REVIEW: FLYING DJI’S INSPIRE 1 IN THE CHERNOBYL NUCLEAR EXCLUSION ZONE

From my recent review on Newsshooter.com

 

I was the first person to take a drone (my very first, a DJI S-800) into the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone nearly four years ago. The idea came after my first expedition in 2011 when I was able to get rare permission for a helicopter flight in the Zone. The helicopter flight was fantastic, but we could not get close enough to the reactor complex and the abandoned city of Pripyat to really get the kind of images I wanted.

So the quest to find a better way to capture images started. I returned to Atlanta and discovered Atlanta Hobbyand UAV Experts. Cliff Whitney, president and owner of both operations was fantastic in providing the guidance, knowledge and products necessary to help me make the first drone flight in Chernobyl (and subsequent first drone crash in Chernobyl). Four years later DJI have released their newest professional-level drone, the Inspire 1, and I decided to take one with me to Chernobyl to capture truly unique footage in 4k. The technology and capabilities of this new aircraft make those early drones look like the original Wright brothers’ flyer.

Read More on Newsshooter.com

After Shooting the Haunting Drone Footage of Chernobyl, He Got Married There – Interview with Philip Grossman

From my Interview on Droneblog.com

Almost 30 years ago a catastrophic man-made disaster echoed around the globe. The Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor melted down. There are still plenty of people around who remember seeing the fallout on the evening news, and the tragedies surrounding the ongoing containment efforts. I suppose teenagers today would say “Chernobyl who”, but there are so many lessons to be learned from those events. Philip Grossman of Colorado is one who believes in the value of learning from history, and has dedicated many years to filming and photographing the restricted zone surrounding Chernobyl. Much of his work has been done via drone. We interviewed Philip to learn more about his fascination with Chernobyl and how drones fit into his work there.

Read More...

 

11 QUESTIONS WITH DIRECTOR PHILIP GROSSMAN, FIRST PERSON TO CRASH A DRONE IN CHERNOBYL

From a recent Interview at VideoMaker.com

 

Filmmaker Philip Grossman(link is external) has been dazzling us with haunting and revealing images and video from the Chernobyl disaster site, recently adding aerial videography to his repertoire. Videomaker was fortunate enough to sit down (at least virtually) with Philip to learn a bit more about this intriguing multi-year project and what drives him to capture this stunning imagery.

Russ Fairley: Philip, choosing to shoot in Chernobyl and Pripyat is an odd choice, as it has historically been a place people think to avoid. What drew you to the disaster site in the first place?

Read More Here....

Towelgate 2015

For radiation exposure control, guests to the zone can only stay for 4 consecutive days and then must leave for at least one night, but then are permitted to return the following day for another 4 consecutive days tops and then must depart again. Check-out time from Hotel 10 is noon; no late check outs, but Arek negotiated with the hotel staff for us to leave our bags in the room while we spent our last day with the DJI team shooting some critical locations. We returned at 4 pm sharp to throw everything into the van and peel out of the DITAKE zone checkpoint by 5 pm. 

On our way out of the front door, Arek was accosted by the hotel manager. He translated for us - 2 of the 4 weirdest color, thinnest, and least absorbent looking towels known to man from our room were missing. What did we do with them? Where were they? She thought we had stolen them. I insisted we did not. We had brought our own towels from home; I have been here once before and was aware of the towel situation. Not a chance I wanted to bring one of theirs back as a souvenir. I explained that the faux wood linoleum bathroom floor was extremely slick from the leaking shower (and I didn’t want to fall and kill myself), so I used one as a bathmat and left it in the bathroom - neatly folded, mind you, beside the shower in case someone else needed it. I was, in fact, sharing a bathroom with 5 men. Anyway, that was not a good enough excuse. Since we were on our way back to Kiev, I offered to bring her 2 new towels upon our return to the zone the following day, but she didn’t want new towels because they would not have matched the others. Hotel manager - 1. Elizabeth - 0.

You must complete an epic portion of paperwork for permits to enter the zone. The hotel has our passport numbers, addresses, birthdates, you name it. I just figured that soon enough, my identity would be stolen because I had (not) stolen these towels!

Tomorrow is our last day in the zone and it is also the hotel manager’s last day of work. She is required to retire and receive her pension. She was crying out front when Arek saw her earlier and she told him she found the missing towels. What a relief! But we will still leave our own extra towels here, along with flip flops purchased for the sole use of walking to and from the bathroom, extra granola bars, several packets of travel size tissues, a roll of Charmin, a small fan that Philip made me from a computer, so I could feel more comfortable at night (there’s no air conditioning here), and whatever miscellaneous items that will put our bags into the over-weight, extra fee handling section. Retired hotel manager - 1. Elizabeth - 1. Even Steven!

