Maintain framing of an aerial shot

In recent years, a host of Hollywood blockbusters — including “The Fast and the Furious 7,” “Jurassic World,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” — have included aerial tracking shots provided by drone helicopters outfitted with cameras.

Those shots required separate operators for the drones and the cameras, and careful planning to avoid collisions. But a team of researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and ETH Zurich hope to make drone cinematography more accessible, simple, and reliable.

At the International Conference on Robotics and Automation later this month, the researchers will present a system that allows a director to specify a shot’s framing — which figures or faces appear where, at what distance. Then, on the fly, it generates control signals for a camera-equipped autonomous drone, which preserve that framing as the actors move.

As long as the drone’s information about its environment is accurate, the system also guarantees that it won’t collide with either stationary or moving obstacles.

“There are other efforts to do autonomous filming with one drone,” says Daniela Rus, an Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT and a senior author on the new paper. “They can follow someone, but if the subject turns, say 180 degrees, the drone will end up showing the back of the subject. With our solution, if the subject turns 180 degrees, our drones are able to circle around and keep focus on the face. We are able to specify richer higher-level constraints for the drones. The drones then map the high-level specifications into control and we end up with greater levels of interaction between the drones and the subjects.”

Joining Rus on the paper are Javier Alonso-Mora, who was a postdoc in her group when the work was done and is now an assistant professor of robotics at the Delft University of Technology; Tobias Nägeli, a graduate student at ETH Zurich and his advisor Otmar Hilliges, an assistant professor of computer science; and Alexander Domahidi, CTO of Embotech, an autonomous-systems company that spun out of ETH.