PHUKET: What do you get when you cross a remote controlled helicopter with a camera? A helicam of course.
Helicam is also the name of the Phuket-based company that has been hovering over the island for the past eight years. And what do you get when you have eight years of aerial shots of Phuket? An opportunity to create a 360 degree view of the entire island as you have never seen it before.
Helicam’s office manager Jonathan Russell and operations guru Phil Clark were at the Phuket Gazette offices to add another aerial virtual tour to their website abovephuket.com and told us about their latest venture.
Phuket Gazette: So what is abovephuket.com?
Jonathan: Well, abovephuket.com is a innovative website that allows viewers to explore Phuket from above. [It combines] a vast series of aerial virtual tours with strategic links and embedded data that allow you to hop from place to place, like a visual directory where you can see each page as a 360 image. By moving around with your mouse you get a bird’s eye view of golf courses, marinas, beaches and even your own house. You can also “zoom” in and out of the image as if flying your own helicopter.
PG: You’ve been in Phuket since 2003, tell us a little about how Helicam has evolved.
Phil: In the early days we basically had a couple of gasoline helicopters, and digital cameras had just come out. We had a five megapixel Nikon. Things were different, we were shooting plots of land and the odd villa, concentrating on taking the best shots we could from a helicopter. We were the first in Thailand and a lot of people doubted it could be done.
PG: You mentioned you were taking shots of plots of land in those days, many of those plots are now built upon, so are you still shooting plots of land?
Phil: We still shoot plots occasionally, but a lot has changed dramatically since then. Things are more sophisticated now, for example, we do full production, with video, for property and yacht charter promotions, as well as movies and commercials.
PG: When did you start with video?
Phil: In the last couple of years, as the new DSLR cameras were able to shoot high definition video we’ve switched from Nikon to Canon. Apart from our new electric helicopters we also have a couple of planecams that can fly very high up; a slidercam, a mini crane, a cablecam, a glidecam and special timers for time-lapse photography.
PG: Describe a typical shoot. What are you going to do today for example?
Jonathan: We will do an aerial virtual tour of your offices and also the surrounding area. We will also do a 360 tour of the inside of your offices. From abovephuket.com you can locate the offices from the sky – we’ll even add a logo, links and information – and then you can come in through the front door and take a look around, all from the comfort of your home computer.
When we started, it was all ‘before’ panoramas and land shots, but now we can add Computer Generated Images (CGI) and go back once the property is finished and take the ‘after’ shots. Another advantage of using a helicopter is that we can allow it to hover at certain heights to see what the view will be like before a building is constructed.
A third-storey living room view for example. With real video and CGI combined, we can create virtual tours such as a flyby of a villa that has yet to be constructed.
PG: Although based in Phuket I imagine you have work coming in from all over.
Jonathan: In the last two years we’ve been to Bangkok, Hua Hin – all over Thailand and also Malaysia, Langkawi, the Maldives and Vietnam. Predominantly the orders come from word of mouth, as we have a good reputation even though we are a small business.
PG: Tell us about the helicopter and what you refer to as the ‘toys’ on board.
Phil: The helicopter itself is a normal radio-controlled sports helicopter that can be bought in a toy shop. We manufacture pieces and modify the helicopter ourselves in our workshop in Chalong. We have GPS capability, so a flick of the switch can make the helicopter hover at a certain spot on autopilot.
Some of the video mounts themselves are electronically gyro-stabilized, so as the helicopter moves, the video mount banks forwards. I have the monitor integrated with the RC controller so that I can see in real time what is being shot above, via a live down-link. There is also a fail-safe, so if we lose sight of the the helicam, a flick of the switch will bring it home.
PG: Have you ever lost or crashed a helicam?
Phil: In the past… yes. In the ocean, in the trees… it’s an expensive business and it was a steep learning curve.
We do have liability insurance but have never had to make a claim. Today’s technology means that it is now much safer; radio frequencies no longer get interference from mobile phones for example, and the electric engines are much more reliable. The worst feeling in the world was when we had a helicam over the sea and the engine stopped.
You lose all the equipment and the work you’ve done which can sometimes cost a half a million baht. Not a nice feeling. Luckily that sort of thing is rare nowadays.
When people realized it wasn’t Google they asked us where they could see it. So, we realized we had something special. With so many virtual tours under our belt we were able to build up a virtual Phuket map by filling in the gaps. We now have Phuket covered.
Not content to stop with Phuket, Helicam have also covered Koh Panyee, Maya Bay and many more places. Who knows, they may even take on Google one day.
The sky’s the limit.
— Marc Mulloy
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