Photography drones are facing a perilous atmosphere of distrust and legal chaos. In these circumstances, even small mistakes can have big consequences. A shift in public sentiment against private drone usage could easily result in the application of restrictive regulations, or perhaps even conditional bans.
I don’t think it would even be hard to make this happen single-handedly. I have a list of ways that I’d do it, just in case I ever find myself bored on a Saturday:
1. Attempt dramatic close-up of President Obama at outdoor rally using a quadcopter with a GoPro duct-taped on.
2. Catalog the sleeping habits of everyday New Yorkers by surreptitiously snapping photographs of them through the windows of their thirtieth floor apartments at 3AM. Post said photographs on Tumblr.
3. Play chicken with Jumbo Jets at LAX.
4. Attempt to land drone on the back of an endangered Florida Manatee.
5. Post live streams online of local children’s playgrounds recorded from 40 feet in the air.
It would probably take an attempt or two, but as soon as I got some traction on major news networks, a small public outcry against “invasion of privacy” or “endangering public safety” would mount and, within the week, proposals for bans on the use of drones by private citizens would flood into legislatures around the nation.
Bing. Bang. Boom. No more drones.
Of course, that’d be a real shame — the death of an exciting photographic platform before it really had the chance to take off.
Over the past few years, as the technology has become more affordable, it’s become easier for amateur and professional photographers alike to send their cameras into the sky. Options nowadays range from multi-rotor behemoths that heft a loaded DSLR with ease to small quad copters with built-in cameras.
And, also with these tools, people do some not-so-cool stuff.
So far this year, civilian drone pilots have been accused of crashing drones into Yellowstone National Park’s famous Grand Prismatic Hot Spring, nearly colliding with an NYPD police helicopter, narrowly avoiding intercepting a jumbo jet in Florida, braining a triathlete in the middle of a race, and more.
There is a thriving community of responsible drone users out there — people who make amazing videos like Jos Stinglingh and Richard Gottardo or fantastic images like Eric Cheng. They and others like them should be allowed to continue using these fantastic tools to make great imagery.
But, as with fireworks, ferrets, and Four Loco, a photo-drone’s fun goes hand in hand with its capacity for mayhem. And, as the number of drones in private hands skyrockets (Parrot alone has sold around 500,000 units since 2010), the odds of headline-grabbing blunders increases exponentially.
But why are drones special? Americans spend their time and money on lots of potentially dangerous things — ATVs, paintball guns, cows — with barely a second thought.
But the word “Drone” is weighed down by some serious baggage. Not only does it conjure images of flying harbingers of doom and explosions thanks to the controversy surrounding America’s use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in recent conflicts, but it simultaneously sets off the hair pin trigger that is America’s fear of privacy invasion. Photographers have already experienced heavy flak for operating in public spaces as public sensitivity to surveillance has increased — and that’s for plain old doesn’t-fly photography.
These concerns have already led to a widespread campaign against the use of surveillance drones by law enforcement. That may sound unrelated, but civilian drones are getting sucked into the churning rotors of that public effort. Idaho, for example, passed a law last year that drew little distinction between private citizen and law enforcement agency where drone use is concerned. Idaho State Senate Bill 1134, signed by the governor in April of 2013, proclaims:
No person, entity or state agency shall use an unmanned aircraft system to photograph or otherwise record an individual, without such individual’s written consent, for the purpose of publishing or otherwise publicly disseminating such photograph or recording.
In other words — you can use your drone, but you better be ready to toss the footage if people happen to walk by. If there was any doubt that this legislation applied specifically to drones, its authors took care to exempt model airplanes and model rockets from restrictions — but not photo-drones.
One bright note — these regulations are enforced more inconsistently than jaywalking laws. Last month, New York Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney became a rare exception when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that they would investigate the use of a drone by a paid videographer at his wedding. That counts as commercial use of drones, and so is illegal nationwide (at least according to the FAA). Representative Maloney should have known that, seeing as he is a member of the congressional committee that oversees the FAA.
This combination of public distrust and the increasing likelihood of more bad press makes for a bad forecast. It is far from guaranteed that drone-users will be able to enjoy their hobby without annoying restrictions, or that they’ll be able to make full use of drones as photography platforms.
But, unlike this Phantom DJI Drone crashing into an icy ocean, there is hope for the future of drone photography. Most hobbyist uses of drones are still permitted by the FAA (although First-Person View Drones are on the chopping block), and their general intention seems to be to make it easier, not more difficult, to use drones for commercial and personal reasons.
But the FAA is not the only group capable of clamping down on drone usage. Nearly every state legislature has recently passed laws or is considering laws restricting drone usage by law enforcement, with varying levels of implications for private drone usage.
The best way to keep regulators and lawmakers off the backs of drone pilots is responsible drone usage. This includes conscientious drone usage, minding drone no-fly zones, and heeding current regulations — regardless of how arbitrary and backwards they might be — at least until more sensible guidelines come around. That may be a while, since the FAA is almost surely going to miss their congressionally mandated deadline for drafting said guidelines.
The current rules, still clearly designed for the model airplanes that have been around for decades, look like this:
When something as simple as a botched manatee-landing could result in significant restrictions on the entire drone community, every drone-user ought to consider the possible repercussions of particularly reckless stunts. Someday, we might be able to pinpoint the person who found out how easy it was to get drones banned — and I certainly wouldn’t want to be them.