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With New Drone, Fallen Pilot Alan Purwin’s Dream Takes Flight

Famed flyer's last brainchild was the ShotOver U1, built for aerial cinematogrpahy

If anyone still held doubts that drones have arrived as tool for TV production, a visit to the NAB Show floor would silence them.

Or, more precisely, drown them out.

The trade show floor is literally abuzz with drones. Pick your size and application, and there’s probably a drone for you, with a whine to match.

One drone, though, is something more than a cheap, noisy way to get a camera airborne. ShotOver’s U1 was the last brainchild of the company’s late owner, Alan Purwin, who died in a plane crash in the Andes after completing a shoot of Tom Cruise’s upcoming movie “Mena” in Colombia. Purwin was arguably the best-known and most respected pilot in the movie business, but was also an entrepreneur, who had helped build up several companies, including ShotOver.

Now the company is left to fulfill Purwin’s final dream, a true professional-quality drone purpose-built for aerial cinematography.

“The U1 was something Alan specifically wanted,” says Brad Hurndell, who replaced Purwin as CEO of ShotOver. “He wanted to create the best drone on the planet, those were his exact words. … That’s why when you look at the U1, it’s different. It looks different, it’s different in size, it’s different in capabilities, it’s very high-end.”

Purwin wanted his drone built to regular aircraft standards, with military-spec wiring, carbon fiber construction, and redundant motors, flight controllers and battery power, as if it was an aircraft he himself might fly in.

Furthermore, says aerial cinematographer David Nowell, the U1 has design quirks specifically created with cinematography in mind. “We kept putting our propellers higher and higher,” says Nowell. “That was always our problem on movie work — the props themselves got into the shot.”

Nowell, who is a ShotOver investor himself and was “tied at the hip” with Purwin over 15 years of shooting, points out that the boom beneath the drone is also “S”-shaped instead of straight, so the camera can look up as well as down. The U1 system also includes a compact gimbal with the ability to pan, tilt and roll the camera 360 degrees, much as the company’s larger helicopter mounts can.

Purwin died on Sept. 11, 2015, while returning from shooting “Mena,” Cruse’s film about a drug-smuggling pilot turned DEA agent. He was not at the controls of the plane that crashed and killed him, and that has led to a wrongful death lawsuit by his widow. Defendants in the suit include Cross Creek Pictures, Imagine Entertainment, Quadrant Pictures, Vendian Entertainment and the estate of the pilot, Carlos Berl. Berl, the suit alleges, lacked the skills for the terrain and foggy conditions.

While shooting in South America, Purwin saw images of the U1, but not the device itself. “We were getting to the prototyping stage, and we were talking about the first movie [with the U1 drone] and that was when the accident happened,” says Hurndell.

Nowell says that the ShotOver team had a moment of “What’s going to happen?” after Purwin’s death. “But basically, nothing has,” says Nowell. “He’s just with us all the time.”

While some voiced worry that drones would cut into the helicopter and airplane-based aerial shooting business, Purwin’s vision for a cinematography drone has turned out to be prophetic. Nowell says, “The drone is basically for shots that are in between a helicopter and a crane. And it’s just now an added extra tool that lets us do more shots. There are things it can do we couldn’t do before.” Drones haven’t cut into his business at all, he says.

ShotOver’s business model is to sell its gear around the world and let the purchasers book business on local shoots. That same model is in place for the U1 drone. The company is taking orders, which Hurndell says have exceeded projections by four times. Delivery to customers is scheduled for May and June, and there are already plans for it to be used on shoots.

“He wanted it for the cinema industry, for the work that he did, and he also wanted it for the whole creative industry,” says Hurndell. “He had a real passion for that.”

(Pictured: The ShotOver U1 drone, with the U1g gimbal.) 

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