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MIT Developes Smart Aerial Lighting Drones

By James DeRuvo (doddleNEWS)

We’ve already seen filmmakers attach LED lights to quadcopters in order to get that perfect light from on high, but MIT is working on a smart drone set up that would allow drones to instantly adjust lighting on a dynamic subject so that the operator can focus on flying and capturing the image.


"It's very sensitive to the position of the light. If you move the light, say, by a foot, your appearance changes dramatically. If somebody is facing you, the rim you would see is on the edge of the shoulder, but if the subject turns sideways, so that he's looking 90 degrees away from you, then he's exposing his chest to the light, which means that you'll see a much thicker rim light. So in order to compensate for the change in the body, the light has to change its position quite dramatically." - Manohar Srikanth, MIT

The concept is called Rim Lighting, and it uses Lidar to provided radar telemetry of the subject, which is then used to adjust changes in the subject so that the quadcopter can maximize the lighting on the literal fly and place it in just about any angle or location.

“Rim lighting is a particularly interesting effect,” adds Ravi Ramamoorthi, UCSD computer science professor, “because you want to precisely position the lighting to bring out silhouettes."

The concept is not necessarily being used for aerial lighting so much as for in studio work, where a quadcopter would automatically hover near by and adjust the lighting as needed without the photographer or gaffer having to take time to adjust it.

“The challenge was the manipulation of the very difficult dynamics of the UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] and the feedback from the lighting estimation,” said fellow engineer Fr?do Durand. “That's where we put a lot of our efforts, to make sure that the control of the drone could work at the very high speed that's needed just to keep the thing flying and deal with the information from the lidar [the UAV's laser rangefinder] and the rim-lighting estimation."

It’s an interesting experiment in using an automated lighting system, but it doesn’t have much of a practical filmmaking application at this juncture. Drones are far too noisy for studio work, having to get in close to the subjects. But it’s only really a proof of concept.

I can see the a point in the future where you would have bright, standoff LED lights that would automatically follow the camera subject while you’re shooting them, and doing so without needing to take valuable set time adjusting lights to compensate for it. The only real challenge is still going to be battery life of the drone, though. At which point you have to spend a few minutes swapping out the battery, you may as well adjust the lights while you’re at it.

"Clearly, taking the UAV system out of the lab and into the real world, and making it robust enough to be practical is a challenge," Ramamoorthi adds, "but also something that should be doable given the rapid advancement of all of these technologies."

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