Photographer Uses Drone to Shoot Harlem Building Collapse, Asked to Leave by NYPD


My earlier article shows you what you should do with a drone and a camera; this one will show you what you shouldn’t do.

After the tragic building explosion in Harlem yesterday that left four dead and 63 injured, photographer Brian Wilson took to the skies with a DJI Phantom quadcopter and GoPro to get an angle on the action that nobody else was getting.

But while he succeeded in achieving his goal (see embedded Instagram image below) he had both the authorities and the general public questioning his judgement.

Ignoring the potential ethical questions, the bigger issue is that Wilson might have gotten in the way or even lost control of his quadcopter while it was hovering over emergency personnel’s heads.

As you might imagine the NYPD wasn’t too fond of a buzzing device hovering over the emergency crews and rescue personnel that were doing everything they could to keep the situation under control. In the end, they had to ask Wilson to bring his drone down and sent him on his way.

The laws behind the use of drones/quadcopters are ambiguous to say the least, but it’s safe to say at some point lines are going to be drawn. It’s a matter of “when” not “if,” and it’s sure to lead to a great deal of debate.

For Wilson, the punishment was but a slap on the wrist — if that — but future bold quadcopter pilots may face much stricter regulations, and Wilson’s actions and the safety considerations they bring up could potentially be used to justify these rules.

Of course, that’s just speculation on our part. What are your thoughts? Is this taking journalism a step too far, or is it okay so long as Wilson wasn’t hindering the efforts of emergency workers?

(via Gizmodo via Imaging Resource)

Image credits: DJI Phantom 2 Vision by Macomb Paynes

  • Peter

    I have no problem with the drone concept of news gathering, however, I think the inner and outer cordon set up by emergency services should be respected at all times and that includes the air space directly above, often media are allowed to enter the outer cordon to conduct their work, where permission is given to enter an outer cordon you operate at the discretion of the authorising authority.
    If you are anywhere outside of that cordon (i.e. a public place) I don’t think permission should be required by members of the press (or public) to fly (within the law) a drone or capture images or footage.

  • Mark Cranston

    According to the drone’s pilot who just appeared on a local NYC news program, he was not asked to cease because of anything he did or did not do with the drone. allegedly the police and fire asked him to wrap it up because of the crowd that the drone was attracting.

    It makes sense. If you’ve ever been driving and seen three news copters hovering over an area, the first thing you do is tune to news radio and then begin watching out for other drivers who have become transfixed on the copters.

  • Bossi

    this thread is delitetful i will celebrate with adjoining parody

  • James

    Thank you!
    Everyone is acting like this was something he duck taped together in his basement, but it’s anything but.

  • James

    “how severe would the consequences of a mistake be in this situation” A lot less sever than a Helicopter crash… infact, if one of these goes down, it’s more likely to hurt no one, than to hurt anyone.

  • James

    Bingo. That’s most of what this article is, things people don’t like about photojournalism loosely tied back to drones. he was flying in a safe location when that picture was taken, if he wasn’t that would be different.

  • James

    They just filter outside links… frustrating, but it cuts down on spam.

  • ThatGuy

    It seems to me they should welcome this. This could spot survivors or capture information important to an investigation.

  • Pedro

    Life for professional photogs gets more and more complicated every time some “semi-pro” decides to play photojournalist.

  • Pedro

    Judith, lemme inform you a bit; news helicopters are controlled by the FAA. Sometimes, @ the request of local law enforcement, helicopter coverage is denied by the FAA. Can’t do that w/toy copters, not yet anyways.

  • Judith

    A Bell JetRanger has a major downdraft – and is big and heavy; that drone doesn’t – and normally is unregulated for that reason. What does putting a half-pound camera on that drone do to change that reality?

  • Judith

    That quadcopter is unregulated for good reason; it’s a lightweight hobby toy. NO downdraft – and fragile construction, nil weight, nil size – all unlike a Bell JetRanger. Putting a half-pound camera on it doesn’t change that reality.
    Want Washington to regulate paper airplanes next?

  • Stu MacKenzie

    I wouldn’t enjoy something like that hovering above me when I was trying to work, especially if that work involves my utmost concentration in making life and death decisions regarding the safety of civilians and emergency crews. It’s far too much of a distraction, especially when it is being piloted by an amateur.
    You might argue helicopters are far nosier, but emergency crews are used to helicopters, they are much further away and their pilots have to be reponsible and licensed. Not the same thing as somebody flying what amounts to an RC helicopter.

  • Elliott W

    Judging by the picture in the article he wasn’t getting close at all, looks like he went virtually straight up.
    If its legal then there is no question, if it isn’t ILLEGAL then there is no question.
    The fact that some are questioning his judgment is immaterial, this will ALWAYS happen given ANY situation, I can’t think of the last time it didn’t..
    I’m curious what “ethical” questions they are alluding to?

