Drone Photography

I have recently been observing a Great Horned Owl nest with two fledglings that are rapidly growing and taking on adult colours, indicating that they plan to soon vacate the premises.   The nest is on an unusual geographic site, a bog supporting several large and dead trees that have in the past been the homes of several Great Blue Heron families.  In fact one nest continues to be occupied by a Great Blue Heron incubating her eggs.   The owl nest is about three quarters of a kilometer into the bog and visible as a smudge to the naked eye.  I have managed to take an image of the nest with the Zuiko 150-400mm f/4.5 but the image scale is small.

OM-1 with Zuiko 150-400mm f/4.5 and MC20 and TC-1.25X at f/11.  Adding the MC20 on top of the internal TC-1.25x for a total focal length of 1000mm at f/11 showed significant image softness and loss of detail. 
Using my adapted Sigma 300-800mm f/5.6 monster yielded similar results.  Here we are experiencing the resolution limits due to the diffraction of light limited by the diameter of the telephoto lens being used.   I could prove this phenomenon by dragging out my 11 inch diameter Celestron Schmidt Cassegrain telescope with a focal reducer to get the same 800-1000 mm focal length and shooting it with the OM-1, but …. I’m too lazy and since the nest is some 20 feet above ground level I am still faced with that restrictive angle which prevents clear visibility of the young owls.   There is only one solution – drone photography.

Long term readers of this blog will know that I oppose the current Xi Jinping regime of China.  Or should I say the Xi Jinping dynasty since he clearly wants to be an Imperial Emperor destined to serve a life long rule.  His complete control over the Communist Party of China has silenced policy debate amongst the party’s top officials.  He runs the entire show by himself, completely antithetical to the founding principles of the Communist Party of China.  He alone bears the responsibility for placing the Muslim Uyghur minority into concentration camps, suspension of legal rights in Hong Kong, the Covid pandemic, and the threat to invade Taiwan.  Any one of these reasons would suffice for the West to impose trade sanctions against China.  We should all do our small part and make conscious purchasing decisions to avoid buying products Made in China … if possible.

I remember the early days of Covid when Canada did not have enough PPE for health care professionals fighting the crisis and so little was known about the disease that fear and alarm was widespread.   Nurses were told they had to make one mask last the entire shift while treating acutely ill patients.  Some had to wear garbage bags over their scrubs.  All production of masks, gowns, face shields, and gloves have been outsourced to China because it’s cheaper and means more profits for those corporations.   There can be no clearer example of the shortsightedness of those business decisions.   I faced the same restrictions but at least as a dentist I was able to treat only “healthy” patients.  Still I was staring down the barrel of a gun with every patient opening wide and breathing on me.   The only thing that saved health care professionals was the incredibly rapid introduction of mRNA vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer in late 2020 that continue to be the historically most efficacious and side effect free vaccine ever produced.  China had not been able to steal this technology and produced their own vaccine in the conventional manner for their own citizens.  China tried to give it away for free to Third World countries to curry favor but the vaccine was next to useless and even the poor countries rejected it.    Some of  China’s own scientists declared it a failure but Xi remained intransigent and silenced all opposition.   The West offered its mRNA vaccine to China but Xi refused it and instead plunged China under draconian quarantine measures to fight the Covid outbreaks.  People were forbidden to leave their residence for months at a time.   This is the problem with one man rule.  If he’s wrong, there’s nobody left to change his mind or fix the problem.  Just look at Putin’s dire dilemma.

China also never plays by the rules.  While production is cheaper in China because the average working wage is low, China is not above secretly subsidizing manufacturing costs in order to undercut all foreign competitors and drive them out of business.   This way China is left with a monopoly share and able to control that market entirely.  China has been at war with the West for a very long time, we just didn’t realize it.  China makes all the fentanyl or at least sells the chemical precursors to the drug cartels that has decimated those unfortunate in the West to become addicted to opiates.  But, I can’t help think of this as poetic justice.  The British government sanctioned the opium harvested from India to be sold to China in the late 19th century to correct a trade imbalance and leverage political concessions from a China mired in internal strife.

So is there a measure of relevancy to drone photography in my rantings?  Of course there is because the entire amateur/hobbyist consumer drone market is dominated by China and one company, DJI, currently accounts for 70% of the $30 billion world market.

As of 2020 DJI held 77% of the American hobby drone market and 90% of those used by public safety agencies including state and local police, fire and emergency services.

As I alluded to earlier, despite claims that DJI is a privately held company, all companies in China have a byzantine relationship with the Chinese Communist government. As early as 2017, the US Army banned DJI drone because of cyber security reasons. The company had been accused of transmitting flight plan data to company controlled servers in China and when investigators confirmed this was indeed possible, DJI responded that users could opt of the data collection. The code was later changed by DJI to prevent data sharing by their drones over the internet.  Typically your smart phone is used to either fly the drone or act as the visual screen for an actual drone flight controller.  The drone manufacturer publishes an app that is run on your phone so this means that your pictures, location, or any other data stored in the app are at risk of being forwarded to Chinese government officials.

Very recently, hundreds of Chinese made drones were detected in restricted airspace over Washington DC. DJI drones are designed with “geofencing” restrictions to keep them out of sensitive locations like airports by automatically preventing drones from flying into those areas as defined by GPS coordinates. However it is possible to watch YouTube videos to learn how to hack your DJI drone to override this feature and DJI claims it cannot control what users do with their drones post sales. It seems ridiculous that DJI cannot prevent security breaches with firmware upgrades. It did seem ridiculous that China would attempt to harvest intelligence from hundreds of thousands of US drone flights until four errant weather balloons full of surveillance equipment blew across North America in one week in February 2023 and had to be shot down.