Another One Bites the Dust

In the deep end in more ways then one

In the deep end in more ways then one

The DUGA-3 is an impressive structure and known for eating drones

The DUGA-3 is an impressive structure and known for eating drones

Last thing Arek's Drone saw

Last thing Arek's Drone saw

Last thing Paul's Drone saw

Last thing Paul's Drone saw

Franken Drone is Born

Franken Drone is Born

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…

What does the Fox Say?

Its like we have never seen a fox before

Its like we have never seen a fox before

With a 3 am alarm jolting us out of our "Hotel 10" late 1970s single beds, we geared up and headed to Pripyat at 4am. The sun rises at 4:58 am here and we prepared for a sunrise shoot in the city center. Cameras out and drones calibrating, a fox trotted up to us from the nearby bushes, seemingly without fear. Immediately, we all stopped what we were doing, like we had never seen a fox before, and started shooting this beautiful, yet skinny animal. Arek got out some wafer cookies and tossed them her way and she got almost close enough to eat a cookie out of his hand. I broke up a granola bar and sprinkled it out for her; she sniffed it and walked back to Arek for more cookies, which she brought over to a spot in front of the Hotel Polesie, dug a hole, and buried. She hung out with us for about 45 minutes until she wisely decided that she was totally over it and back to the woods she went. 

In addition to the fox, we've seen a small hedgehog waddling along the side of the road from Chernobyl to Pripyat, a lizard slithering his way around the rusty tracks at Yaniv train station, a very fuzzy gray cat at Hotel 10, another cat at one of the security check points outside of Poleski, working horses and donkeys around the town of Chernobyl, seagulls at the radioactive ship graveyard, persistent mosquitos, epic gnats after the rain, bees, major horseflies, bright red ladybug things on the ground in Pripyat, a moose standing in the middle of the road close to where there has been a recent forest fire, a wild boar (I missed it because I was dozing in the van), a pair of eagles soaring in front of our van when we left the church in Krasne after our wedding, and lots of dogs. All of the security checkpoints have dogs and puppies. I'm sure they'd be protective, if needed, but they greet us everyday with wagging tails and smiles. They must sense that we aren't a threat, thankfully. We haven't seen them yet this year, but Philip has video of the very rare Przewalski horses from a few years ago. 

We got married today. Sorry you couldn't make it.

May 28, 2015 will go down in our personal history as a pretty big day. Perhaps the biggest of days. We got married in the zone at the church in Krasne. The ultimate destination wedding. It was a very private ceremony, as you can imagine. Just us, and well... Arek (our friend from Poland and Philip's photography partner) Paul, Alex, and Keith (the DJI crew working on the story about Philip and Chernobyl), and Sergei (our military minder).  

The church was built in 1800 and is still beautiful, although, recently a cupola window shutter crumbled off, so it's just a matter of time before Mother Nature reclaims this spot as she has done for most of the zone. We feel very lucky to have found this church and archived its beauty for such a special occasion.

When Philip asked me if I'd like to return to Chernobyl with him for his 5th expedition, I said, "Sure. We should get married there." Philip asked Arek to help us organize the very small event, which basically meant making sure we had the proper permits. We didn't learn from him until the day before we left the U.S. that Philip would need a suit and I would need a white dress past my knees to have a ceremony inside the church. (Yikes! Like we didn't have enough to pack already!) Nothing is easy to accomplish in the zone and, so we learned, including a wedding.

We read our own vows, exchanged rings, and signed in a book what we wished for, so the local priest will pray for us and for our wishes - health, love, and happiness for the rest of our lives. We hope you will do the same!

Drone down! Drone down!

Threatening DUGA-3 guard dog.

Threatening DUGA-3 guard dog.

Aerial kit with back ups. You should have a back up for everything here.

Aerial kit with back ups. You should have a back up for everything here.

A significant member of our team got injured today at our very first, but lengthy stop at "Chernobyl 2," otherwise known as DUGA-3.

This intimidating, 150 meter tall, steel tower wall was discovered after the Chernobyl catastrophe, which is crazy to believe because of it's incredible size. I have climbed to the top of it, photographed it, taken video of it, and flown my earlier drones around it, but flying the Inspire 1 would undoubtedly be more amazing than all of those mediums put together. With that in mind, DUGA-3 was our first stop of the day.

Guarded by a pregnant, feral, but sweet dingo and an over weight, middle aged, bald man in blue camo, the gate was opened for us and the DJI team gasped as we drove in. As Arek bravely set out climbing to the top, as usual (but this time with his Phantom 3 controls and a radio to Elizabeth to tell her when he was ready for her to turn it on), I prepared the Inspire 1 - calibrate, turn on the camera, review plan of action, etc. Arek had the Phantom up already and we heard a reverberating, rattling bang come from the his general location and then got the radio call, "I crashed the drone." He had attempted to fly between two of the 150 meter towers at the top where he was standing - the ultimate "dronie" (a selfie taken by a drone). Unfortunately, it was very windy that high up and too tight a spot to navigate through with the wind. Ah, it happens to the best of us.

