I’m watching the developments closely for a few reasons.
I care about unmanned aerial vehicle or drone use, no matter what size it is. But I really care about drones flown by amateurs for photography.
The Death of a Revenue Stream
I first felt the sting of drone use for aerial photography when one of my best aerial photography clients began using a six-rotor, radio controlled quadrocopter to create some of their excellent 360° interactive panoramic images. Their setup even made international news when it photographed a protest in Moscow in 2012.
The drone seemed to be the perfect solution for one of our biggest problems: finding a cost-effective way to get an aircraft to some of the most remote locations in the world. In the past, I’d flown this client at Bryce Canyon in Utah, Lake Powell, Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River in Arizona, San Juan River Goosenecks in Utah, and the San Juan and Colorado River Confluence in Utah. Drones theoretically also made it possible for them to get images at places helicopters couldn’t legally fly — such as within certain national parks and other restricted airspaces. I worked with one photographer on many of our flights; he was just as disappointed as I was about the drone use because it meant he wouldn’t be sent to these locations, either.
As I saw more and more images and video footage shot from drones, I thought I was seeing the writing on the wall. Why spend $500 or more per hour to fly with a helicopter pilot when you could spend less than $10,000 for a ready to fly quadrocopter designed for photography that you could use over and over anywhere in the world? Or much less for something more basic, like a Parrot AR.Drone or Phantom Quadcopter that you could attach a GoPro camera to? Theoretically, an investment of less than $1,000 would give you everything you needed to get the aerial photos or videos you need.
Of course, you have to be able to fly the damn things. But apparently, that isn’t much of a problem.
So I saw the very real possibility of a revenue stream — aerial photography flights — drying up because of the proliferation of drones carrying cameras.
But there was something else that worried me — something that worried me much more. As a helicopter pilot, I often fly at or below 500 feet AGL (above ground level). And contrary to popular belief among airplane pilots, there is no minimum altitude for helicopters. I fly where it’s safe to fly and try hard not to annoy people on the ground. Still, there’s a very real possibility that I could be flying in the same airspace as someone with one of these drones.
And that scares me.
Yeah, you say. Fly higher. But sometimes that’s not possible. Sometimes I need to fly closer to the ground. And besides, the FAA has given me permission — by issuing me a helicopter pilot certificate — to fly in this space. The same can’t be said for most drone operators.
These drones are not toys. They have the potential to be very dangerous. This became very apparent in October 2013 when a Quadcopter crashed in Manhattan after bouncing off a few buildings, landing only a few feet from a pedestrian.
Can you imagine what would have happened if this drone had struck someone on the ground? Or went through one of those office building windows? Or collided with a helicopter or small airplane?
Here’s what happened when a radio controlled helicopter struck the man controlling it in a Brooklyn, NY park in September 2013.
And the possibility of drones and aircraft colliding isn’t so remote. It almost happened near Denver in May 2012.
In December 2013, the PBS NewsHour did a story about this: “How will thousands of drones impact already crowded skies?” That story explores other issues, too, including computer-operated drones that can fly themselves and privacy.
The FAA Steps Up to the Plate
After dancing around the issue for a while, the FAA finally made a statement — and it’s one I’m very happy about.
— Mike Tigas (@mtigas) January 2, 2014
It all started last week when the Spokesman-Review newspaper published a video shot from a “radio-controlled helicopter.” The aircraft that shot the video was clearly operating in close proximity to people on the ground — indeed, even right overhead. A self-proclaimed “troll” tweeted about it and the legality of “drone journalism” turned into a Twitter debate that was picked up by Poynter. The operator of the drone claimed such use was a “gray area” as far as the FAA was concerned. As covered in later articles on both Poynter and the PBS NewsHour, the FAA plainly stated that “drone journalism” is not allowed. According to the Poynter piece:
“There is no gray area,” said FAA spokesperson Les Dorr.
Hobbyists are allowed to use small, radio-controlled crafts under specific guidelines, but “if you’re using it for any sort of commercial purposes, including journalism, that’s not allowed,” he added.
Although I’m very happy about this development, I’m sure this isn’t the last word. I’m equally sure that drone photographers will find loopholes to avoid use being classified as “commercial” and that the practice of strapping cameras onto drones will continue into the future. Hopefully, however, drone operators will limit their use to more remote areas and keep them away from people and property on the ground.
It also proves to me that the FAA is finally paying attention to this issue. With luck, their attention will be enough to limit drone use for these purposes — at least until some sort of controls can be put in place to ensure safety.
January 10, 2014 Update: Watched the latest video of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee this morning. In the first 30 seconds of this video (after the commercial), you can see a UAV with a camera flying over the Delorean. Seconds later, it crashes. I’m thinking they didn’t do this on purpose — although Jerry masterfully works it into his script.