The Rise (and Fall?) of Drones for Aerial Photography

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.

Bryce Canyon Pano
Our trip to Bryce Canyon was especially memorable because it was so freaking cold.

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.

Bigger Worries

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.

Watch the video from the crashed drone.

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.

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.

Screen Grab from Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee
This screen grab is from 1:11 in the Patton Oswalt episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. (Highly recommended show.)

24 thoughts on “The Rise (and Fall?) of Drones for Aerial Photography

  1. This should show you the future, we see this in LA constantly. This guy spurned all permits and altitude restrictions and filmed a commercial (he got paid for it) job with his drone including over a crowded swimming pool and up and down a busy public street over moving vehicles and people, notified the FAA and they don’t care. As I said this is the future. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tMwSVDVJNWc

  2. I agree this FAA statement is clarifying. What’s not clear is the current definition of “Journalism”.

    A lot of social bloggers (especially those covering social and political issues) claim they’re “journalists” whether they work for an accredited news agency or not.

    And what jurisdiction does the FAA have (other than airspace limitations) over those small radio controlled planes or helicopters used by hobbyists like the Parrot or Phantom you quoted? I truly don’t know. They’re not like other flying vehicles. That’s typically only been controlled by the FCC’s rules on spectrum and power limits.

    The FAA controls the airspace and that seems to be what they’re addressing here. Does the FAA’s jurisdiction start at 0 AGL, 500 ft, or what? I’m sure it’s a question of whether you’re at an airfield or on your own property and I leave it to you as the SME on that topic.

    And what’s the definition of a Drone according to federal regulations? Is it based on payload, HP, wingspan?

    I’m not in favor of making more work for lawyers but you’re right, there’s likely to be more to come in this story.

    • I think airspace is anything above the ground BUT I think that should be clarified. I don’t mind these things operating at 25 or 50 feet — as long as they’re not operating over my head or near an airport or landing zone — but when they go up hundreds of feet, they cause a real hazard. As for “drone,” I think I miscategorized it. They’re using unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for anything that doesn’t have a pilot but “drone” seems to apply mostly to something capable of making in-flight decisions for itself. Either way, these things are in the air and potentially causing a hazard without licensing or oversight. If they’d establish a maximum altitude for unlicensed UAVs or drone that ensured safety for aircraft and standards for the type of area they can operate over (i.e., no operations over people, vehicles, or buildings), I’d be okay with that. But clearly, something has to be done to get this under control before people start getting hurt.

  3. And just how much insurance do you carry Maria to do these revenue flights? And the drone operator? Exactly… anyone ask for there COI?

  4. As an aerial photographer in the Washington DC area I can speak specifically to some of these questions.

    The FAA controls all airspace above the ground, 1 inch, 1 foot, 1 mile – the FAA is in control.

    You can not fly an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) for pay. Nuances such as “we are not selling our flying, we are selling the pictures” does not wash. The FAA is not stupid.

    The FAA has a long way to go on this, but that is where it stands as of now.

    With these two current facts as provided directly to me, and many other aerial photographers in an FAA briefing, what insurance company would pay a claim if you are operating illegally?

    If you are flying a UAS and getting paid for it you are putting your entire financial future at risk.

    Until the FAA codifies using a UAS for commercial purposes be forewarned. And don’t expect the final rulings inexpensive to comply with (low level operations below 400 feet, pilots license, certified spotter, line of sight, TFR’s, etc).

    It won’t keep the idiots from trying and eventually causing serious harm, but it will most likely be a criminal offense with heavy fines and jail time.

    • If you are flying a UAS and getting paid for it you are putting your entire financial future at risk.

      Thanks for sharing all this info, Kent, but especially what I quoted above. People simply don’t realize the risks. Imagine if the Polar Bear video guy’s UAV had crashed into the crowd, injuring people. He would have been facing prosecution and lawsuits for his actions. And any organization that hires one of these illegal operators is just adding themselves to the list of defendants in a lawsuit. Stupid all around.

      • “And any organization that hires one of these illegal operators is just adding themselves to the list of defendants in a lawsuit.”

        The hiring organization is probably putting themselves FIRST in line for a lawsuit. Who do you think has the deeper pockets, the poor guy who is having fun flying and taking pictures or the owner of a $3 million house or a developer of a $100 million project?

        If there is a problem you can’t describe “bad” in this kind of a situation.

        Denial is the only word I can use for people willing to put themselves and other people at such a physical and financial risk.

  5. Hey Maria! I’m really impressed by this blog to be honest with you. I couldn’t agree more about your statement that “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.” which is so true and i strongly agree of why would waste money for hiring a pilot and an aircraft or helicopter just to shoot aerial photos and videos? where you can buy a quadcopter or UAV at once and can fly remotely to any place? And i totally agree to that. Drones are really a great factor on making aerial photography and today, the passion of making one is always extended. I also agree that this stuff should be used legally. Thanks Maria, this really clarified me a lot. Cheers to you.

