Can we talk about drones and photography again? Oh let's.

I recently plunged in and researched ( a lot) about using drones in commercial photography. And when I say I researched it's not because I was trying to find the best performance or price; no, I was trying to find out what the rules, regulations and laws are regarding the use of drones to take images for commercial (money paid to me) use. And what I found out was a bit startling considering how many stories I read about professional photographers and videographers using drones in public areas.

My interest had nothing to do with me wanting to fly a drone and get a different point of view. You want a good picture of your neighborhood from the sky? Hire a helicopter. And a licensed pilot. And get an approved flight plan. That's my way of thinking. But no, I had a client who was interested in doing the drone copter thing and I wanted to come into this part of the business with my eyes wide open.

I had no desire to own or operate a Phantom or a some other brand but if I hire a sub-contractor for a project it's important to me to know what my liabilities are going to be. And my client was not a small, under the radar, sort of enterprise that was interested in flying now and asking forgiveness later.  They are a large utility provider operating under a  regulatory microscope.

So, here's the deal. If you are an amateur you can operate your own drone as long as you are not charging for images or imaging services. You are limited to a ceiling height of 200 feet and you must have line-of-sight on the drone at all times. There are plenty of places you can't fly your drone for issues of public safety. These include (but are not limited to) over streets,  within (seriously) five miles of an airport, over public gatherings (outdoor concerts, protests, marches, races) and, while not everyone knows and abides by these rules they are in place and enforced (though enforcement is variable).

The game changes with professional use. You can fly higher but...... You need an FAA (Federal Aviation Agency) operator's license and you need an FAA exemption (form 333? for each event) in order to make any flight for commercial use. Any flight except on your own private property. But even if you are flying on private property you need to enforce a 500 foot diameter exclusion zone around your drone position to ensure public safety. While, from a copyright and privacy point of view, you are allowed to photograph people or property that is viewable from public airspace, in order to overfly private property for the purpose of commercial photographic drone-ism you MUST get signed releases or waivers from every single property owner in your flight path. The penalties are big.

The rules are still in flux but  sources in counter-intelligence say that the small drones one can buy from camera stores, video dealers and online for around $1,000 are destined to be the favorite weapon of terrorists for the next ten years or more. The breaching of the White House airspace by a consumer drone (quadcopter) was a huge wake-up call for intelligence agencies and the people tasked with maintaining our national security. With cellphone control technology advances and ever shrinking bomb and nascent molecular explosives technology their biggest fear is not from a large, lone drone but a swarm of smaller, armed drones. Only one needs to get through the countermeasures to cause real damage and loss of life.  Normal citizens should also fear the ability of close flying drones to carry electronics that can intrude on private information networks and capture vital personal and financial data.

The defense industry is already deep into countermeasures which might include radio white noise fields around key installations. The radio white noise kills the wi-fi connection to the drone, bringing them to ground. The Chinese military is experimenting with mid-powered, multi-spread pattern lasers to kill incoming drones but the energy consumption in mobile field applications is still problematic. An undisclosed government is experimenting with directional EMP (electro magnetic pulse) devices that would kill the silicon in the drones. I favor the fully automatic shotgun for incoming drones. The shorter barrels on the automatics give a wider spread so less range but better kill potential. How about cannons that shoot fine mesh nets into the flight space? It's all out there being worked on.

So what will the first successful terrorist drone attacks on western civilian targets mean for photographers? I think the industry that makes and markets the drones will suffer from a wide range restrictions and licensing. In popular culture I hear people flaunt the current rules all the time and usually without consequences but I think there will come a time when people will respond to the presence of drones in a very negative way and it will be very hard to successfully incorporate them into functional photographic businesses.

My point of view is that the widespread use of drones and the plummeting cost of ownership is akin to putting fully automatic weapons into the hands of children. After doing my research I am amazed that makers of drones have been allowed to mass produce and disseminate them. I think we are one horrific event away from a regulatory environment that will essentially kill this niche----and probably for very logical reasons.

While there are valid uses for drone technology there is also a very valid and long list of reasons to tightly regulate their use. Now I will duck and let the comments fly.

For a more lighthearted approach watch this trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1Hhvdpvp5o

And the backlash begins: http://petapixel.com/2015/06/05/1350-camera-drone-whacked-out-of-the-air-by-an-angry-neighbor/

That particular commercial drone was being operated unlawfully. /\


Dr. Nick said...

