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This chapter is from the book

Advanced: Live Aerial Video Streaming

Live streaming video from drones has only recently become a possibility, and media outlets everywhere dream about the day they can have drones overhead to capture video of timely news. The regulatory policy here in the United States makes this complicated (see Chapter 6), but there is nothing currently stopping hobbyists from putting a drone up into the air and streaming video from it.

Using Video Out/HDMI

Live streaming is not new, but for some reason, live streaming from a drone is still novel. Services like Ustream, Google’s Hangouts On Air, and YouTube Live all enable just about anyone to push a video feed to the Web in real time (more or less). Streaming live from a drone just involves getting the video signal over to one of those services.

My first attempt to stream video from a drone was in May 2014, and it was not easy. I used a DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ camera drone, pulled an HDMI video feed out of my iPhone using an adapter, and fed it into Google’s Hangouts On Air using a specific USB HDMI capture dongle sourced from Taiwan. In the end, I managed to do a live drone broadcast using about $2,000 worth of equipment.

Not long after, I started doing live aerial streaming tests using DJI Lightbridge, which provided a local HDMI output with clean video. Using Lightbridge, I now had a generic video source like what any camera might output, except that my camera could be flown more than a mile away while still streaming video at HD 720p. I took this setup to Burning Man that summer to stream aerial drone footage to the Burning Man Ustream channel (FIGURE 4.22).

FIGURE 4.22

FIGURE 4.22 A Lightbridge ground unit in the Burning Man media container received wireless HD footage any time I put my Phantom 2 in the air. This is a picture of our first successful test, showing me, George Krieger, and Gerard Mattimoe with HDMI from the drone reaching the preview monitor.

In November 2014, DJI released the Inspire 1 camera drone, which included integrated Lightbridge. The remote controller had HDMI output, which now meant that every Inspire 1 owner could output HDMI to live streaming infrastructure.

In February 2015, I went to Iceland with ABC’s Good Morning America and put two DJI Inspire 1 camera drones on top of the Holuhraun volcano eruption, broadcasting live to six million people (FIGURE 4.23). As far as we know, this was the first large-scale live broadcast from a nonmilitary drone. The broadcast was a huge success for us and the network and even yielded the still image that we used for the cover of this book.

FIGURE 4.23

FIGURE 4.23 A DJI Inspire 1 camera drone flies over the Holuhraun volcano eruption in Iceland as part of a live broadcast event with ABC’s Good Morning America. See the behind-the-scenes video at http://ech.cc/btsvolcano.

Photo courtesy Eric Cheng/DJI and Ferdinand Wolf/Skynamic.

Now, there are a few camera drones that provide HDMI outputs from their remote controllers, including the DJI Inspire 1, DJI Phantom 3 (optional accessory), and 3DR Solo (FIGURE 4.24). In addition, stand-alone wireless digital transmissions systems for drones are available from Paralinx and Connex (FIGURE 4.25).

FIGURE 4.24

FIGURE 4.24 The DJI Inspire 1’s remote controller includes HDMI out.

FIGURE 4.25

FIGURE 4.25 The Animon Connex is a zero-latency full-HD video transmission system designed for drones.

Periscope and Other Apps

Periscope (FIGURE 4.26) is Twitter’s live streaming app for iOS and Android devices and is probably the easiest way to stream live video from phone. A week after Periscope launched (in March 2015), people attached smartphones to their drones in an attempt to be the first to live stream using Periscope from a drone. The video they captured is probably some of the worst video ever captured by a drone, but they do get to claim it as a first.

FIGURE 4.26

FIGURE 4.26 Screenshot of the April 3, 2015, live Periscope dronie, by Air-vid.com

Another common live broadcasting service is Shou.TV, which provides both Android and iOS apps that can live broadcast what the phone or tablet screen is showing. Android devices must be rooted to run Shou, and iOS requires a jailbreak for best performance.

Note that live streaming from a smart device that is connected to a drone over Wi-Fi is difficult unless one uses a video output (such as an HDMI adapter) because the Wi-Fi connection takes precedence over the LTE or 3G cell modem. When a Wi-Fi signal is active, the cell modem is not allowed to talk to the Internet. This will likely be fixed by a future version of iOS or Android, but in the meantime, it gives the advantage to drones that talk to smart devices using USB, like the DJI Phantom 3 and Inspire 1. Smart devices used with these drones can talk to the Internet over both Wi-Fi and LTE/3G while simultaneously communicating with the drone.

YouTube Live

The easiest way to broadcast live video footage from a drone is to use a camera drone with YouTube Live integration. The DJI Inspire 1 and Phantom 3 were the first camera drones to integrate YouTube Live (FIGURE 4.27), a feature that was announced at the Phantom 3 unveiling in April 2015.

FIGURE 4.27

FIGURE 4.27 YouTube Live streaming a DJI Phantom 3 flight using the DJI GO app

The current DJI GO app allows live streaming to YouTube Live with about 20 seconds of latency, during which time YouTube transcodes the video to many different formats and makes the stream available globally. Before you can stream live, DJI GO walks you through the steps required to enable YouTube Live in your YouTube account. This is, unfortunately, still a fairly rough process, but it’s sure to improve as YouTube puts more resources into consumer live streaming. Once YouTube Live is properly set up, you can initiate a live stream with just a few taps, with audio recorded from your mobile device.

Aerial live streaming has the potential to fundamentally change how news about noteworthy events is captured and delivered. YouTube already has countless videos of public events, natural disasters, protests, and many other situations in which live streaming could be beneficial for the general public. Citizen journalists’ efforts will most likely start to incorporate drone footage as they realize that live streaming from drones is as easy as it’s recently become.

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