Getting footage of yourself is one of the best things about having a drone. Hiking to the top of a mountain and getting footage of yourself at the top can be a great way to remember how nice it is up there when you’re stuck in the office.
Or maybe you go out on a snowmobile ride and have the drone follow you to show your friends what you did last weekend. One thing is certain, drone footage looks great no matter what type of adventure you’re into.
Filming yourself with a drone is simple with the use of active track mode. Other options to film yourself are tripod mode, parallel mode, or even reveal-type shots that don’t require tracking at all. Be sure to plan your shot and location carefully to keep yourself, your drone, and others safe.
I will explain how to use the different tracking functions that are available as well as some things to looks out for. There are also some tips and tricks included to give you a head start when it comes to filming yourself with a drone. Lastly, I’ve included some of my favorite shot types that are simple to do on your own, and produce some nice-looking cinematic shots.
How to use the follow me function
The “follow me” function, also called Active Track, is a fairly easy feature to use, and here’s how.
Once the drone is airborne just select the active track from the flight modes and pick your target. This is done by either selecting a target on the screen or drawing a box around the subject you want the drone to follow.
Then select “trace mode” on a DJI drone or “dynamic track” on the Autel Evo drone. The drone will stay locked onto the subject you selected and will fly and follow at whatever distance it was at when the tracking started.
Additional tracking functions
In addition to the “follow me” function, there are a couple more tracking functions many drones have to offer. The drone I was testing with had tripod tracking mode and parallel tracking mode in addition to the active tracking mode.
The process to initiate the tracking functions is the same for all types of tracking modes. Just select the subject and the drone will keep the subject in the center of the frame.
Tripod tracking mode
This is also known as spotlight mode and, in this tracking mode, the drone will stay stationary and rotate, keeping the camera pointed on the selected subject. The gimbal will tilt up and down as necessary to keep the subject centered until the target is too far away. This is my favorite of the tracking modes my drones have.
Parallel track mode is similar to the active track mode in that the drone is flying along with the subject. However, in parallel track mode, the drone will usually be to the side of the subject flying sideways, not following behind as it does with active track.
If the drone is not equipped with side obstacle avoidance sensors, there is a greater risk of collision since it will not be able to sense any obstacles it is approaching.
How to use Active Track while doing extreme sports
Extreme sports are fun, and they usually look pretty cool when you get them on film. It is even better if you’re the one doing the extreme sport and you can capture it on film.
Action cameras have become a common sighting at most ski resorts these days, and there are thousands of videos of people riding down a mountain on their mountain bikes. However, most of the videos you see are taken from the rider’s point of view.
Drones give a third-person perspective which can give more insight into the location, surrounding area, and can show how the rider is handling the situation. This is best done with a designated pilot and rider, however with the current technology that drones possess it is possible to get footage of yourself without extra help.
Location, location, location
The best location to utilize active track features is anywhere out in the open. In my experience, the obstacle avoidance systems don’t work very well in wooded areas, and sometimes the sensors are not able to pick up small branches on trees.
I have accidentally clipped a small branch before. Luckily, my drone did not crash, but it did damage the propeller which had to be replaced before the next flight.
Keep it under the speed limit
A lot of extreme sports involve high speeds and tight maneuvers which can be challenging for the drone to follow. The speed limit of the drone needs to be taken into account when using the active track features.
If you are hauling down a mountain on a snowboard going faster than the drone can, you will eventually be too far away for the drone to sense you and it will stop. The same goes for filming a vehicle, and it can lose track of you even sooner in a faster-moving vehicle.
As a professional drone pilot, safety is my number one priority. Safety for people is most important and the location you choose to film needs to be chosen with people’s safety in mind.
Most ski resorts do not allow drones as a safety precaution for their customers. I know that my drones can be a little unpredictable when following me around in active track mode. Add that to the unpredictability of people skiing down a mountain, and “no drones on the slopes” starts to make sense.
The backcountry is a much better place to have a drone follow you around, but that doesn’t mean it’s 100% safe, so be aware of your surroundings and pay attention to where the drone is at all times.
What to do with the controller while filming yourself?
The hardest thing about filming yourself with a drone while doing some sort of extreme sport is handling the controller. If your hands are free, you can obviously hold onto it while moving, but it is very difficult to pay attention to the screen and your surroundings at the same time.
Active track will keep the drone locked onto the subject, but if there is an issue while you’re riding, you may not notice until you’re stopped.
There are mounts that will clip onto bicycle handlebars and securely hold a drone controller, which makes flying a drone while riding a little more feasible.