    • Actually, drones have been outlawed in US National Parks now. As for “wasting money” on a pilot and helicopter, there’s no way you can get the same shots from a drone that you can get from a helicopter, especially when you consider the restrictions on drone flight. You really do get what you pay for.

      It’ll be interesting to see how this pans out. I suspect that drones will be heavily restricted after the first drone-related accident kills someone.

  6. So let’s hamper innovation and regulate everything because thats what we need were not capable of doing anything until there are laws that tell us what to do. Other countries are years ahead of us in a market that will not go away. After the first car crash should we have banned all cars? What about just banning charging someone to drive a car for money. Ignorant arguements against a technology that is changing things. Some rules and guidelines fine, making it inaccessible by over restricting is stupid for a number of reasons.

  7. Maria, you are punishing a new technology because it will obviously affect your business in the future. There are two kinds of people: those that behave normally and those that behave like idiots! You may have noticed lots of idiots that fly helicopters, fixed wing, automobiles and of course, drones!. Are we also going to regulate people that fly kites, remote control, hobby rockets, etc, etc?
    Let the system (FAA) come up with the regulations and the police take care of the idiots!

    • Lately, I’m more concerned about it affecting my safety. Too many close calls with aircraft. Idiots or not, the FAA needs to regulate, including requiring registration, training, and tracking. Someone suggested limiting drone hardware to operations within 100 feet of the operator. That certainly works for me.

  8. Interesting discussion.
    Aviation, on any scale, is a safety-critical environment. People make poor calls in ‘full size’ aviation too.
    On Jan 16th 2013 the pilot of an AW109 Augusta helicopter, flying in dense IMC over central London, in the ‘rush hour’, clipped his rotor on a tall crane and killed himself and a pedestrian below. He had been on his mobile seconds before. 12 were injured, it could have been far worse. The crane was mentioned on the latest NOTAM. (Had he read it?).

    Last weekend, the pilot of a vintage Hunter jet fighter, tried a low-entry loop over a built-up area and crashed on a busy road, killing 11 and injuring scores of others. UAV pilots come in all varieties too.
    I have hired a UAV for a tricky job and my experience was positive. The device was an 8-rotor hefty ship capable of carrying a large conventional camera for video or single frames. The operator was a retired Sea King SAR pilot, his buddy controlled the camera. The UAV was, he assured me, still safe with two motors out of action and could auto-land at the start point if the radio link was lost. The pilot, following (UK) CAA procedure had checked with the local airfield that no low Heli activity was currently on radar or expected.
    He flew at or below 400′ agl. Great shots, on budget, no drama. He treated his little UAV as if it was a serious aircraft. He was professional in every way. He did not try to catch it as it came down!
    He has a good income from film and advertising jobs as well as high-end real estate and farm work.
    Wise pilots follow procedures.
    Chancers don’t.

  9. There are no laws preventing the commercial use of drones, except inside national parks. There is no official or legally binding regulation in place yet concerning the commercial use of unmanned aircraft. The FAA has been dragging their feet since 2008 when they were instructed by Congress to establish such regulations which, they have failed to do so. The current “guidelines” that they have unofficially published have not been through the proper procedures to be established as an official or enforceable regulation and the head of the FAA has recently stated as much. If you receive a cease and desist order from the FAA you can essentially ignore it… this is what he said. Also, the FAA’s 333 exemption process is simply a red herring in place to attempt to slow down the use of drones while they get actual official and legal regulations in place. (fyi – the current 333 exemption process requires a licensed pilot to fly the drone which is just absurd).
    When you are in a position of authority it’s easy to just say something and pretend it’s official or legally binding. But in our country it just doesn’t work that way. The reason the FAA has backed off is because they are losing court cases and setting a legal precedence in the favor of commercial drone operators which is undermining there entire position. The fact is, there are many many companies safely flying drones commercially without 333 exemptions and it’s perfectly legal. The one court case that was ruled against the FAA was more about the pilot flying unsafely and not about the fact that he got paid for it. And it wasn’t even a drone… it was a styrofoam RC airplane.

  10. I can see a place for “legitimate” commercial drone use in U.S. regulated airspace, in fact I think it’s inevitable. With that said, there must be provisions in the regs to assure a reasonable level of safety for both other airspace users (especially helicopters) and the general public. To be commercially useful a drone / UAV must be capable of carrying a reasonable amount of payload, which implies a machine that is larger and more powerful than most of the recreational / hobbyist quadcopters that are out there now. That means that the hazard level automatically increases, since the potential energy involved is dependent on the mass and speed of the aircraft. We’re already past the point where a light helicopter can just “shrug off” an impact by the more commonly used camera drones, and it’s only a matter of time until we see a serious or fatal accident caused by collision between a manned aircraft and a UAV.

    Like it or not, commercial UAV use is going to require considerable liability insurance, licensing, registration, did I mention insurance?, and most of all, a clear definition of where and when UAVS are allowed in the air and where they are forbidden.

What do you think?