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News & Insight

No Longer Hiring: Flying Drones May Replace Human Lighting Assistants

By Cherrina Yoon on July 15th 2014

These days I am starting to feel that we are living in a futuristic time, at least, as depicted in sci-fi movies where society teems with robots and technology taking over the mundane tasks of human beings. It’s now normal to see ordinary household objects being upgraded and automated left and right. It started with the smartphone, and now our refrigerators, thermostats, and even fast food restaurants are getting swept under the growing tide of smartifying “dumb” machines and cutting down human labor.


Photo via MIT News

And human assistants just might be replaced by robots soon in the photography world as well. Researchers at MIT and Cornell have developed a flying, robotic lighting assistant that automatically detects and adjusts according to the movements of both subject and photographer. They simply call it a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle). If this technology succeeds, the photographer could potentially control a whole group of automated lights to create complex lighting situations while cutting down on human labor costs at the same time.


Here is a basic rundown of how this lighting drone works. (MIT tested their drone for the rim lighting effect, because that required the most precision).

  1. The photographer chooses which direction he or she wants the light to come from.
  2. The photographer then specifies the width of the rim light desired.
  3. The drone then hovers about, automatically maintaining the rim light even when the subject moves and changes positions.

Photo via MIT News

Here is a video testing out the drone:


As I watched the test video of the drone, I noticed a couple of shortcomings with this flying lighting assistant. First, it’s pretty loud and distracting. The fan blowing the helicopter up also blows a bit on the subject’s hair, which could possibly be a problem if the photographer was shooting lightweight and delicate subjects such as leaves. Also, this drone probably requires a ton of power to keep it maintaining its sensors, signals and strobes on all the time. The video showed the drone powered through a bunch of messy cords, but in the future, it would probably require an amazing (and expensive) battery to keep it powered. Paying for this machine might as well equal out the human labor costs cut down in favor of this robotic assistant.

What do you think? Is an automated lighting assistant worth replacing a person you could direct just by talking to them? Or is this simply another unnecessary convenience tossed atop the growing pile of impractical technology?

[Video via MIT News]


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Cherri is an aspiring photojournalist who finds herself scratching paper with pen, reading, playing guitar, eating or napping most of the time. Find her corner of the world wide web here.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Barry Cunningham

    Interesting programming exercise.
    Not terribly helpful for a photographer in a studio environment.
    However, the controlled environment of a studio is the most practical one for a programmer developing autonomous control software for the drone.
    Spinoffs of this idea might be useful for setups without a quadcopter, for instance, automating light on jibs or sliders, requiring few degrees of freedom. Probably only helpful for situations where there are physical constraints that make use of a human assistant unsafe, problematical, or impossible. For instance, high place in large indoor areas, hostile environments. And, still, for all but a few situations, remote control is probably better than automonous control because you can try things you didn’t think to program.

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  2. Greg Faulkner

    This is the dumbest thing ever

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  3. Ralph Hightower

    Interesting! I’d like to see them do a demo with two other drones and keeping the lighting ratios. But dang! That would be a noisy environment to shoot. Wear earplugs!

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  4. Petr Kulda

    Nice piece of technology and interesting demonstration. But point Stan Rogers made is relevant. Small drone like one showed in video, cant lift real light with modifier.

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    its interesting but I still would prefer a lighting assistant rather than the buzzing drone frankly i doubt if its going to be accepted

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  6. James Matthews

    I can’t see the drone surviving a hit with a baseball bat from the out of work assistant it replaced…

    Take that drone….BAM!!!


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  7. Asad Qayyum

    Interesting idea. I have been mulling over the idea of getting a Phantom 2 to shoot weddings from a different perspective.

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  8. Tyler Friesen

    I can see the lawsuits come pouring in from injured models. Remember the drone hitting bride video?

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  9. Stan Rogers

    Um, yeah. It solves all of the wrong problems in the wrong way, but if it ever comes to market it’ll sell in the millions… because DRONE! It’s loud and blowy, but not nearly as loud and blowy as it would be if it had to carry (and manage the inertia of) anything much larger than a bare 270EX/SB300 or an on-camera-sized LED spot/panel. Imagine the sort of Terminator that would be needed to carry even a small gridded softbox with reasonably accurate modelling lights, and try to picture how comfortable your subject may feel and the sound pressure level of the “banter” you’d need to maintain. It “knows” what it’s doing, and frankly half of the time, when the lighting gets dramatic, *I don’t*. Sure, I may have a very good idea of the general principle, but it’s that half an inch here, half a degree there stuff that really makes the difference between “meh” and “now THAT’S what I’m talking about”. The last thing I need is a robot adjusting my adjustments. But, DRONE — and recipe-book photography.

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  10. Matthew Silliman

    I think this is an interesting concept, but doubt it will be widely adapted.

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  11. Greg Silver

    Not sure if drones will replace lighting assistants as someone needs to operate the drone. Neat concept but still some challenges with additional wind generated from the drone.

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  12. Raoni Franco

    “And human assistants just might be replaced by robots soon in the photography world as well”……….such cheap writing SLRLounge. Come on, try to avoid the temptation of becoming the next Fstoppers. Focus, people, focus.

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    • Cherrina Yoon

      Ah, I meant for a sarcastic transition but it seems that I haven’t been able to hone in on that yet. By no means do I actually think that robots can take over photographers’ jobs. :-)

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    • Stan Rogers

      FWIW, the tone came across okay to me, Cherrina.

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  13. Kristian Charnick

    How lazy are we getting?

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