Cinestar

The next flying rig for Yonder Blue

So we've been brainstorming our next camera flyer...

A little history: Our first big camera hauler was a Cinestar 8. It served us well. We wanted something bigger for flying the Red Epic. So we built a Vulcan flat octo with 15 inch props (and later added their awesome Mantis arm in place of the leading arm). Our most recent reel includes a mix of shots from the Cinestar and the Vulcan. Every shot in that reel is from either a hacked Panasonic GH2 or a Panasonic GH3 (we've flown plenty of cams, but these are by far the most popular for us). We've flown the Red on a handful of shoots, but most folks opt for having us fly smaller cameras. DP's like Epics and Alexas, but producers that control budgets like whatever is the most affordable. And we've seen a GH3 color-timed to match an Arri Alexa, and it worked well. And with the 4K GH4 on the way, the future is looking bright and LIGHT!

We're looking to build a new rig, and on this one we're taking the "less is more" approach. We want to build a rig that is ultra-portable, and targeted towards the cameras we typically fly. I see us continuing with the GH3, adding the 4K capable GH4, and also throwing our Blackmagic Pocket into the mix. We've only used the Pocket for ground work so far. We travel a lot, so having a rig that is smaller, lighter, and packs down faster would be a big benefit.

So here's what I'm considering, and I'd love to get some feedback. For some parts, I'm pretty set on what I will go with, for others it's still "up in the air."

The Frame: I'm leaning towards another frame from Vulcan UAV. Why? Several reasons actually. First, their frames are tough. Baggage handlers have given our gear a beating at times, so having a tough frame is important. I already have plenty of spare parts for our octo, so it makes sense to build a frame that can use the same spares. You can fold the arms for packing. Customer support is great. Their frames are VERY adaptable to all types of layouts and accessories.

The Layout: I'm likely going to build this out as a Y6 or a X8. I need redundancy, so no quads. I want something that's more portable, and we've already got a large octo, so coaxial seems like the smart bet. Many folks I respect have praised the benefits of coaxial. So that means it's either a Y6 or a X8. I'm leaning towards a Y6. With the Y6, I could fold the front arms back towards the back arm and pack it in a mid sized pelican case.

Motors: Looking at three brands - Avroto, KDE, and Tiger. All three brands make quality motors. There are some white Avroto motors that would be nice in the hot weather that we fly in. KDE has recently released multi-rotor motors and first impressions from folks have been good. Tiger (T-Motor) is obviously very popular, and they have a wide variety of options (they help manufacture the Avroto line). Really we couldn't go wrong with any of these.

Flight controller: We've been very happy with the Hoverfly Pro. I have an extra board that needs a home, so this will likely be the way I go. I usually fly in manual mode - 95% of the time it seems. And in manual mode, the Hoverfly Pro rules. It also flies really well in auto-leveling mode. I'd consider the new MK or SuperX as an option too. But I've got over 3,000 flights on Hoverfly Pro and it just works really well. I'm considering 6S lipo power, so I'd have to regulate the voltage to the Hoverfly.

Batteries: MaxAmps for me there. I have a fair amount of their 4S batteries, so it is tempting to build something based off 4S batteries. But many of the motors I like are tailored to 6S voltage, and there are some potential efficiency gains there. The choice of voltage will be a tough one. Also, with the Hoverfly Pro, you can't power it with a 6S battery, so you have to step down the voltage that is going to the board (ESCs still get full voltage though). What concerns me about that is that if that voltage regulator fails, well... that's a bad day. So I would need to go with a high quality voltage regulator and possibly wire up two for redundancy.  I will power the system with 2 flight batteries at a time for longer flights and redundancy.

Props: The wooden Xoar props have been good to me. I think I'll give the T-Motor carbon props a go on this build, or something similar.

ESCs: Depends on the flight controller, but Turnigy Plush have served me well in combination with the Hoverfly Pro. Programming them is easy with their card.