  • Elliott W

    No helicopter would have been hovering that low. Also your post doesn’t make sense towards the end.

  • Elliott W

    Who CARES if the police accept it, they don’t get that choice, they are not policy makers they are policy ENFORCERS. They are TOLD what is legal.
    Let me be very clear on this point, NO ONE should care whether police like an activity or not, the LAW decides what is and is not permitted.

  • Elliott W

    While I see the point you are making, we don’t get to pick and chose the times when other people’s rights are in effect. So since it is within someone’s rights to record EXACTLY what you are describing your ONLY recourse is to ASK, NOT TELL, NOT DEMAND, politely ASK that they not release it and then accept the outcome.
    Personally unless it was a FABULOUS shot and you ASKED me to withhold it, I probably would, if you made demands I guarantee it would be released. Its simple, I won’t be TOLD what to do but I can be reasonable if asked and you recognize that I have no duty to comply.
    I would also like to amplify what Cory was stating, the actual risk of him losing control is overstated, the chance ALWAYS exists, but we don’t deal in absolutes, there is a chance but the likelihood is fairly small and without there being a SIGNIFICANT chance then to base so much on that chance is dishonest. I also think the authors VERY FIRST line where he is talking about the right way should give the reader some flags about potential bias.

  • Elliott W

    Overall I think you are probably right. They did behave fairly well. And I admit I find that a little shocking, so I am pleasantly surprised.

  • Elliott W

    1. They have limited ability to interpret, let us not overstate their actual powers.
    2. We have no evidence nor claims he was flying in close, I call red herring.
    3. Acting sensible (in your opinion) does not make the action legal, another poster pointed out that he flew for upwards of 30 minutes and was asked not to re-launch after a battery charge/replacement. They are certainly free to ASK, keeping in mind asking conveys no command.
    4. As far as I know the argument being floated was him flying AT ALL was the issue, for which I say, TOUGH, if it isn’t explicitly against the law it is LEGAL..
    5. Noise as a distraction would be hard to argue and would almost certainly fail point #1.
    6. I can agree on the alleged ethical questions.

  • Guest

    I was referring to a prop failing due to a glitch on the board which is common not just because of a motor failure. A failure on the control board will make it drop without any control.

  • James Smith

    What it is might be one more step toward the police state where the law is whatever they want it to be.

    Police are already stopping people with cell phones from capturing them in actions that are, to be kind, “questionable”. Drones will be far more capable of videos of them performing actions in violation of the constitution and good sense.

  • Elliott W

    And if they WERE flying their own drone this might be a valid argument. If not then its a red herring.
    As far as risk, there are risks to EVERYTHING we do. You got out of bed this morning, you took a calculated risk, you took a shower, you got in your car or got on the bus, you took an elevator or stairs. ALL of these items incur a level of risk.

  • Richard

    Elliot, my concern is not with the vanity of the people being photographed, it’s with getting in the way of emergency responders.

    Having been an emergency responder for part of my life, I can tell you that a drone buzzing around many of the accidents I worked would have been a problem. No problem for the drone photographer to ask but a problem if whoever was overseeing the scene thought it would be distracting.

    And, in my day there were no drones, but there were news helicopters that at times were asked to move away as their noise and prop wash was causing problems. We never had an issue with media, not one.

  • Elliott W

    There is nothing “questionable” about it, it is legal to record public officials in the performance of their duties. This isn’t some odd internet guy saying that, that is every appellate court, the DOJ, and SCOTUS. If you do it in the open it is legal everywhere you can legally be. Police departments are losing big money these days.

    Check out the blog Photography Is Not A Crime by Carlos Miller. I’d post a link but it will get this post deleted.

  • Elliott W

    I agree, you don’t want to get in the way, BUT there are MANY instances of police/ems/fire creating much larger scenes than are necessary for either their safety of the safety of the people they are trying to help. Also there are MANY videos online of these same people stomping across the street and getting into photogs faces, often while demanding to get the camera out of their faces, people who are either outside of the “tape” or a distance away. They just weren’t “welcome”. So please understand at least a little healthy skepticism about whether they would actually be distracted in THIS case. If the drone was down say 50-75 feet I would be much more likely to go along with your point.

    You make a point about the media, that distinction no longer exists, credentialed media have no legal rights above or below that of an average citizen and multiple court records have been crystal clear that the rights of citizens and media are the same and that average citizens ARE the media as well.

  • Gary

    *capitalisation for every country except for the US

  • Mike

    another decade and they will regulate how we walk on the street

  • Mike

    Yet the back of the NYPD Press pass specifically allows you to cross police and fire lines, and that you take full risk and responsibility when doing so

  • Mike

    I have been a responder my entire adult life. The vast majority of the time the press is not in the way,…except when one of my peers takes it upon themselves to lose their proverbial minds over it

  • Judith

    Another decade and we will have Peronism in America – as today’s “47%” too poor to even owe federal income tax will then be the “67%” and the decisive vote, overwhelmingly dispossessed middle class.

