for part of a BBC Countryfile episode flying a drone from a boat around Bempton Cliffs. This was a demo for a project conceived by the RSPB to see if drones could be used to survey seabirds and, crucially, what impact it would have to nesting behaviour.
I’d ever flown my drone from a boat before so was a little anxious about the whole affair particularly as they were also filming me – a crash into the sea would have been both embarrassing and very annoying.
I was joined for the day by fellow photographer Steve Race along with Keith Clarkson, director of the RSPB reserve and some RSPB staff members, as well as the Countryfile film crew and presenter. As well as flying the drone the Countryfile team also wanted to feature some diving gannet action into the programme so, in order to attract the birds, the skipper had brought along a rather large quantity of dead fish.
It was Richard Shucksmith who originally had the idea of using dead fish to attract gannets and, consequently, Steve had been using this technique for a while around Bempton quite successfully, even taking customers out to share the experience…and once it gets going it is quite an experience!
First things first however, I had to fly the drone. I was nervous for a number of reasons, but the main was flying over water from a moving platform which I’d never tried before – apart from anything I wondered how easy it would be to land the thing! In theory everything should be fine – I’d perfected catching the drone from the air with one hand whilst it hovers just above me and with the other hand you can shut off the motors in a couple of seconds, so landing shouldn’t be too much of an issue. An electrical failure of some kind is unlikely and I wouldn’t be flying it that far so battery life would be an issue. One of the unknowns was how the birds were going to react to it. Gannets, in particular, due to their pharmacy antidepressants size and considerable numbers at Bempton, could easily take out the drone in mid-air either intentionally or not.
I launched easily off the back of the boat and aimed for the cliffs. Because the drone is white and pretty small it was quickly lost among the thousands of other small, white flying things, so I had to rely entirely on the screen.
The idea of the pilot survey was to fly vertical transects up and down the cliff face recording everything in UHD (4K) footage. I figured the resolution of the footage should be good enough to be able to ID individual birds on a computer screen. I had to get the drone as close as possible to the cliff face in order to maximise the quality of the footage. However, it was incredibly difficult to judge distance, even with the screen, so I think I was a little over-cautious.
I managed to get the drone back without any problems and did a few flights at different points along the colony, all the while being filmed.
Once the drone action was over we headed a bit further out from the cliffs and the skipper began ‘chumming’ the water with the dead fish. It wasn’t long before the gannets started to appear, initially a little cautious, but once one started diving it was a feeding frenzy.
Rather than take still photos I took the opportunity to get the drone back in the air to get an aerial view of the diving gannets. I thought this would be quite unique footage and I was right. It was a little nerve-racking flying above the birds and back down but they seemed to avoid collision, some by only a few centimeters. Obviously I didn’t want one of the birds to unintentionally take out the drone, but I was actually more concerned about the potential for the drone to take out one of the birds – not sure that would look so good on prime-time TV!