Why Drones Scare Me

Why Drones Scare Me

I love my DJI Phantom 4. I've gotten some great shots that I could have only dreamed of before. And yet, a recent experience left me angry and surprised.

I used to ride motorcycles. I loved the freedom and solitude of them. Then, one day, I had an experience that really undermined my desire to ride them. I was riding down a three-lane highway in the middle lane, with a car to either side of me and one behind me. I scanned my surroundings and noticed something truly disconcerting when you're traveling on an open motorcycle at 70 mph: every driver in those three cars was buried in their phones. If I braked suddenly, the one behind me would have likely hit me. The other two could have changed lanes or drifted into me without have ever knowing my presence. I quickly floored the throttle to get out of that position and went home. Nowadays, I don't really ride.

I recently went to a park by Lake Erie to take some shots of the Cleveland skyline at sunset. The park sits about 1.5 miles west of the airport I fly out of, and I know the traffic pattern there well. The path I wanted to fly my drone on went directly across a flight path where planes are at about 300 feet. I planned on keeping my drone below 100 feet and flying it at 40 feet while crossing the path, plus visually checking before crossing it, all to be prefaced by calling the tower and getting permission. To my surprise, there were already three drones flying when I arrived.

The park I was in and Burke Lakefront Airport. Note also the close proximity of Cleveland Browns Stadium and downtown Cleveland.

One was doing some trick flying about 200 feet up, directly in the flight path. The other two were wandering about across the harbor, also drifting in and out of the path. I had been here before to scope out the potential for some shots and had seen a plane fly exactly where those drones now were. Concerned, I called the tower as I had planned to anyway and had the following conversation.

Me: "Hi, I'm a photographer out at Wendy Park; I'd like to fly a drone out to the lighthouse to get some shots of the skyline."

ATC: "Well, we've got some people practicing right now. How high and how long?"

Me: "Nothing above 100 feet and for about 30 minutes."

ATC: "OK, call me back when you're done."

Me: "No problem. By the way, did these other guys call you?"

ATC: "What other guys?"

Me: "There's three other drones here right now, and they're definitely up above 100."

ATC: "No, they definitely did not call me. You might want to do me a favor, and tell them where they are and that they need to call me."

I know the controller I was talking to, and the amount of alarm in his voice was very uncharacteristic of him. He was clearly entirely unaware of the presence of the other drones and was taken off guard by it. It's rare to hear any air traffic controller with audible upset in their voice.

When we think of drones versus planes, we think of jetliners: the 737s and A320s of the world. There's a lot of debate over whether a drone even poses a risk to a plane of that size from a physics standpoint; frankly, I'd rather not find out. What I am sure of, however, is the damage an object the size of drone can do to a single-engine plane, such as the Cessna 172 I've flown in. You can see such an incident with a Piper Saratoga, a similar size plane, below (1:40 mark):

And so to me, when I see the drone versus planes debate, I think of a very overlooked segment: noncommercial, small planes (and helicopters). And as the video above demonstrates, the physics of a drone-sized collision with such a plane is quite serious. Seeing that and thinking of those rogue drones made me feel like I did when I was on that motorcycle.

I spoke to the drone users, and they were utterly bewildered. They looked toward the airport, then back at me as I traced the very flight path they were impeding upon in the air with my hand. They felt genuinely bad and clearly intended no harm, nor were they attempting to skirt the rules. And then, it dawned on me. These weren't photographers. In fact, one of the drones didn't even have a camera on it. As I spoke to them a little more, the situation became increasingly clear: these were people who were simply enjoying a nice summer night with some remote control toys. They were far from professional drones, and they weren't equipped with the kind of features mine is — features that make it abundantly clear when I'm flying in a place or at a level I shouldn't be and even automatically limit the drone from flying above a certain height. These people weren't even aware of such limitations or laws. And it wasn't their fault. How could it be? They probably bought their cheap knockoff drones somewhere online, and seeing as they weren't photographers, they likely weren't in the loop on drone regulations, so unless the manufacturer specifically warned them in the product documentation, they had no way of knowing. I bought a cheap drone to practice on when I first started flying them, and its documentation didn't warn me; I'm lucky that my job puts me in the know. 

I got my shot, called the tower back, and informed him that all drone activity had ceased, and his relief was audible. It got me thinking: there are over 200,000 private pilots in the U.S. alone, mostly flying small, single-engine planes. We've talked very little about the relationship between drones and this type of flying. What's worse is that it also highlighted another issue: there are many people for whom drones are a toy, and you can't expect someone with a toy to envision something so extreme as crashing it through the windscreen of a plane. I don't blame them. But like many issues, better education solves much of the problem before it begins. It's always better to be proactive than reactive. So, at the very least, if you see something, say something. Most people are reasonable and will be glad you explained to them the responsibility that comes with putting an object in the sky. While I certainly hope a more comprehensive solution is on the horizon, there's no reason we as photographers can't play our part. And remember, it's not all just big, hardy jets up there.

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23 Comments

LA M's picture

Good Article!

