[dropcap size=small]S[/dropcap]tep aside, selfie sticks. The hottest new gadget in travel photography takes your vacation snaps to new heights – literally.
We are talking about drones – complete with high-resolution cameras that can shoot sharp photographs and videos.
Once known to be unstable and difficult to fly, drones can now be programmed to return and land on their own and can be controlled within a typical radius of 7km.
While in the air, the cameras can be activated to photograph or film the landscape.
Footage can be observed in real time through a mobile phone or a drone remote control.
Manufacturers have also created travel-friendly drone cases that fit into the overhead cabin of a plane.
In Singapore, there are at least six stores selling drones that can be used recreationally and flown without a permit.
Prices range between $700 and $2,000.
Singapore Hobby Supplies in South Bridge Road, which sells aeromodelling products, started stocking drones about five years ago.
Over this period, demand for recreational drones, used mostly for aerial photography and videography, has increased steadily, says Ronald Yong, 42, a senior manager at the store.
Models by market leader DJI are the most popular here.
With the growing interest in drone photography comes the demand for classes on how to use drones effectively.
In January this year, Republic Polytechnic launched an unmanned aerial vehicle training centre.
Though many of its courses cater to government or corporate staff who use drones at work, the school also runs two-day basic courses for the public.
David Sim, 46, a senior lecturer at Republic Polytechnic and a trainer at the centre, said the courses are always oversubscribed and popular with drone hobbyists who want to learn how to best use their drones when they are on holiday.
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Participants learn how to better control their drones, get advice on flying them in different weather conditions and learn to edit their photos or videos.
One critical mistake, Sim says, is not packing extra batteries, as most drones can be flown for only between 15 and 25 minutes, depending on weather conditions.
“Low temperatures, wind speeds or high altitudes can affect how the drone flies, which is important to take note of when taking your drone overseas,” he adds.
In certain countries, drones can be flown to greater heights than in Singapore.
In Australia, the limit is 120m, double that of Singapore’s 60m restriction.
Photographer Wayne Toh, 42, recently experienced that freedom when he took his Mavic Pro drone on a road trip between Adelaide and Melbourne.
The $1,600 model has a 12-megapixel camera and can be folded to palm-size.
“Flying a drone overseas can be really enjoyable, especially if you’re travelling in a country with a lot of nature, landscapes and coastal roads,” says Toh, who has spent about $4,000 on two drones.
He now has beautiful images taken along the Great Ocean Road and Port Fairy in Victoria, Australia.
However, drone enthusiasts must be mindful of the laws regulating the use of drones in each country as this varies from place to place.
Sometimes, it boils down to basic courtesy.
Software engineer Winnie Yim, 28, learnt this the hard way after she was told off for using her drone while on holiday two months ago at a private beach resort in the Maldives.
She had been flying her drone from her sundeck, but a guest who was sunbathing at a neighbouring villa saw the drone and complained to the hotel.
“Even though I wasn’t breaking any regulations, it was a reminder to be aware of my surroundings when flying my drone, as it can be seen as an invasion of privacy.”
Graphic designer Jules Cameron, 33, had his drone confiscated at customs in Peru in January this year.
The country allows the use of drones, but requires a permit for it, which he had not applied for.
“I ended up having to leave my drone at the airport and pick it up when I left the country,” he says.
“It was such a hassle because I could have easily applied for permission to use it.”
THE SKY’S THE LIMIT
Before more user-friendly drones came on the market, enthusiasts such as Farhan Tahir, 25, were building and programming their own models.
About six years ago, when he was still a student at ITE College West, he would assemble drones from DIY kits he bought online.
He watched instructional videos on YouTube for advice. After building his drones, he practised flying them in empty fields to fine-tune their movements.
“Drones were very unstable and difficult to programme then,” the videographer says.
Without cameras attached, the early drones were more like radio- controlled helicopters – also a passion of his.
These days, his collection of drones is a far cry from those DIY days.
He currently has four off-the-shelf drones – including the DJI S900, which can support the weight of a DSLR camera – and has spent more than $10,000 on them.
The bachelor collects video footage whenever he flies his drones for leisure and sometimes edits the footage.
As an administrator on the Universal Drones Singapore Facebook page, which has more than 5,900 members, he is also part of a network of drone enthusiasts who often take “drone trips” to fly their machines outside of Singapore.
They have gone on day trips to Kuala Lumpur, Batam and Bintan.
Before he visits any place, he does careful research to make sure he does not run afoul of laws and regulations.
“You have to be prepared for extra questioning at customs or by police officers,” he says.
“Sometimes, police officers may not even know the regulations in their own country, but it is best to just abide by their interpretation to avoid getting into trouble.”
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POPULAR RECREATIONAL DRONES
These drones are available at Singapore Hobby Supplies, B1-23 Fook Hai Building, 150 South Bridge Road
KEEP YOUR DRONE SOARING
David Sim, senior lecturer and trainer at Republic Polytechnic’s unmanned aerial vehicle centre, gives tips on travelling with drones.
KNOW THE REGULATIONS
Local drone laws are constantly evolving and it is your responsibility to know and abide by them. Not doing so could result in a huge fine or you may be liable for causing injury or damage. You could also have your drone confiscated.
HAND-CARRY YOUR EQUIPMENT
Drones use lithium polymer batteries which need to be hand-carried, according to airline regulations. Invest in a special drone bag to protect your equipment.
CHECK YOUR HARDWARE
Most batteries allow 15 to 25 minutes of flight time and need at least an hour to recharge, so pack extra batteries.Also take along extra blades for the propellers so you can replace broken ones in the event of a crash.
PLAN ACCORDING TO WEATHER CONDITIONS
At lower temperatures, batteries drain more quickly, so keep them warm and insulated inside a bag or a thick pouch until you want to use them.
Set up a flight plan before flying so you can take note of any large objects, trees, power lines or buildings and avoid them. You should also take into account weather conditions such as wind direction and speed, as this can affect the route of your drone.
LEARN TO FLY YOUR DRONE MANUALLY
Many drones can be programmed to return to the starting point when their battery starts to go flat. But sometimes, a drone may lose its video signal to its base, so keep an eye on your drone and fly it back manually if necessary.
This is particularly important if you are flying it from a moving object such as a cruise ship. When you move away from your starting point, the drone may crash into the sea.
Story first appeared on The Straits Times.