In 2019 the US Department of the Interior stopped using drones made in China or made with Chinese parts.   In 2020 the US Department of Commerce added DJI to its Entity List, along with Huawei and camera maker Hikvision which cuts companies off from US technology such as advanced semiconductors and software. Huawei also denied ties with the Chinese government yet when its executive, Meng Wanzhou, was detained by Canada to face criminal charges in the US – China took the unusually provocative steps of arresting two Canadian citizens in China and holding them without trial for nearly three years to induce an exchange.   Why would China intervene on behalf of “just” a private company? What did China fear Meng Wanzhou would reveal in court during her trial in the US? If you think these bans have no teeth, ultimately the “Five Eyes” ( the cooperative intelligence agencies of the five English speaking countries ) persuaded the US, Canada, UK, Australia, and New Zealand to deny Huawei any involvement in their respective nation wide telecommunications 5G hardware upgrade.

The American Security Drone Act of 2021 banned the federal procurement of any drones made in China and in early 2022 the FCC was no longer able to obtain communications equipment or services from DJI specifically.   It was revealed that four investment bodies owned or administered by Beijing have invested in DJI in recent years meaning that years of denying financial ties with the Chinese government were unqualified lies. One investor is the Beijing State owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commissions (SASAC) a ministry level organization tasked by China’s State Council to manage the country’s state owned enterprises.   In response to this disclosure, DJI now claims that shareholders other than the founders do not participate in the company’s management and operation.

In 2023, Florida banned the use of DJI drones by state agencies and in Mississippi state purchased drones must now be made in the US by an American owned company.

Additionally, DJI has sold over $300k worth of drones to the public security forces of Xinjiang province since 2019.   This is the region of China where over a million ethnic Uyghurs have been detained in concentration camps with DJI taking an active part in this odious oppression.

I’ve been particularly exhaustive describing aspects of a company that DJI wishes the public not know.   This is a company:  i) complicit on spying for China, ii) with direct financial ties to the Chinese Communist Government, and iii) with consensual knowledge that their drones partake in human rights abuses.   If you still want to buy their products, or any drone made in China – that’s entirely on you.

I will readily concede that buying a drone not Made in China … is very difficult.  If you Google “drones not Made in China” you will get several articles that contain highly erroneous information.  And somebody pays people to write these articles.

Some of the companies listed are indeed American (and Canadian!) but do not make a consumer level drone but professional drones that cost close to ten thousand dollars or much more.

Parrot is a French/USA company that have shifted production to France and USA for contracts with their respective armed forces but their last consumer model is still available from eBay resellers and is the Parrot Anafi.  I bought one for $400 USD … but it is clearly labelled as Made in China.  I returned it.

Autel Robotics is an American company but their parent company is Autel Intelligent Technology and is based in China.  It claims that its EVO II model is assembled in its Bothell, WA facility and in particular it’s EVO II Rugged model is made from 75% American sourced components and currently available new for $1600 USD.  It comes with a 1″ sensor camera which appeals to me as a photographer.  But they are still a subsidiary of a Chinese company with all that, that entails.

There is in fact only one bona fide American drone company that sells a consumer level product and that is Skydio.  Their products are completely designed, assembled and supported in the US including the software which gives their drones world leading ability for autonomous flight.  As usual I tried to find a used Skydio 2 drone and they are not cheap.  And they shouldn’t be, you are paying for a product manufactured by skilled technicians being paid a fair living wage for North America and that should be incorporated in the purchase price.  I was very tempted with the less expensive used DJI Mavic Air 2S because it is very well made and designed (nobody every implied the Chinese gained their economic prominence without merit and skill) with folding legs for compact travel and a 1″ sensor for improved dynamic range and serious video and photography.   I finally found a Skydio 2 on Kijiji in nearby Laval, Quebec and for $800 USD I got everything including an extra battery, flight controller and the very useful Skydio Beacon.

My first real flight with the Skydio 2 using the 12.3 megapixel camera from a Sony IMX577  1/2.3″ sensor and a full frame equivalent 20mm lens. In a situation with good light, the results are good and far better than anything obtained with the OM-1 and telephoto lenses. Despite having no experience flying a drone and the trepidation of crashing and losing a relatively expensive piece of hardware in the bog, I only had difficulty finding the nest and not with flying it at all. Every tree and empty nest starts looking the same when you are in the middle of it, but the drone’s sure ability to avoid crashing into trees made flying incredibly easy. In hindsight this is indeed the drone for photographers to buy since you don’t need to acquire the skill of flying.  As a wildlife photographer I will not disturb this nest again, the baby owls were clearly frightened by the strange and sudden appearance of the drone but the views were extraordinary!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      The Skydio 2 camera can also record 100 Mbps 4k video at 60 fps. But you must buy at least a Class 3 micro SD card and the drone will not fly without a SD card inserted! It is gimbal mounted and can be moved independent of the drone. The drone can also land itself once it gets sight of the Skydio Icon on its travel case.

1 Comment

  1. You are right, Xi is dangerous to China, the PRC, Canada, the US and pretty much all of the West. We must understand that the PRC is on a war footing. Fentanyl is wiping out our infantry sources. And while this a a reverse replay of the Boxer Rebellion and its causes it is our ox that is now being gored. This does not mitigate the Boxer Rebellion/War.

    And we must temper our purchases by more than just the cheapest or best buy. I was working for a major US telecom which let PRC code onto their mainframes to test Y2K conversion routines. They damned sure did not ask my advice on that one. Crazy, crazy, crazy. The company took the code because it was free. That was another red flag for me. Anyway, I read and enjoy your posts, erudite and professional.



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