I have not tried one of these, but the footage I’ve seen has been pretty good. It was a cyclist riding on a road with the controller mounted to his handlebars. It seemed pretty secure and he had it mounted in a spot that made it easy for him to glance down and check the screen.
This type of mount works pretty well for some mellow cruising, but I would be hesitant to mount my drone controller and phone onto a downhill mountain bike. The bumps and vibrations might be too much for the plastic mount to handle, which could lead to disaster.
Put the controller away
If carrying the controller is too cumbersome for the rider, they could technically put it in a pocket. You would probably have to remove the gimbal sticks from the controller to get it to fit into a pocket, if it even fits at all.
Having no sticks on the controller would make controlling the drone very difficult. The subject would still have the controller on their person if anything were to go wrong, but it would take a minute to get the controller out and the drone under control.
This is not something I recommend doing, and could possibly get a pilot in trouble with the FAA. However, if you feel comfortable with your drone’s tracking abilities and you’re not endangering anyone, this could work.
Keep it in control
According to FAA regulations, the UAS pilot must be in control of the aircraft at all times. If the controller is not being held, then it would be difficult to take control of the drone if it were to start flying somewhere it shouldn’t be.
If an FAA representative were to see a pilot flying a drone with no controller in sight, they might want to know what’s going on. If they were to consider this a careless manner of operation, they could possibly administer a fine or even revoke your certificate.
My FAA Part 107 Certificate is very important to me, which is why I always keep my controller in my hands.
If I go up, will the drone follow me up?
Depending on the model of drone you are using, it may or may not be able to follow the elevation changes while in active track mode. I have one drone that does and one that does not, and the one that does not has “crashed” into the ground on the hill behind me as I was climbing up.
The opposite happens when going downhill. It will hold its altitude from the top of the hill and follow to keep the subject in the center of the frame. This means that by the time I was at the bottom of the hill, the drone was too high to keep track of me and was hovering behind me.
The only way around this is to either manually control the drone or use one that can follow the elevation changes.
Skydio 2 – the best drone for tracking
The Skydio 2 drone has basically been built to fly itself. In fact, the starter kit doesn’t even include a controller, so most users just control it with their phones. It has industry-leading obstacle avoidance which the drone utilizes to fly autonomously around objects.
For an added cost Skydio will include the beacon, which is an accessory that enables the drone to follow its subject even if it loses sight of its subject. This would be very helpful if the subject is moving through a wooded area, or somewhere with lots of obstacles. The beacon also acts as a mini controller that allows the pilot to take off, land, and even maneuver the drone if necessary.
Even though the Skydio 2 drone was pretty much made for autonomous follow flights, it still has limitations and can get stuck and lose track of its subject. That being said, if you are looking to have a drone that is primarily used for tracking a subject, then the Skydio 2 is a good choice.
A few filming ideas
The drone doesn’t have to be actively following a subject to get a good shot. Personally, I prefer the tripod track mode when filming myself mostly for safety reasons. I can set the drone to hover in a safe place and know that it will stay locked onto my subject without moving around.
This is an easy and stress-free way to safely get a cinematic style shot if I’m out alone filming myself.
Film yourself with no tracking required
One of my favorite shots that I see all the time is the reveal shot. There are a few different ways to perform this shot, but essentially the drone is moving (or not) to reveal the subject or point of interest in the frame. This is a great shot to use when at the top of a mountain to reveal yourself standing at the top.
Fly the drone down below the level you’re standing at and fly it upwards to reveal your subject. You could even have the drone above you and fly it down to reveal yourself. There are lots of options with this type of shot, so get creative.
If you prefer your subject to be moving, have the drone hover 10-15 feet off the ground and ride/drive/walk underneath it to reveal yourself. This gives the viewer a great sense of the location and is a cinematic shot that can be used as a nice opening (or closing) to a video.
Up, up and away
The “rise and reverse” shot is a shot I use pretty much every time I am out filming. I start close to my subject which is centered in the frame and fly the drone backward and up. This could be considered a type of a reveal shot, but it’s revealing the location instead of the subject.
This is another great shot for the top of a mountain and can be a pretty dramatic one, depending on your location. This shot is for when the subject is stationary and the pilot is controlling the drone.
The key to a great “rise and reverse” is to be smooth with your inputs and try to match the horizontal and vertical speeds of the drone as it flies away.
Drone technology is at a point where we can film ourselves with a drone pretty easily, and the results can be nice. However, in my opinion, the best way to get drone footage of yourself doing extreme sports is to have someone else fly the drone. This gives you more freedom to focus on what you’re doing to make sure you don’t wipe out. Wipeout videos are pretty popular and can sometimes be funny to the viewer, but since wipeouts can be disastrous let’s try to stay pointed in the right direction.