One of the benefits of flying drones for film making is that they allow you to take a shot that might otherwise be impossible. Sometimes, in attempting to take that impossible shot, you have to push the boundaries of man and machine. This takes on a whole new meaning when you are flying in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
We arrived in the zone with an Inspire 1 and (3) Phantom 3s. The first day of flying went great until inside the Natatorium Lazurney. Flying inside is tough as you typically don’t have access to the GPS satellites. The Phantom 3 has an optical flow system to allow more precise flying indoors and as long as you stay within its limits (no more then 3 meters above the floor), it is spot on. Of course, I violated those limits.
The goal was to fly low across the empty abandoned pool’s shallow end and follow the slope into the deep end and then increase altitude to finally reveal the 7.5 meter diving platform. This flight went perfectly until I looked down at my screen just for a second and the Phantom struck the edge of the 7.5 meter platform clipping one of the props and spiraled down into the empty pool nearly 30 feet below.
Retrieving the drone was quite a feat. The slope into the deep end was about a 45 degree angle and 20 feet long. I climbed down the ladder in the shallow end and then slid down this slope, realizing on my way down that I had no idea how I was going to get out. (I did sense my fiancé, Elizabeth’s, eye rolling at this point, though.)
I walked over to the Phantom 3 to see what kind of damage I had done. To my surprise, it was pretty much in tact. I popped-out the battery, pushed it back in, and pressed the power button. The familiar “booting up” sound was music to my ears, but would it fly? My filming partner, Arek, and Elizabeth were standing 20 feet above me looking down. Arek had my remote, so I said, “Fire it up and let’s see if we can fly it out!” The props started, he increased the throttle, and the Phantom rose from the dead and out of the deep end.
Next was Arek’s turn to push the boundaries of man and machine. On day 2, we made our way to DUGA-3, an over the horizon radar system consisting of 30 towers rising 500 feet above the ground. (If you saw the movie “Divergent,” you will recognize DUGA-3 as it was the model for the fence around the city.) Arek decided he was going to climb to the top of the 40+ year old structure that has not been maintained for nearly 30 years and launch his Phantom 3 from the ground. His idea was to fly up the face of the tower and film himself standing at the top for a unique “dronie.”
He made the flight up the face and had some great shots flying along DUGA-3. Then he attempted to fly between 2 of the upper tower piers. It didn’t go so well. He hit one of the towers and tore off the gimbal. Luckily, the aircraft landed on the top of the adjacent pier. Arek had to climb down about 60 feet in order to reach the catwalk that connected the two towers and then back up 60 feet to retrieve his drone. The gimbal was not so lucky and fell down 500 feet to the ground, however, Arek did find it and retrieved the micro SD card. Amazingly, after all that, the Phantom 3 booted-up and was able to fly, though no longer had a gimbal.
Next up on the crash list was Paul Moore from DJI. Paul is an amazing pilot and really likes to push the boundaries of man and machine to capture that perfect shot. On our final day in the Chernobyl Zone with the DJI team, I took them to the Jupiter Factory on the southwest side of Pripyat. The factory supposedly made alarm clocks and radios, but when you see the machinery and the sheer size of the facility, it is quite obvious that it was there for something else. We suspect items for the Russian nuclear submarine fleet were manufactured there.
Part of the roof structure of the main manufacturing hall has collapsed and the giant concrete truss is laying across the floor. Paul launched his Phantom 3 and climbed into the debris of the collapsed roof to capture the first “dronie” inside the abandoned factory. As the drone accelerated overhead, it smacked into the dangling concrete structure and came crashing to the floor. I was on the other end of the factory hall having completed a flight when I heard the echoing crash. My Phantom 3 was having gimbal issues after the Natatorium crash, so thought, “Oh well, at least the Inspire 1 is still flight worthy.”
Paul climbed over the debris and found his drone, popped the battery back in and booted-up. He recalibrate the compass and started the motors and it flew. That makes 3 crashes by 3 pilots and all 3 Phantom 3s continued to fly, albeit Arek’s and mine no longer had functioning gimbals.
On the final day of the trip for the DJI crew, Paul suggested a shot with the Phantom 3 where it would track in front of our van as it entered Pripyat’s infamous city center. Paul set up the Phantom and Arek, Elizabeth, and I (along with Sergei, our military minder) were in the van with the radio. Paul did a test flight quickly to make sure the shot would look correct and positioned ready to go. Keith, the sound operator, radioed to us and we began to drive slowly with Paul flying the Phantom in reverse. As we entered the city center, Paul increased the throttle to have the drone gain altitude and reveal the city. Well… there was a very tall tree behind Paul, in fact there are lots of tall trees in the abandoned city of Pripyat and Paul’s Phantom clipped one and came crashing to the ground.
He picked it up, popped-in the battery, and it booted-up. I am now completely amazed at the durability of the Phantom 3. As Paul gave the drone some throttle, we saw the damaged inflicted from the 40 foot fall. The gimbal and camera still worked, however, one of the motors would not rotate.
Enter “Franken Drone!” When you travel to the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, you have to be prepared for anything. You can’t just run to the local Home Depot to pick up necessities, so we got creative and stripped-off the salvageable parts from the various Phantoms and created one fully functioning version. We now have 2 flight worthy vehicles for the remaining 4 days. Maybe…