It was my dream to do something like this since my first burn in 2002 (you can read my BM reports here: http://marc.merlins.org/perso/bm/ ), and I had my first shot at it the previous year, but despite a lot of preparation, not everything was perfect with my RC aircraft last year. Namely, last year:
I had a small bug which prevented using fly by wire modes while flying in a nice straight line for filming (they otherwise worked fine for safety and return to land, just not for filming)
I had a big motor glider with a front propeller (larger prop that is more efficient), but sadly it of course showed up in the front camera view
Video was 1080p, when I really wanted 4K, but I just wasn't able to put a 4K GoPro on my BFG2600, while I was able to fit one in the front nose of my Sky Eye since it uses a rear prop.
So this year, I took my newer Hobbyking Sky Eye after much testing, and it had these pluses, with extra safety features I added:
Newer version of the pixhawk ardupilot firmware with working FBWA and CRUISE modes including firmware that could recover from upside down flight
Smaller aircraft than last year with less weight and less kinetic energy just in case somehow it were to crash (with still enough room to carry all the electronics and cameras)
Autopilot had redundant sensors, along with a complex EKF filter that can detect bad sensors and fly without them
Triple redundant radio link to control the aircraft, with again the autopilot bring the airplane back on its own if all the radio links are lost. Radio control range was more or less 20km, way more than necessary for extra safety
The autopilot takes over if radio signal is lost anyway
The autopilot also takes over if the aircraft flies too low (altitude deck). This did unfortunately lead to pictures that didn't have some art big enough in the picture, but it was tradeoff for the safety afforded by extra altitude (as a reminder, you usually would want to keep the altitude low-ish to avoid conflicting with full size traffic typically at 1000ft AGL and higher, but in this case, flying within the trash fence is actually safe since it's restricted airspace for full size aircraft).
The autopilot and aircraft obviously continue to fly for quite a while without engine power if the motor dies or the battery were allowed to run low (and there are multiple warnings and radio downlinks to prevent running the batteries low).
While this aircraft has a pusher prop to allow for the front 4K unobstructed camera view, I upgraded the powertrain to provide 800W peak and ability to fly up to 120km/h in case of bad winds. One flight after a storm had winds up to 60km/h, so this extra power capacity was not superfluous. The average drone could have been blown off and unable to come back in that much wind while my plane was able to fly against it without problems, just extra battery draw.
AP throttle controlled modes like RTL were modified to maintain a minimal ground speed even in very heavy winds (some other auto pilots will not notice and kill the batteries flying with insufficient throttle against high winds and fail to return to home).
In prior high speed stress testing at home, I was able to get the wings to fly off the plane under high load at full speed, causing an unfortunate crash, so thanks to that prior testing, I was able to build an new aircraft with re-enforced wings to avoid further crashes. Obviously this is the kind of testing and fixes you want to do at home in a safe place, not at burning man.
But as a nutshell, on top of having 4K video in the front (but only 2K in the rear), plus a 3rd camera on the top in case the 2 recording camera failed, this plane was packed with electronics that are sadly more capable than most airliners out there, and it had a lot of extra power to deal with the low density altitude (up to 33% less performance due to the thinner air) and be able to fly out of a heavy storm and come back to a safe landing (the last day, it indeed flew against a 60kph+ wind and even landed with a negative groundspeed, i.e. while going backwards). While it was also able to glide for extended periods of time without power, it had a lot of battery capacity to allow flying for 45mn or more in ideal conditions.
Yes, I realize that this plane does not yield nice steady shots like what you'd get from a drone, but I very much favour versatility and safety over better video, sorry if you were expecting drone-like super steady pans from the air :)
Pictures from the sky
you can see from the dust that the wind is often strong, even in the morning
poor robot :)
there was a big parade of bikes going by
Then, I got super lucky with a sunset to night flight:
sunset turned to night:
art car ring around the man after a heavy storm
Questions and Answers
I contacted Gabe, security officer for BMorg to discuss RC flying rules for foam planes, he never answered me :(
That being said, it seems clear that BM is interested in heavily controlling drones and does not seem to care about RC planes either way, since not a single one was licensed through the process that seemed meant for drones, and I saw several other RC planes fly during BM. All that being said, I do support BM restricting the amount of drones to a some pre screened ones operated by trained and responsible pilots, given that drones are way more dangerous than foam RC planes if they fail and fall, and it's way too easy for people without a clue to fly them wrecklessly
Also, putting aside the total absence of glide ratio on a drone, no off the shelf drone I've seen has as many redundancies and safeties as my plane had, so it makes sense to restrict them to areas with a perimeter so that no one gets hurt should one suddenly fail and drop like a stone (RC planes are very unlikely to just fall straight down from the sky unless they break up in flight, and when made out of foam, are much less likely to cause injury to others, or worse). On the flipside, drones are much easier to fly and yield better video.
For the rest, please read my Q&A from last year, but like last year, the pilots and ground spotters will remain anonymous for a variety of reasons explained there, although they were properly licensed to fly RC as per the FAA's requirements and as already explained employed multiple methods to maximize safety.
This shows the autopilot applying 72% power (i.e. power reserve left to get 88kph airspeed, and only 45kph ground speed during a very heavy 61kph headwind, the highest I had flown against so far). This used only 250 Watts out of a maximum of 800W available in case of real need:
Tips and recommendations for RC flyers
Like last year, I beg non expert pilots not to fly at burning man without proper training and permission (with the hope that the worthy ones will be able to get permission next year). _BM is not a place for you to learn to fly or get to try this new toy you just bought and didn't spend weeks or months building and testing yourself (including its failure modes like low battery, RF being shutoff and so forth).
My aircraft description and its safeties, including months of building and testing, should make it clear that even flying a foam airplane without a propeller in the front, is still serious business if there is any chance you could crash into people, so you really need to know what you're doing and have an very reliable, very tested aircraft was as many redundancies as possible, and obviously you should still refrain from flying at low altitude over people outside of what's required for takeoff and landing.
Please read the rest of my tips from last year
last, but not least, if you don't have your full contact info on your aircraft because you're scared of what might happen if you crash and someone else finds it, please don't fly. Thank you :)