Please Don’t Be the One to Get Drones Banned


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.

I see you ;)

I see you ;)

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.

Taking Off

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.

With these tools, people do some really cool stuff. Dronestagram recently collected some of the best of drone photography so far with their first ever Drone Photography Contest.


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.


PR Problems

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.


Pictured: Security Threat

Legal Response

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.

Drone-users are already facing other restrictions too. The use of private drones has already been banned in America’s national parks and for all commercial purposes.

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.

Staying Airborne


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:

FAA Drone Guidelines

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.

Image credits: Wikimedia User Haltermeyer, The Federal Aviation Administration

  • Sven Skafisk

    What’s wrong with banning drones? They can’t get banned soon enough in my opinion.

  • TN

    if people want to keep their toys, they need to use them responsibly.. self importance isn’t a good look for anybody, especially when the loudest offenders express more concern for their toys than for the general public, the same public they have to share public space with..

  • Jack B. Siegel

    A thoughtful article, but unfortunately not everyone is as responsible as you are. As the incidents mount (and there have already been a few), there will be restrictions. The problem is quite simple: “I know what I am doing and I am the exception to the rule” attitude that is so prevalent, which is why people continue to drive while using smartphones in spite of the mounting evidence that this is a hazard and use cameras at events when cameras are banned.

    One thing is for sure. Photographers who use drones had better have property and casualty insurance in place.

  • Espen Johansen

    Can’t say I’m sad when these things crash. I’m just dreading the day the papparatzi-leeches gets their hand on them (if they don’t already use them). Sure, a drone shooting a city sunset is one thing, the day these drones are used to take pictures of specific people, there should be legal to take them down by any means necessary

  • Jack B. Siegel

    I don’t necessarily disagree with your sentiment. But where do you draw the line? Image capture in public space is constitutionally protected. So while you seem to draw the line with drones, what about the person who does not want the street photographer to capture the person’s image as he or she walks down the street? The law now faces the need to redefine what constitutes intrusion on seclusion.

    I might add, the paparazzi are already buzzing celebrity weddings with helicopters, so the problem already exists. At least drones are quieter–an observation, not an endorsement.

  • Chang 场河

    No, seriously, please be the one.

  • TSB

    The only difference from now to 10 years ago it’s that quad copters are cheaper and anyone can play with one with their iphone , 10 years ago we were making them with micro controllers and custom designed controllers, they were unstable, not easy to flight, had like 5-10 minutes flight time, very stiff no autocontrol and fricking expensive,after i crashed mine 2-3 times i sold it.

  • @JacksonCheese

    Military & police spy drones? Yeah, ban them on US soil.
    But quad-copters for hobbyists. There’s nothing wrong with them. They’re great little machines with a lot of cool applications.

  • Dj

    Don’t ban the copters..ban the idiots using them carelessly.

  • pincherio

    Drones don’t invade privacy. People invade privacy. If the government won’t ban the sale of cars or guns, two things which cause way more damage than drones, then banning drones would be just silly. I have no issue with regulating the use of drones though. Regulate, yes. Ban, no.

  • Sven Skafisk

    Then surely you won’t mind me flying over *your* next backyard BBQ, kid’s baseball game, visit to the beach, and scenic nature retreat and snapping a few photos.

  • Chang 场河

    Except we have a constitutional right to guns, which makes them quite different.

  • Grive

    Ban cars! They are used to run people over!

    Dammit, can’t we for once agree on being reasonable, and try to put a moratorium on idiotic uses of inherently neutral technology, rather than go into another fight between luddite and anarchist strawmen by targeting the technology itself?

  • OtterMatt

    I’m not saying a ban is necessary, but I wouldn’t cry if it came about. Even with the price drops, it’s still just a toy for the richer-than-required sect to play around with. A few rooftop-level photos of sunsets do not a new photography style make, in my opinion. The only people who have a viable and arguable use for these are rescue workers and safety inspectors. I’d fly one of those into, say, the Fukushima reactor to gauge work progress rather than walking in myself, but it’s nothing but a diversion for 99.9% of the world, and one that has serious potential to be annoying to everyone else around you.

  • Jaap Van der Horst

    Wel maybe you should also have a constitutional right to Drones. For a healty democracy, photographers should in no way be restricted in documenting a society and their elected officials and drones could be key in that. Guns are useless against the militarty, ask the people in falluja.

  • David Vaughn

    How else are we to survive if we don’t let the government make laws to protect us from ourselves?