  • csmith

    if this is unethical then i guess all news coverage of disasters is unethical as well? that is a really asinine statement to make.

  • BLFarnsworth

    I have many different radio-controlled aircraft, including one of the same multi-rotor helis pictured at the top of this article. I’ve been flying these with cameras attached for years.

    However, flying one in this situation was pretty stupid.

    While I agree that there would be relatively minimal damage if it came crashing down (compared to a full-scale heli) — but if the propellers still had power and they hit someone in the face I guarantee you wouldn’t recognize that person after the fact. If it hit someone in the jugular, good luck trying to stop the bleeding.

    You won’t have the same issues with a paper airplane.

  • BLFarnsworth

    I fly these as a hobby too, but NEVER over people. When people challenge me on that — saying “just be sensible about it… There’s risk in everything!” I ask them it’s OK if I just hover the aircraft a few feet over their kids’s heads. Better yet, I’ll ask if I can hover it right over their baby.

    Any challenge is usually gone after that.

    Many things can go wrong: a prop can break, a motor can fail, a wire comes loose, the flight controller can glitch, etc. etc. I’ve had a few of these happen. Trust, me — you don’t want one of these coming down on you. Or on your kids. Even if it’s a 3 lb multi-rotor, if one drops on your head from 100 feet, it’s gonna leave more than a scratch.

  • BLFarnsworth

    “It’s more likely to hurt no one, than to hurt anyone…”

    Probably true in this case, since there aren’t many people around — at least from what we can see in the photo.

    Not true if some fool flies over a crowd and loses control. See my post above. It happens.

  • Zooty2Shoes

    Dunno what happened to my original response – it had an embedded video in it, obviously a no-no for petapixel.

    Google ‘octocopter redundancy’ or hexacopter redundancy’ to see many videos of multirotors flying safely with a prop removed.

    You are absolutely wrong about more motors being just for lifting power.

  • Zooty2Shoes

    ‘that drone’ has very sharp, very fast-moving propellers. They damned well hurt when you accidentally brush them. I would hate to think what the damage to a face or eye would be like.

    Camera or no camera, flying these in urban environments is fraught with danger and most people don’t have insurance that covers that eventuality.

    A 3lb multirotor from 100 feet into the windscreen of a truck, into a baby carriage, onto the head of a senior? The force from that height is 675J – around 500ft/lb. Enough to do serious damage.

  • battlepriest

    The problem is not the fact of photography, it is the method, which put the emergency personnel at risk of injury.

  • Guest

    Private drones – target practice.

  • Elliott W

    I agree that there is SOME risk, however EVERY action we take EVERY DAY has some risk. I think your “fraught with danger” point is SUBSTANTIALLY overstated, risk yes, substantial risk NO.

  • Elliott W

    Outside the city, over my property, at low altitudes, I agree.

  • Elliott W

    I’m sorry, but I have to challenge that assertion, it seems your ENTIRE argument was that he was flying and that put them at risk of injury. There are some BIG assumptions required to make that perspective valid.
    1. What are the reasonable chances that the device would fail in such a way as to lose control?
    2. What are the reasonable chances his own piloting would cause a loss of control?
    3. What are the reasonable chances the device would actually hit someone IF it came down?
    4. Was the device flown in close proximity to the fire fighters (<50-75 feet)?
    5. Was the device flown high over the scene?
    6. How much experience does the "pilot" have flying the drone?

    Those are just the first 6 that came to mind to evaluate. You simply can't say that they were put in danger, but based on those simple 6 questions I can reasonably infer that if they WERE it was little more than a fractional increase.

  • Zooty2Shoes

    How familiar are you with flying these?

    I am very familiar, as are the members of my club.

    They fall out of the sky all the time, in open spaces.

    In areas with a lot of 2.4GHz signals (pretty much all consumer electronics that use wireless signals – including wifi, garage door openers, baby monitors, etc.) it is easy to get jammed.

    You are SUBSTANTIALLY understating the risk of flying one of these in populated urban areas.

    There is substantial risk – google ‘quadcopter crash’ and check out the thousands of incidents.

    I am not given over to hyperbole. Most people that fly these don’t belong to a flying club, don’t have public liability insurance. Why do you think we as a club carry about $10M PL insurance for a member if there’s no substantial risk?

  • Todd Williams At Magnolia

    City people deserve less right to privacy?

  • Todd Williams At Magnolia

    Can you know they are not about to deploy one?

  • Elliott Whitlow

    People who live in the city have by the choice of living in the city to give up a degree of privacy. So yeah, if you are out in the boonies flying close by it is more questionable. In the city the density of people almost guarantees its fairly close by.

    But do keep in mind I won’t defend peeping into windows this way. I think that is wrong regardless of where.