Duo make birds-eye views their business
EAGLE LAKE, Minn. — Mike Evans’ radio-controlled airplanes mix lithium polymer batteries with foam, video goggles with rubber bands, state-of-the-art technology with stuff you can buy just about anywhere.
His simple, light craft require almost no runway and can fly as slow as possible, can even hover in place. In aerial photography, slow is good because it helps line up a shot and reduces blurring.
Evans, of Eagle Lake, and partner Leif Johnson, of Mankato, have combined two hobbies — radio-controlled airplanes and aerial photography — into a small business called Whispershots, so named because of the near-silent nature of their electric planes.
Both men still rely on their day jobs at a local manufacturing company because Whispershots costs them more money than it generates — if only because their enthusiasm leads the pair into free jobs.
It also ends up being expensive because of the cameras attached to the fliers, and the risk of losing them.
Their hybrid hobby is also a team event. Here’s how it works.
On a recent mild afternoon with light wind, the pair takes a model plane to Lake George for a demonstration. The wings are attached to the body with eight rubber bands wrapped around it in tension.
Because it weighs only 4 pounds, it’s easily carried down to the lake. This model is called the Solution, so named because it allows both side- and front-mounted cameras. Evans prefers front-mounted, but he used to build kits for others, who were accustomed to cameras facing away from the plane. The plane requires almost no runway — they’ve launched it off the roof of Evans’ Volkswagen Passat — and it quickly zips into the air off a clear patch of ice.
The electric engine makes a sort of low-pitch whirring noise, but it’s quiet enough it would be difficult to hear in the city.
Evans handles the bulky radio controls while Johnson slips on the video goggles, which lets him see what the plane sees. Because the view is from dozens or even hundreds of feet in the air, Johnson usually steadies himself against something, sometimes a fence, to help stave off nausea.
There’s not much compelling a photograph here, but if there was, Johnson would give him instructions to line up a shot, then tell him to shoot. A radio signal would trigger a mechanism that pushes down a button on the camera, which would proceed to shoot about four times per second.
A few minutes later, Evans maneuvers the plane down for a soft landing.
Whispershots doesn’t have too many paying customers. Most of the time, they just shoot things that would look neat from the air. They don’t do the door-to-door sales of aerial photos like some pilots. Evans said it’s unethical for privacy reasons. Whenever they shoot someone’s property, they get permission first.
Meanwhile, Evans and Johnson will be working on aerial video and continue to avoid pre-manufactured planes, instead doing the extra work of designing and building their own, which carries its own benefits.