People have been flying radio control planes and helicopters for decades.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Very true. People have been driving cars for over 100 years and we still require licenses, registration and driver training. People have been practicing medicine for millennia and now we require them to be licensed and regulated. Zany new world.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Nick, I see your point but with the newest technology people don't have to be in line of site control of the aircraft anymore. One can set GPS "Waypoints" on the latest models and put together automated flight plans. It's different.

Nate said...

Funny, reading the last few posts an image popped in my head. Picture you filming Jerry Miculek shotgunning waves of drones, all in the Super-8 style. Bonus points if you have Jerry use a vintage Browning Auto-5 and frame in a slow-mo cut. :-)

Anonymous said...

Everything you said about how drones could be misused can apply to guns - and with guns, most of the worst-case possibilities have come to pass, some more than once, yet nothing gets done. Yet, a while back, TSA made me throw out a jar of farmer's market jam I bought in Albuquerque. Go figure. Zany new world indeed

Dan Jansenson said...

You have sources in counter-intelligence?

Anonymous said...

So, guns can fly and be programmed to autonomously head to remote and therwise inaccessible locations and deliver aerosol bio weapons or explosives while shielding the identities and location of the attackers? Well, that's new information to me.

atmtx said...

Remember Skynet? (from the Terminator movies) this is the first step, man ;-)

ODL Designs said...

You can't be serious about all the Terrorist talk... Even if what they believe they believe, having forms and regulations will not stop them, I mean, they wont stand in line getting their form filling in relevant fields etc and paying for their permit.

It has been well understood for a very long time that it is nigh impossible to stop the lone wolf, but terrorism is much easier to deal with, as the British discovered in N.I. and hopefully the USA will learn, stop creating them.

Nate said...

The end is nigh, skynet cometh; at least cellphones will survive the Drone Wars. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxThXvuP4Vo&feature=player_embedded

Ray said...

"...with the newest technology people don't have to be in line of site control of the aircraft anymore. One can set GPS "Waypoints" on the latest models and put together automated flight plans. It's different."

Nope. That tech's been commercially available for at least a decade in RC planes and helicopters; complete with beyond line of site VR and autopilot with waypoints - which is actually more useful for mischief than an automated drone.

"People have been driving cars for over 100 years and we still require licenses, registration and driver training. People have been practicing medicine for millennia and now we require them to be licensed and regulated."

We mandate it, we don't actually require it. Not like you have to put your license in a slot in the dash before the car will start. I knew lots of guys growing up who drove all the time, never had a license.

And the thing is, if you're that guy, building a reasonably serious quad copter with parts from eBay is relatively trivial. They crash, so they're modular and there's a decent market in replacement parts, and no-name brands. And that's assuming you don't have access to a 3D printer. The biggest difference between a big name drone maker like DJII is software; making the craft easier to fly, hooks built in to keep you out of trouble and limit their liability. If you're some dude in China, or in a basement, or up to no good there's alternate control SW that will let you do whatever. Assuming you can regulate these things for non-legitimate business users (i.e. people with something to lose) is naive.

rexdeaver said...

If you don't have a flight plan, then your expensive drone is in a free fire zone. End of story.

Don't want to have your expensive drone shredded or turned into a paperweight? Fill out the paperwork.

Don't want to have to do that because FREEDOM(tm)! Cry me a river.

Mike Mundy said...

"After doing my research I am amazed that makers of drones have been allowed to be mass produce and disseminate them."

But this is the way of humankind. For example, automobiles: "Um, Mr. Ford, we're very impressed with your 'horseless carriage' but we're wondering what that pipe is that's coming out the back." "Oh, that's where poison gases come out."

So, as an early 20th-century blogger might put it: After doing my research I am amazed that makers of automobiles have been allowed to be mass produce and disseminate them.

Gordon said...

I've just done the commercial licencing thing here in Australia for the reasons you cite. However I think the issue will be some one, probably un insured, dropping one at an outdoor event like a music festival. If my larger drone landed on someone it would almost certainly kill them and my smaller one makes for a quick trip to the emergency room.

When it happens i think the 20K I've spent setting this up will at least double and it will become exponentially harder to be commercially licenced.