Camera gimbal: There are a lot of gimbals on the market. We used parts from here to modify our original Cinestar gimbal to make roll and tilt brushless. And we've gotten smooth shots from this setup. It's driven by an Alexmos board. I have had some reliability issues with the Alexmos, and I find the tuning to be time consuming. The results are good though. Don't get me wrong, Alexmos brought brushless to the masses, and for that I am sincerely grateful. BUT, I'm ready for something else. I want something with easier tuning, that's well engineered, and can accept a variety of small to mid-sized cameras. The gimbal that checks off all of those boxes is the Movi M5 (the little brother to the M10). It's due for release in March.  The only other gimbal tech that has really caught my eye is this, but information is currently scarce because it isn't available yet. I know there's other tech too being honed in a workshop somewhere - I think the next month or so will be very interesting in the gimbal technology department.

Gimbal mount: Allied Drone's Echo. I use it now - works well.

Prop mounts: Foxtech quick detach prop mounts. SleepyC of RC Groups told me about these and he gave them high marks.

Those paying close attention will note that there are some key pieces of gear that I left out, radios for instance. But we have plenty of gear that will make the move to this new rig. We are big fans of our Futaba gear, and since we have 3 of their transmitters I don't think I'll switch. If I did, it would be to a Jeti like this. Those that own them say they are worth every penny. I'd like to try one out.

If you read all of this post, I commend you and thank you. If you leave a comment, then many thanks to you. Fly safe.


If you'd like to participate in the discussion, this has been posted at MultiRotorForums.com and has recieved a lot of feedback.  Please comment there.

All the best,
Ben Rowland, Yonder Blue Films

 

2012 WITH THE CINESTAR 8...

Yonder Blue Films is a production company based near Atlanta, and we’ve had many people contact us about our low-altitude aerial video shot with our Cinestar 8 multirotor copter.  So we’ve decided to share a review.  Before we get to the review, here’s a sample of some of the shoots this year with the Cinestar.



We purchased our Cinestar 8 frame early in 2012 and started assembly while wrapping up a TV show for NBC Universal. The instruction manual for the frame was clear and allowed me to put it together on my dining room table fairly easily, with a fair amount of patience from my wife.  At first, I was struck by how simple the design seemed.  But this simplicity has proven to be a very smart design.  Many of the parts are interchangeable which means we don’t require as many spare parts lying around.  Also, once you assemble one section, other parts are similar in assembly.  It took some serious engineering skills to simplify the construction of this frame and allow for the reuse of parts.  This frame is also very adaptable to a variety of setups.

I purchased the Cinestar 8 frame from Quadrocopter.  I used their RTF Cinestar as a guide for how I would outfit our Cinestar 8, but I also made some changes based off some research.  I did start with the standard QC-3328 motors combined with APC SlowFly props in the 14x4.7 size.  This is a good motor / prop pair for lifting mirrorless cameras and some smaller DSLRs.  We did discover later that for larger DSLRs like the 5D MkIII and camcorders like the Sony FS700, that we preferred the Xoar wooden props in the 14x5 size.  But for cameras like the Panasonic GH2, we’ve stuck with the APC SlowFly.  

For the flight controller, I did head in a different direction.  The Cinestar frame was designed around MK electronics, but is easily adapted to other flight controllers.  I did a lot of research before deciding on our flight controller.  At the time, the three main contenders were MK, DJI, and Hoverfly.  I found people having success with all three of these flight controllers.  I ended up choosing the Hoverfly Pro.  Here’s how I went about making that decision.  First, I did a lot of reading on forums like MultiRotorForums.com.  Second, I took a look at the manuals for each of the three - I knew I’d be spending a lot of time with my nose buried in one of those manuals, so I figured I should take a look at them.  Third, I contacted a few folks that were using them.  What really sealed the deal for me was an endorsement for the Hoverfly Pro from Mike Hagadorn of Cloud Level Media.  He was getting great results with a Cinestar / Hoverfly combo.  Also, the Hoverfly had the easiest setup, is based in the U.S., and I could get customer support from them easily.  It flies awesome too!

When purchasing the parts for our first large multi-rotor, I didn’t hesitate in going with the more expensive parts.  I wanted the best.  One area where I was hesitant was the ESCs.  These plug in between the flight controller and the motors.  I went with Turnigy Plush ESCs.  I was hesitant about them because they were fairly inexpensive compared to other ESCs on the market, but they had a good reputation. They’ve proven to be “bulletproof” as it says on the label. They’re easy to program too if you have the programming card.  Their only drawback is a bit of noise, and I may check out some Castle Creations ESCs at some point since they are a bit quieter.  

