In The Mix

The Drone King

For productions of all kinds, Eric Austin is the man to call for unmanned aircraft.

Paula Hendrickson
  • Eric Austin, on the Glamis sand dunes in California, performs a pre-flight check for a Yamaha commercial.

    Courtesy of Jill Schmidt PR
  • Eric Austin directs a drone by controller, also known as a ground control station or GCS.

    Courtesy of Jill Schmidy PR

Not everyone can combine their childhood interests with their grown-up jobs, but Eric Austin has.

He merged his passions for photography and radio-controlled aircraft with his sales skills to create a career as a groundbreaking, award-winning aerial cinematographer.

"In about 2009 I saw people trying to put a camera on an RC [remote control] helicopter and thought I could do it better," Austin says. Now lead drone pilot for Measure Media (M2), he adds, "Back when we were flying RC helicopters, it was really hard to stabilize the camera." But that didn't stop him from getting some great shots.

"I was working on a show for Discovery called Hell Roads, which was about the world's scariest roads. I found myself in La Paz, Bolivia, on 'the road of death' flying an RC helicopter at about 13,000 feet — we were so high that the clouds were below us. It was unbelievably scary and enchantingly exciting."

Then drones swept the market. "They were even worse than helicopters as far as stability," Austin recalls. That changed when a drone manufacturer developed a gimbal to stabilize cameras faster than operators or wind could move them. Austin quickly mastered drone flying, which enabled him to capture better, steadier and more dramatic shots.

"Sometimes they want us to do car tracking, sometimes it's something simple — like instead of getting a Technocrane or a big jib, they want us to do a lift and reveal over a tree," Austin says. "It varies a lot, from flying over the ocean, through a jungle, and very intense stuff to easy but invaluable shots that we can get faster and cheaper than with traditional equipment."

He's worked on sporting events, reality shows like Treehouse Masters, dramas including Preacher, Wrecked and Queen of the South, and NatGeo's ambitious Iraq War miniseries, The Long Road Home.

"That was amazing," Austin says. "We flew a drone — a huge one with a very powerful spotlight on it — to replicate a military helicopter looking for some guys stuck on a roof. About 60 guys with fully automatic machine guns were shooting at the drone — pyrotechnic explosions all around it. It was crazy."

As the former owner and operator of HeliVideo Productions, Austin won a 2017 Technology and Engineering Emmy. But he's more than a consummate pro.

"Eric really was a forefather of the industry. Not just of drones in the cinematography industry, but of the entire commercial UAS [Unmanned Aircraft Systems] industry in the United States," says Jon Ollwerther, M2's vice president of media. The two were friendly competitors until 2017, when Ollwerther hired Austin for M2's new media department.

Humble by nature, Austin downplays his importance to the industry, but Ollwerther calls his colleague a pioneer who cowrote what in 2012 became the FAA 333 Exemption, which allows professionally operated unmanned aircrafts to operate in regulated airspace on a case-by-case basis: "Eric actually received the first 333 Exemption from the FAA, making him the first commercial operator of drones in the United States."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 3, 2018