  • Guest

    I think the issue is that, and this sounds so conspiracy-theorist ‘Murican but whatever, it’s basically safety at the cost of freedom. It’s a small freedom, but still…

    And as you said, there have been a few incidents. A few. Since this is a new thing that isn’t regulated, there seems to be this fear that drones are going to be bringing airlines down and snapping photos of small children to be put on the Internet. It’s just going to be rampant and uncontrollable, all the destruction and perversion.

    I do think there need to be airspace restrictions and laws regarding drones, but as far as being a menacing technology that is going to wreak enough havoc to warrant banning…Well…At this point I think that is silly.

    That’s just how I see it, though. I haven’t been personally affected by drone issues so…. :P

  • David Vaughn

    Is this any worse than using ultra-telephoto lenses to take photos of naked celebrities sunbathing on their yachts?

  • Joshua Reagan

    Can’t we just call them remote controlled toys like we have for the last four or five decades. Banning something outright would be a severe over reaction to a product that is not inherently dangerous but could be used in a dangerous way. There plenty of laws in place to punish someone for misusing and/or causing damage with a radio controlled vehicle. These quad rotor helicopters are no where near as dangerous as single rotor radio controlled helicopters and I don’t see anyone trying to ban those.

  • Mike Smith

    How do you feel about other model aircraft? Do you draw a distinction between a model airplane and a drone? What about a kite?

  • Mike Smith

    Regarding the Idaho bill, it will never hold up to constitutional muster. The right to photograph and videotape people in public has been upheld in the supreme court. It’s clearly a first amendment right already, and the Idaho legislature doesn’t have the ability to override the constitution.

  • Anthony

    I recently purchased a Phantom kit and have spent hours training myself in an abandoned parking lot. Not easy to fly these things. I believe a license should be required to fly these drones in public areas. Just like operating a car… license and insurance. Done.

  • mthouston

    When drones are outlawed…only outlaws will have drones…..

  • Chang 场河

    Add another instance to the litany of problems caused by thoughtless drone operators: Ohio news is reporting that a drone interfered with the landing of a life flight helicopter at a hospital. Strong work dude, I’m sure the lo-res shaky video was worth endangering the lives of everyone on the helicopter including the patient whose treatment was delayed.

  • csmuncy

    So long as I’m doing so in a public venue, no, I generally don’t.

    Let’s take a look at this from a news-gathering perspective. During Hurricane Sandy, a huge chunk of Breezy Point burned to the ground. Photographing it from ground level did a very poor job of showing just how terrible the damage caused by that fire was. The best way to see the extent of the damage was to shoot it from the air. Renting a helicopter is out of the budget for many papers – so it was then and there that I decided to buy a drone.

  • csmuncy

    “Even with the price drops, it’s still just a toy for the richer-than-required sect to play around with. A few rooftop-level photos of sunsets do not a new photography style make, in my opinion.”

    What about members of the press? I find mine to be an invaluable (if rarely used) tool for large-scale disaster scenes.

  • OtterMatt

    Useful, sure, but I’m still not sold that it’s something the world NEEDS to have. At least in those situations, people have bigger and better things to worry about than the small, irritating buzzing thing overhead.

  • OtterMatt

    You know, I think you’re on to something. If insurance were required, a lot of the hobbyist brain-dead sect wouldn’t bother. I think that’s a smart and responsible thing to insist.

  • csmuncy

    As opposed to say, helicopters?

    Again, I look at this as another news-gathering tool in my bag, nothing more. I worry about any law designed to limit the way journalists can gather the news. Look at all those insane laws in the midwest trying to ban overhead images of farms. Legislation that might seem innocent now can easily be misused later on.

  • OtterMatt

    True, but there’s a very large difference between a helicopter and a quadcopter. Namely, about a year of instruction, multiple FAA regulations, exams, and qualifications, a lot of government oversight, and many, MANY dollars in insurance. If you go through something equivalent to pilot and operate a quadcopter, then I’m all for it. Otherwise, it’s a toy and shouldn’t be compared to actual flight devices.

  • @JacksonCheese

    You do realize there are other legal options than just outright bans, right? Not all of us live in a black & white world.

  • Ty Welch

    These personal drones are just a lawsuit waiting to happen. I was at a local music festival in Oak Harbor, Wa. last Friday and there was one of these drones pictured in this article flying around, at night, just over the crowd, about 20 feet in the air. I was wondering what happens when, not if, one of those malfunctions and falls on someone, injuring them? RC planes and kites don’t buzz or hover over concert crowds at night witht he potential to drop straight down on someone like these drones do. There needs to be restrictions placed on how close they come or whether or not directly overhead hovering is allowed.
    Do I have the right to knock down one of these drones if I think it is invading my privacy over my property?