Helicopter aerials vs drone aerials: how to choose

Helicopter aerials vs drone aerials: how to choose

Aerial photos offer a wonderful perspective of architecture and construction projects, and both drones and helicopters offer the ability to capture great images. Here are some tips on how to choose between the two options for your next project.

Drones have limitations, though, not limited to airspace restrictions (which is a genuine issue in downtown Seattle, with three large airports within a few miles and two seaplane bases right downtown), and camera-resolution limitations (at least for the more common drone models). Drone flights can approach helictoper flights in cost, too, once you factor in the necessary pilot traning expenses, photo/video editing, licensing costs, etc. Drones are also limited in their flight times by the capacity of their batteries, which is often 20 minutes per battery. Many municipalities have their own rules regarding drone use within city limits; Seattle's rules can be quite restrictive, for example - they require a film permit if a drone is launched from, retrieved from, or flies over city property - that includes streets and sidewalks.

Drones are also restricted to a maximum altitude of 400 feet, with certain, very limited, exemptions, such as when flying near a structure that is taller than 400 feet, so long as the drone stays very near to the structure, for example when inspecting a tall radio tower.

Here we have both options: a drone taking a photo of a helicopter in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state.


Helicopters have their limitations, too. They can't get into the same tight spaces as drones can. If a project is a distance from an airport where a suitable helicopter can be chartered, transit times can add a fairly substantial amount to a charter cost.

Drones such as this DJI Mavic 2 Pro are common professional photo platforms.


On the plus sides, drones are consistently affordable, they allow for truly low-angle photography and videoography, and their infrasrtucture reqiurements are much lower than a helicopter. Many drones have automated features making it easier for people with only basic photo and video skills to capture usable photos.

Helicopters are very versatile photo platforms.


Plusses for helicopters include increased stability, much longer time on station, a more stable platform from which to capture photos and videos, the ability to carry multiple proper cameras and lenses for better quality photos, and, if the helicopter is large enough, the ability for the client to come along on the flight and provide art direction. Also, because we're in communication with Boeing Field's control tower during operations over downtown Seattle, it's considerably safer as the tower helps us maintain awareness of other air traffic in the area while we're working.

Costs are seen as a deciding factor, but helicopter aerials are surprisingly affordable, especially in metro Seattle. There are several helicopter charter operations located at Boeing Field, which is only 5 minutes flying time from the downtown core. When bidding for a project that includes aerials, I'll include options for both drone and helicopter photos when the location lends itself to the option.

There's a temptation to assume that, simply because you've seen a drone photo of a project, that the drone flight was done legally. Liability issues are real concerns when flying drones, and professional pilots will not fly in restricted areas. Airspace waivers come in several forms; some can be obtained nearly immediately, others take a mimimum of 90 days before the FAA issues their decision on the application. Helicopters aren't subject to drone restrictions. They have their own airspace rules, but it's simper to get access to tricky areas by requesting permission from a given control tower.

A montage of aerial photos: the top two are from a helicopter, both taken in areas where it's not legal to fly drones due to airspace restrictions. The bottom photo is with a drone in an area with no airspace issues to contend with.


So, the decision as to whether a helicopter or a drone is the right aerial photo platform comes down to several decision points - airspace restrictions, desired photo angles, desired photo equipment for either resolution or quality, and, of course, budget.

Give us a call for your next aerial project - we'd love to delightfully surprise you with a very competitive proposal.

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