Birdseye view of Northland

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Ngunguru/Auckland filmmaker/photographer Colin Gans has developed a drone camera to film environmental documentaries.
Ngunguru/Auckland filmmaker/photographer Colin Gans has developed a drone camera to film environmental documentaries.

Wildlife photographer, environmentalist and IT specialist Colin Gans says he is not an inventor but anyone seeing the videos he takes from his homemade remote controlled flying machine would find that hard to believe. The man who calls his fancy filmwork 'flyingyoureyes' talks with Advocate writer Lindy Laird and photographer John Stone.

We're looking into the anatomy of a multirotor. Or is it a multicopter? A Remotely Piloted Aircraft System?

It has several names. Just don't use the "D" word, says wildlife photographer and IT expert/innovator Colin Gans.

("Drone" has the wrong connotations: military missions that, as the saying goes, are too dull, dirty or dangerous for piloted aircraft. Then there are those other drones; sexless, stingless, stout, worker bees.)

We're at the Gans family's eyrie high in the hills behind Ngunguru, where he's telling us about octocopters, hexacopters with Y configurations, three-axis gimbals, and something called Moore's Law which means that even as fast as computer technologies integrate and expand exponentially, advancement still depends on how much oomph they can pack.

Moore's Law is why the components in Gans' fabulous amphibious filming machines (remote controlled camera-carrying aircraft) are waiting for its high power-to-weight ratio energy sources, um, batteries, to catch up, lighten up and allow more than 12 minutes flying time.

"Pretty much most of the components are available in your smart phone," Gans says of the 21st century technology's everyday-ness.

Being bottle-necked by the uneven pace of development doesn't ground his multirotors, nor put the brakes on his innovative fiddling and rebuilding of off-the-shelf multicopters.

Gans experiments.

He takes a carbon fibre body, reworks it, and "like building a ship in a bottle" fits it with gimbals, brushless motors, flight control systems, telementery systems, monitors, cameras and anything else needed to keep the camera-toting craft in the air, or, should he so compel it, in the water.

He modestly insists he hasn't invented anything, just tweaks things to suit his artistic needs.

Flying our eyes (to wild places) is what Gans calls the end product of this process.

He propels his submersible multirotors - with the camera attached to that self-balancing three-pivot gimbal set-up, the monitor planted nearby showing what the camera is filming - off boats, beaches, hills, cliffs offering top-down aerial and marine perspectives without distorting a sense of nearness.

Gans says he is uncomfortable about warping photographic images although post-production playing with moving film is a different beast.

Before he was photographer Gans was a dive instructor who "always felt there was some kind of contextual component to the images that needed to be caught on film." Since then his photos have appeared in BBC Natural History (Life), New Zealand Geographic, many other books, brochures, magazines and online publications, and he is chairman of SEAFANZ, an underwater photographic society.

Through flyingyoureyes (in wild places) Gans enables the viewer to see the earth's surfaces flatten, bend, sharpen and reshape into three- dimensional, kaleidoscopic images.

From above fish, seaweed, corals and other creatures appear both animated and dreamlike, the seas' surface and deeper terrain more transparent and accessible; forests and land deeply textured.

Estuaries in Queensland, the tropical waters of Fiji, Northland forests, even a rowing race on Auckland's Lake Pupuke ... they become something else seen from the sky's shallow reaches.

This summer at the Poor Knights, Gans sent his multirotor gilding over the water catching images of snapper feasting on puffer fish in a frenzied ballet, into the world's largest sea cave and over craggy, razor-ridged, forest-capped islands.

The resulting short video is a stunning example of Gans' ability to combine his passion for the ocean, image-making and enabling technologies.

"It's all about wild places and conservation work, I'm not filming real estate," Gans says of these beautiful, moving images.

THE family is off on safari in South Africa this month, a thrilling wilderness holiday that will combine his cutting-edge hobby with showing his New Zealand-born wife Pauline and their two daughters the homeland he left decades ago.

He has no idea how elephants, giraffes and lions might react to his camera-craft when it comes hovering around. Hopefully they'll think it's a bird.

Birds seem unfazed by the craft when it's in the air above or alongside them.

"But when it lands in the water it seems to take on a different persona and the birds tend to paddle away," Gans says.

He proves this by playing a short clip of swans moseying around a lake's reedy edge. We see them from the eye-in-the-sky flying camera and they don't seem to mind (it feels like we're really there) but yes, they do get their feathers ruffled when we land beside them on the water.

It hasn't all been a smooth run for Gans, getting to this point.

He's told us how he checks how waterproof the multirotors are (experimentation involved party balloons, a dive bottle refill cylinder, a tub, custom-made snorkels).

Gans has possibly spent the equivalent of the cost of a second-hand Cessna on his little flying machines. The bogey of compliance meant he spent hours as an observer in a light plane to gain air space regulation accreditation. He's had the tiny carbon fibre props slice open a pontoon on an inflatable boat.

"And in the early days I had a lot of catastrophic, dramatic, gut-wrenching crashes. It's all part of the learning process, it's risk management."

He's says these things matter-of-factly, and I decide he's as much an enigma as his film work. He's a visionary caught not between the devil and the deep blue sea but art and engineering.

I can't pretend to understand (and, with the greatest respect, am barely interested in) the gee-wizardry of space age computer technology and fancy remote controlled toys/tools. But this doohickey the size of a dust-buster with wings front and back fascinates me. That's because it can "fly my eyes" to wild places I would otherwise never reach; right into the surreal, amazing light and life that exist in the space between the sky and the sea and the good Earth.

- NORTHERN ADVOCATE

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