In a place that’s become synonymous with all the moral, ethical, legal, and political quandaries posed by the robo-lords of the new “bugsplat” warfare, the thought of insect-like drones buzzing over northern Pakistan may not immediately take on celebratory, almost redemptive tones.
But over the summer a Swiss expedition used small RC helicopters to gather groundbreaking footage of mountaineers on Great Trango Tower, one of the world’s most technically demanding climbs in one of the world’s most imposing mountain ranges, the Karakoram. A joint project between Mammut, an outdoor clothing and equipment company, and Dedicam, a small-drone firm specializing in video, the mission followed world-class climber David Lama and Peter Ortner, his climber partner, scaling Trango. It was no small-fry backyard flight – the sheer-granite spire rises over 19,685 feet (6,000 meters) above sea level near the northern side of the Baltoro Glacier.
This sort of thing has long been the preserve of manned helicopters, and it will for the most part stay that way, at least for the moment. Cinema drones are still a novelty in adventure photography. But when it comes to shooting skiers, big-wave surfers and other extreme sport athletes, manned helicopters are actually not at all ideal for filming what’s otherwise too difficult to just shoot from the ground. Filmmakers rattle off a litany of groans over the clunky, thumping rotorcraft. Helis are expensive, for one, and set in particularly dizzying scenarios can endanger both those in the air and on the ground. But their rotors also typically kick up dust, snow and wind that can blind a climber, and throw her off balance.
The cheaper and safer alternative? Drones. It’s the exact same pitch you hear slung around at weapons expos and in the corridors of power. Spend $30,000 on a small-size unmanned aerial spy system, not millions on a hulking craft from yesterwar. And if the thing crashes, who cares! At least you’ll know none of your guys were in harm’s way.