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That's no balloon, it's a drone! Halo takes to the skies as latest trend in UAVs

  • A new wave of drones is being used to shoot footage used in movie and television production.
  • The Halo is a quiet drone that has an attached digital camera specifically designed to film in enclosed spaces.
  • It's powered by helium rather than noisy rotors.

At the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey recently, a casual observer could be forgiven for mistaking the floating object within for a giant onion, or perhaps even a UFO. However, the bulbous device, which bears more than a passing resemblance to a weather balloon, was neither of those things.

It was the Halo, the latest in a generation of drones.

Unlike other unmanned aerial vehicles, however, the helium filled device is neither as sleek nor as compact as its cohorts that take to the skies to deliver packages, snap photos or participate in racing contests.

Spacial, a Brooklyn-based start-up behind the Halo, has high expectations for its invention, which comes as drones are now invading the glamorous world of Hollywood filmmaking by delivering breathtaking aerial shots. The Halo, which has an attached digital camera specifically designed to film in enclosed spaces, is auditioning for a starring role.

"Drones are a new vernacular within the language of cinematography." -Michael Chambliss, motion picture and TV specialist

"It's basically a robotic cloud," Alex Chatham, Spacial's co-founder, told CNBC recently, adding that its specifications made it ideal for safely filming sporting events, concerts and ceremonies.

"It's quiet, there's nothing about it that's menacing, there's nothing about it that's jarring or will put you at unease," Chatham said. "We're trying to create a market that doesn't exist now."

In 2015, Chatham, his brother Will, and friend Georgi Tushev, founded Spacial Drone to tap into what they believed to be an under-served market: a drone that can fly above crowds while creating minimal background noise and without the risk of crashing into walls or other objects.

Will Chatham, who has worked with major news organizations, major brands and even a few rappers like Jadakiss and ASAP Rocky, described the contraption as "a helium-filled, neutral buoyancy" blimp.

Unlike quadcopters and other conventional drones, the Halo's buoyancy allows the drone to remain floating in the event of a total power loss, bumping harmlessly against walls and people. The drone uses helium for its inert, fireproof and nonreactive properties. This makes it safe to fly indoors, even at a crowded festival.

The Spacial "Halo" floats in New Jersey's Liberty Science Center during the New York City Drone Film Festival Day of Drones.
Mike Juang | CNBC
The Spacial "Halo" floats in New Jersey's Liberty Science Center during the New York City Drone Film Festival Day of Drones.

Flying the Halo is a different experience than with most other drones. The device is decidedly slower (a top speed of 10 mph versus up to 40 mph with conventional units), and its controls can be difficult for those accustomed to propeller-using vehicles to master.

Nevertheless, the Halo is proving to be popular with clients, several of whom have an ulterior motive: using the sphere's white space for advertising. An early prototype was commissioned by the New Jersey Devils NHL team to fly their logo during a game. The flagship iteration of the drone flew stickers promoting March's New York City Drone Film Festival and the Liberty Science Center.

The Spacial team hopes to capitalize on this early interest by featuring flexible screen technologies and even technology that lets the drone glow in the dark.

The floating future of film

The Halo is not the first drone based on a balloon. In 2015, Swiss company Aerotain debuted a globe-shaped helium-filled drone called the Skye, capable of high-definition video and safe indoor flying. The Skye even has a few tricks of its own: Daniel Meier, Aerotain's CEO, said in an interview that his company can make the drone any shape, and once launched a balloon version of "Star Trek's" iconic USS Enterprise.

The trend comes as drones are skyrocket in popularity and functionality. In a March speech, FAA administrator Michael Huerta said the agency received 770,000 drone registrations, and issued more than 37,000 remote pilot certificates. A 2016 report by PwC predicted drones will be a $127 billion industry, with $8.8 billion in media and entertainment alone.

Television and movie producers, meanwhile, are a big part of that appeal, as the gravity-defying shots drones are able to deliver help craft a more compelling narrative. "Whenever you have a tool at your disposal that allows you to tell the story more efficiently and more poignantly, you use it," Pieter Jan Brugge, executive producer of the Amazon series "Bosch," told The Wall Street Journal in a 2015 interview. "The shot tells the story."

"Drones are a new vernacular within the language of cinematography," said Michael Chambliss, a motion picture and TV specialist with the International Cinematographers Guild.

"Movies in the 1950s had their look, and part of their look was due to the idea that a camera was a 150-pound thing. And all of a sudden when cameras got lighter, we could start doing road movies, all of a sudden concepts like 'Easy Rider' became possible," he added. "The way we move a camera influences how we tell our stories."