drone cineflex shotover westcam GSS quadcopter cinestar UAV

You can’t hardly think about aerial video without some drone buzzing through the background of your mind these days. So what’s the deal? If you can capture smooth aerial video from a drone who needs the big helicopter and cineflex anymore?

As both a cineflex operator and owner of a couple drones myself maybe I can help you decide which is best for your next project. The same thinking applies if you are considering a different helicopter mounted aerial video system such as the shotover, wescam, gyrostabilized systems (GSS) etc. .

Cineflex nose mount robinson R44 helicopter. Pole mount ZatzWorks Alaska

Manned Aerial Vehicle (MAV)

Basically this is a helicopter carrying an externally mounted contraption called a gimbal. Inside the gimbal is a bunch of technological stabilization wizardry surrounding a camera and lens. The pilot flies the helicopter and the camera operator (aerial director of photography) controls the movements of the gimbal and camera functions. The operator has a monitor to see what the camera sees and a laptop with a bunch of dials, switches and knobs. Sometimes inside the helicopter there will also be a director watching a second monitor and giving critical suggestions to the camera operator and telling him when he just missed the shot.

drone uav quadcopter cinestar freefly RED EPIC dragon Alaska

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)

This is the drone, the multi-rotor, the quadcopter, RC heli. Some common models you hear about from DJI are the inspire 1, s800, s900, s1000, or the consumer aimed phantom. Other companies aimed more at aerial video specifically are Freefly systems and their cinestar 8, Intuitive Aerial Aerigon,  Droidworx (aeronavics) sky jib . . . The basic setup is a remote controlled flying helicopter like thing with at least 4 propellers. The person flying the drone may also control the camera, but often there is a camera operator standing next to the drone ‘pilot’. There could be a whole crowd of people standing around peeking over their shoulders and offering critical suggestions on what the two with the joysticks should do with the flying thingy.

The Comparison

Let’s just assume you are working on a production and you know you want aerial video. Which is better – Drone or ShotOver (#thegamehaschanged you know). Here’s a few points to consider. Clearly I’m leaving out many of the potential factors, but I hope it will give you some understanding of the differences. So here goes. Drone vs Cineflex.

I’m going to do this Pro & Con style with a focus on the pros and cons that are contrasting between the two options.

ShotOver F1 aerial filming helicopter Astar as350 Alaska

Cineflex / Wescam / ShotOver / GSS etc.


  • Offers a variety of lens options from wide to super telephoto, most with zoom.
  • Perfect stabilization with virtually zero shake.
  • Can operate and shoot in strong winds and rain when necessary.
  • Speeds ranging from hovering to over 100mph with ease.
  • Relocates at the speed of a flying helicopter to new shot locations.
  • Extremely versatile and productive for each minute of flight time.
  • Long flight times above 2hrs are possible.
  • Pilot and camera operator are in the sky themselves which helps in a variety of ways.
  • Very reliable systems which rarely fail.
  • Versatile – can be mounted on cars, ATVs, boats etc.
  • 100% legal to operate commercially around the world.


  • 1,000-3,000 lb helicopter attached to the camera is big, noisy, and makes a lot of wind.
  • Cannot access confined spaces.
  • Usually will cost more than a drone, but will probably also get more done in less time. . .
  • Standby time is likely to be more costly with the required helicopter and pilot involved
  • It’s hard to ‘just bring a helicopter and cineflex’ along on a project in case.[/one_half]

Drone operator aerials Alaska

Drone / UAV / Quadcopter / RC Heli etc.


  • Intimate shots are possible in confined areas (flying through the forest or even inside spaces).
  • May be lower cost depending on your needs.
  • Portable – can be brought on a small lightweight production.
  • Offers a range of value/cost from a $1,200 rig with beginner pilot for cheap up to $100,000 rig and three professional crew.
  • For lower budget productions a single camera can be used on the drone and land based shots.


  • Limited to wide angle lenses only without zoom.
  • lightweight system is moved by light wind gusts affecting the shot.
  • Very sensitive to weather conditions. 10mph wind or sprinkling rain could halt production.
  • Batteries and equipment don’t handle extreme cold very well.
  • Limited flight time – 10-20min between battery changes is standard.
  • Not the most proven and reliable technology yet. Technical glitches are common.
  • Each shot generally takes more preparation to position pilot and camera operator and work within limited flight time.
  • Commercial operations in the USA are in a mirky quagmire of FAA regulations, though getting better in 2015.

Some additional thoughts on Cost

Cineflex –  The ZatzWorks cineflex configured with a 1080 HD camera costs $4,200/day with an experienced operator. It requires a helicopter for most projects which costs about $900/hr at the low end up to $2,500/hr. So if we wanted to shoot for 3 hours it would be $6,900 for the day.

Drone – They come in all sizes but we’ll look at a professional level aerial system capable of making footage comparable with the cineflex. To hire the equipment with a skilled pilot and camera operator you can expect to pay about $3,000-$5,000/day. Unlike the cineflex, drone footage does have a very wide range of possible cost based on the equipment and we are considering the upper end here.

Additional considerations – Shipping or travel to your location, standby rates, cost for additional hours/days. The amount of usable footage a cineflex can capture in an hour of flight time can be staggering. If your production could use a lot of aerials from tight tracking to big wide epic reveals it’s hard to beat the value of a cineflex.

At first glance it would seem the drone option would be much cheaper, but really the lowest cost solution depends on your specific needs. The two tools are not in direct competition with each other generally.


Perhaps not the most satisfying conclusion for a comparison, but in the end it depends entirely on the unique needs of your production. A couple examples –  If you have a critical need for aerials on a project that a cineflex or other full size helicopter mounted gimbal could provide it’s likely the best choice based on productivity, reliability, and legality issues for now. If you have the legal blessing of the FAA (USA productions), need intimate wide angle aerials and can wait for the right weather conditions a drone is likely your best option.

If you have experience using both tools I’d love to hear your thoughts comparing the two.