On the other hand the options to help expand my little business are unlimited.


Anonymous said...

People can now "open carry" assault rifles into airports, malls, parks, i.e., public assembly areas, government buildings, etc., under the premise that because police can approach and verify proper documentation this somehow ensures our safety. Police have already stated that such verification is low priority. Seems to me the "bad guys" now have even easier mobility to deploy weapons as needed. And we watch this devolution of society without ever asking, why did we do away with such public demonstrations of weapons in the first place? That is, why did the gun-totin' cowboys just fade away? We lost the need, man. That's why. And as much as I am an advocate for gun rights and supporter of our rights to possess firearms, I just don't see the need to pack them into public places. It's ideology run amuck, plain and simple.
And now against all this we have people concerned about drones? Give me a break. Where's the cowboy mentality now? Hell, if they bother you just shoot 'em out of the sky, Cody!
My partner and I use drones to record footage as part of our coverage of motorsports events. I suppose a spectator can walk up to the fence of the track packing his/her AR-15, but I can't be trusted with my drone because I may be using it to spy on my clients or do something far more sinister!!?? Help me understand this, please. Do I understand this correctly?? This country is slowly but steadily losing its mind.
~ Concerned/baffled/disillusioned citizen

Anonymous said...

Argumentum ad absurdum

My name isn't Cody nor do I have an assault rifle. But given all the crazy people with guns don't you imagine the majority of them will eventually see that they'll be able to attack people better while shielding themselves more effectively and even preserving their anonymity by using a weaponized drone?

It's also not far fetched to think that your drone may hit a "motorsport" participant or spectator and maim or kill them.

I guess you can make your own nerve gas legally but I can't see how much further the argument can go before it all comes back to "that's just stupid."

No one is making the argument that the gun culture is good or worthwhile and I think the argument here is for education and certification to ensure public safety-----or is that out of style too?

A water rescue in a major city during a flood was called off last week because there were so many drones in the air taking snapshots of the event that the emergency helicopter could not safely operate in the area. How's that for a quick and logical example? Or the fact that a commercial airliner filled with people had to make emergency action to avoid colliding with a drone near a major airport. At what point is "stupid" universally accepted as the cost of being alive?

And---motorsports? There is car racing and there are sports (athletic engagements and competition) but there is no such thing as "motorsports." That's just fat guys racing their cars or motorcycles for a little adrenaline.

--an equally concerned but much better informed citizen who is even more disillusioned.

Anonymous said...

Much better informed? Really? And isn't it interesting that you immediately resort to personal attack and insults when making your counter-argument. Lighten up, live and learn. Life is much more interesting then..........
My friend, you totally missed the point of my argument if you think I was condemning guns while advocating the use of drones. Or wait, was it my fault in that regard as well, or was I misinformed on how best to present my argument? As for flying our drones into spectators, you are making a statement based upon totally inaccurate presumptions. Our drones are nowhere near spectators and actually not even that close to participants. They are b-roll cameras only, do not hover over the course at any time, and cover wide angle shots from quite far away. Our primary cameras are set up along the course on tripods and mono-pods to cover close-ups and high action areas. But then I'm sure being the better informed person you are you knew this as well, correct?

And as a long time racer of motorcycle enduro, hare scrambles, motocross and endurocross, I find your statement that these events are not "sports" as entirely baseless. First of all, you make erroneous statements without having a clue what events we cover. Second, not only are these events sports, they are fully in the arena of athletic events. I can't say that in over 20 years of competition I've ever seen a "fat guy" running in any of these races. Frankly, it's not even possible. Obviously you are the misinformed in this arena, but I suppose you know better than I in this regard as well, right? By the way, when is the last time you raced an off-road motorcycle enduro with 10,000+ feet of elevation change over a period of 6 hours? Hmmm??
You seem to be someone merely looking for an argument. And as for being better informed, that's an easy assumption to make when tapping away at the key board and nobody has yet made a counter argument.
Out of respect for Kirk I'm stepping out. You get the last word so that we all can now be "better informed". Let the enlightenment begin..............
Thanks for the air time, Kirk. I'm out.

Mitch said...

People are flying these (for profit) over weddings, in commercial airspace, all over the place with no sense of consequence.

Licensing is needed to protect us from ourselves.

My feeling about drones right this moment:


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