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Brave New (Photography) World: Octocopters as Cameras

A new breed of octocopter drones can fly more than a half-mile into the sky at speeds of up to 42 mph and be piloted via remote control, allowing for the recording of image stills that a photographer couldn't capture.

A new breed of octocopter drones is helping photographers, filmmakers and soldiers alike. For the cinema auteur, it can take sky-high video without the hassle or restrictions that come with renting a crane. For the military commander, it can gather reconnaissance on a moment’s notice before being stuffed back into a backpack.

The octocopter developed by Ermes Technologies can fly more than a half-mile into the sky at speeds of up to 42 mph, scanning a battlefield with a camera or infrared sensor for 25 minutes at a time. It can be piloted via remote control or even fly itself automatically, allowing for the recording of image stills that a photographer couldn’t capture.

Of course, fixed-wing drones have been helping soldiers in the field for a long time. The hand-launched RQ-11B Raven has more than six year’s experience capturing color and infrared video in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 4.2 lb drone costs more than $170,000, out of reach for most people without military funding. Elsewhere, the CineStar 8 kit, sold by the Montana-based company Quadrocopter, retails for a much more reasonable $3,649. Filmmakers love drones like the CineStar 8 because their eight rotors give the machines excellent stability to ensure blur-free shots. A budding Steven Spielberg just needs to hook up whatever camera he or she wants, from a typical DSLR to a high-end video camera, and let the octocopter fly.

In October, Berlin-based media production company OMStudios released a video of its own DIY octocopter carrying a RED Epic camera—the same $58,000 device recently utilized by directors such as Peter Jackson and James Cameron—in a move that demonstrates that drones originally meant for the battlefield may benefit photographers and image makers, too.

Keith Wagstaff is a contributor to TIME’s Techland blog. Follow him on Twitter at @Kwagstaff.

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