I know that sinking feeling when you see your aircraft careen into something, but if you don't take risks in flying, you would never get a noteworthy shot. Arek was lucky. The drone toppled onto the top level of the DUGA-3, instead of falling 500 feet down to its death. He sheared off the camera gimbal, but the drone still flies. 

I was a bit more cautious than Arek and started the Inspire's flight with both me and the drone on the ground. I had learned my lesson with my two previous crashes in the zone, and even got a decent "dronie" on the DUGA, as well.

After flying at the DUGA-3 complex, I took the DJI team through the command building and one of the ancillary buildings near the antenna array. One of the first rooms we entered was a classroom where new radar operators would learn about how to manage the complex equipment and, more importantly, recognize the U.S. Intercontinental Ballistics Missiles (ICBM).  Around the perimeter of the room were drawings of about 10 to 12 different US ICMB. With my rudimentary knowledge of Russian, I was able to make out Cruise Missile, Minute Man 1 and 2, and the Trident ICBM.

The next stop was just a 15 minute walk down a concrete slab path to the main control room for the DUGA-3 radar complex. It is located on the 3rd floor of the main command building where it is very dark and my custom X-LED 14,000 lumen light came in handy. The large room is mostly empty of equipment now (most laying outside the building and pilfered through), but there are a few command consoles left with still colorful buttons and gauges after 30 years.

Overall, it was a fantastic day of flying and filming. We had several other stops, but DUGA-3 really requires a post all on its own. 

Making a film about a film...Welcome DJI

Team DJI, me, Arek and a skeptical Elizabeth.

Team DJI, me, Arek and a skeptical Elizabeth.

Organizing gear in our room at Hotel 10.

Organizing gear in our room at Hotel 10.

Interview with DJI on the roof of the Fujiyama apartment building in Pripyat.

Interview with DJI on the roof of the Fujiyama apartment building in Pripyat.

Short aerial clip from today's flying over Pripyat.

I can finally let the cat out of the bag. DJI has sent a crew of three professionals to create a short film about me making a film in Chernobyl. We all met this morning and drove the 80 km together in a teal minivan along with my friend, filming partner and driving and translation expert, Arek, to the Chernobyl Nuclear Zone. I'd say the van was 70% gear and 29% man and 1% woman, just to keep us all in line.

When we arrived at the Check Point Dityatki, Arek and I had a conversation with the Chernobyl Secret Police to review our permit for flying drones in the Exclusion Zone. The area has been turned into a nature preserve and is managed by a different division in the Ukrainian government than years before, which is now no longer allowing drones to be flown. We applied for and received a special permit; however, the permit read "Inspire 1" and "Phantom 3" and did not state the quantity. Arek, in his Eastern European wisdom, told them we had one Inspire and three Phantoms. We provided them the serial numbers from the drones and then they let us pass. "Spasibo!"

After each flight, I was optimistic that everything went well. We shot about 224 gig of 4k video. After a massive dinner of borscht, bread, salad, fried chicken, French fries, and fruit puff pastries, I came back to the room and downloaded everything. the DJI Inspire 1, which is one of their newest drones, flew like a bird (or was it more a plane?). Either way, the footage blew me away. I managed to fly the farthest distance yet - the Inspire 1 from the southwestern most corner of the city from the roof of the 16 story Fujiyama building (which got its nickname from being so different in style from the other Soviet-styled architecture) out to a distance of 4,351 feet at an altitude of 250 feet across the abandoned city of Pripyat.

We made 8 flights today and plan to double that tomorrow as we fly around the DUGA-3, Krug, and City Center just to name a few high points.

Who needs sleep?

Better late then never and it probably should have platinum status quicker than me.

Better late then never and it probably should have platinum status quicker than me.

Dance of the battery chargers.

Dance of the battery chargers.

Go Professional Inspire 1 Duo case.

Go Professional Inspire 1 Duo case.

With the thought of Chernobyl meals hovering over our table at the hotel restaurant like a nuclear cloud, Philip and I met the DJI guys for dinner after 18 hours of travel, 2  lost drones, a broken down van, and gorged ourselves on chicken Kiev, perogies, and latkes. We prepped them to anticipate nuclear sized mosquitos and lots of pickled salads.

I then returned to our room to take a much needed shower (with the typical European hand shower and no fixed shower head, but who cares at this point?!) while Philip held court with the front desk manager to try to communicate with Delta and KLM about the impending (hopefully) arrival of the drone box. A 2 hour power nap later, we got the call at midnight that the driver had arrived to take Philip back to Boryspil, so he charged out with the customs paperwork, luggage claim tag, passport, cash, sheet marks on his face, and hope. I turned on the tv and waited.

Philip returned at 4 am with the drone box and a smile and so the battery charging ceremony commenced - rotating and charging the 15 LiPo batteries in anticipation of getting the proper permits approved by the time we leave for the zone in 5-4-3-2….