We’ve put over 1300 flights on our Cinestar in a variety of locations: lakes, rivers, inside retail stores, factories, museums, across the globe.  To sum up our experience with the Cinestar in one word - awesome.  This flying carbon fiber beast has performed like a champ.  The frame has held up great under the stress of a lot of use in tough conditions. It has proven to be strong and durable.  Most of the frame still looks new!  Below is some footage from one particularly tough shoot.

The adaptability of the frame has definitely been a huge asset.  We’ve really taken advantage of this with the gimbal. We initially used the 2-axis Cinestar gimbal, then quickly upgraded to the 3-axis gimbal for more shot options.  Being able to shift parts around on the gimbal allows you to properly balance a variety of cameras on the gimbal.  We’ve discovered that balancing the camera is very critical with the gimbal stabilization systems that have been released in 2012, like the Hoverfly Gimbal board and Freefly’s Radian system.  Freefly, the manufacturer of the Cinestar line, has released several tutorial videos on how to properly balance a camera on the gimbal.  Some of the other gimbals on the market don’t really allow for these adjustments.  

On a recent shoot in Oklahoma we needed to film some slow-motion footage with the Sony FS700 - a fairly long camera when compared to the DSLRs that we typically fly.  It was clear that the FS700 wouldn’t fit on the stock gimbal, but this is where that adaptability came into play.  I simply purchased longer carbon fiber arms from Quadrocopter, a Freefly distributor, and swapped out the stock arms.  This allowed us to successfully fly the camera and pull off some fun slow-motion footage from the air.  I actually bought a single boom arm from Quadrocopter, then cut it in half, only to discover a few days later that they sell arms that are already cut to length - should’ve called them first.

A few other features of the Cinestar have been very nice.  The flight battery is mounted on the center of the frame, which keeps it balanced in flight.  There are o-rings between the copter and gimbal that isolate any motor vibrations to keep them from reaching the camera gimbal.  Since most of it is constructed from carbon fiber, it is very lightweight while remaining tough.  I’ve found it to be easy to work on as access to screw heads is easy.  I’m sure there are a few other highlights I’m ignoring, but obviously my review of the Cinestar is overwhelmingly positive.  Below is a highlight video from a 3 day shoot at Belmont University.  

To be fair, there are a few small things that I think could be improved, but I’m no engineer.  The screws used require a 2.5mm driver or a 2mm driver.  Most of them require a 2.5mm hex screwdriver - those work great. The button head screws that use a 2mm hex screwdriver aren’t quite as tough, so be careful with them.  I’ve mangled two of them, but fortunately the kit includes some spares.  The second issue is really a tradeoff.  The Cinestar can pack down really small, which is helpful when you need to check it at the airport.  The downside is that it can take a bit of time to reassemble it on location.  A second pair of hands is very helpful though, and an electric screwdriver speeds up the process immensely.  For shoots around Atlanta, we just keep it assembled as it fits in our vehicle.  Overall these issues are minor, and Freefly Systems is continuing to add updates to the Cinestar - a few are hinted at in the comments of this recent test video.  

After a day of filming for John GraceObviously, we’re very happy with the Cinestar and all of the components we’ve chosen to install on it.  Freefly has designed an impressive multirotor for aerial cinematography, and it is fun to fly.  But the best thing about this whole endeavour has been the human element.  We’ve made many new friends since getting our Cinestar airborne.  The multirotor industry is chock full of some awesome and generous people.  The team of geniuses at Hovefly, the helpful crew at Quadrocopter, all the great members of MultiRotorForum and Freefly forum, the fun folks we’ve flown for, and the super supportive Freefly Systems - they’ve all been great.  Just one example of many, I needed some spare props really quick that I couldn’t find in stock in the U.S.  I posted my dilemma on a forum.  That same day, Tabb Firchau owner of Freefly shipped some out to me.  They don’t sell props, they just had some spares and sent a pair my way.  The only question, “How fast do you need them?”  I’ve got several of these stories, and I’m sure that 2013 will bring many more.

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All the best,
Yonder Blue Films
“Impossible Made Beautiful”


Disclaimer: While we received no financial compensation for this article, we have beta tested products for Freefly and won a contest that included products from some of the manufacturers mentioned.  But that has not biased this article in any way.