I see videos on YT all the time here in Canada. The Toronto and surrounding areas are dotted with big, medium to tiny aircraft spots and yet idiots are posting videos of flights here. Literally less than a mile away and you can see commercial aircraft in the footage.

No common sense and that's why regulations when they come will be draconian.

P.S. I no longer ride motorcycles for the same reason.

Alex Cooke's picture

Thanks, Leigh! And yes, common sense would help the issue quite a bit. It's a shame about motorcycles; that was one of my favorites things to do.

Adventure Photo's picture

I personally would not fly a drone 1.5 miles from any airports. Why not find another area. Seems too close to me.

Alex Cooke's picture

Because that's where the Cleveland skyline is located. That's why I called ATC first to get permission.

LA M's picture

There is a similar procedure here in Canada too...you basically file a request for flight within a restricted area and they approve or not. One of the issues with that is the timeline is not guaranteed. They can take a day or many days to get back to you. Then of course you need the liability insurance and other credentials. Currently there is only one spot in Toronto where you can legally fly a drone due to the high concentration of hospitals and airports.

Good for you for checking ahead of your flight.

Adventure Photo's picture

I get what you're saying Alex and yours was the responsible approach calling the tower and getting permission unlike the other uninformed drone users you encountered. I guess I feel as Pete Miller said flying drones around airports should be prohibited altogether or if not prohibited, just not engaged in. Plus, I'd rather shoot the skyline from the ground on a tripod with a high resolution camera or I'd simply find another angle on the skyline if using the drone. Part of me wants to get a drone but they also kind of bother me so very conflicted. Recently saw drone light painting and that opens a whole other can of worms as far as impacting others.

Alex Cooke's picture

Difference of opinion, I guess, though yours is certainly valid. Without speaking for him, I think Pete was referring more so to the type of people I describe in the article. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, Pete.

Specifically regarding Cleveland, there's only one angle that offers an unobstructed view of the skyline, and that's from Lake Erie. Nonetheless, I don't think aesthetic choices are relevant to the argument. I feel that if I'm working within the law, regulations, and common sense *and* I give the option to an air traffic controller to still veto me, and they're ok with it, then it's perfectly fine to do it. The air industry is built around safety, and they will take no hesitation in telling me "no" if they feel it's unsafe.

Alex Cooke's picture

I agree. Like all safety policies, it's a statistical balancing act. I certainly don't have the numbers in front of me (it may be the case that no one does at this moment), nor do I know where the FAA likes that line to be, but I do think licensing and training should be concentrated in the areas of denser air traffic. Heuristically thinking, rural areas don't concern me.

Michael Kormos's picture

Alex, never let yourself be surrounded by cars on a highway when riding a motorcycle. Safest way to ride is to pass the cars instead of letting them pass you. Soon enough, autonomous highway driving will become common for vehicles, and hopefully, motorcycle accidents will drop respectively.

As far as drones, man, there are times I wish drone operators were required to undergo some sort of training and be licensed on a state or federal level in order to buy and fly one. I guarantee you wouldn't see so many pimple-faced kids getting them for christmas and endangering low flying planes on approach. Of course, drone manufacturers would argue that licensing is bad for business, etc.

If you ask me, those drone jamming systems should be installed on all aircraft, and any drone within 1000ft would just drop from the sky.

You took proper precautions when flying yours, but let's not kid ourselves. These things are known to "drift" and fly away. Had your wi-fi signal become weak while your drone was ascending, it might've easily kept on climbing to an altitude where planes were landing. It's still first-generation technology.

I believe FAA prohibits drone flying within class B airspace? Aren't the latest DJIs designed in a way that prevents them from taking off when in restricted FAA zones?

It's only a matter of time before a drone strike causes an engine failure on some small plane and kills its occupants before serious legislation is introduced to govern these new gadgets that seem to attract the kinds of buyers who seem to have complete disregard for public safety and lack of understanding of airspace.

Alex Cooke's picture

Yes, I agree; the reason I actually looked around was because the third car pulled up behind me, effectively boxing me in.

I would be for training and licensing, if for no other reason than teaching people to understand air space. It's tremendously a tremendously intricate network in the sky, and nothing else allows you access to it or near it without extensive training, so why not this? It actually reminds me a lot of horse trailers. I've worked with horses my entire life, and strangely, there's no extra training or licensure required to buy and drive a horse trailer, at least in Ohio, as long as it doesn't require air brakes. I've seen terrible drivers buy dually truck and a forty-foot trailer, load six live animals on it, and go down the road; it's an absolutely terrible accident waiting to happen, and it sometimes does.

Anyway, I've never seen a flyaway that involved a gain in altitude; most often, it's an IMU miscalibration that causes the aircraft to fly in a descending spiral, or it tries to fly "home" in a straight line. I would imagine manufacturers do something to at least prevent the altitude climb scenario for specifically the reason you mentioned, though I could be wrong. For example, the aircraft won't climb unless it's specifically being commanded to; if it lost signal during an ascent, it would likely hover in place.

There are definitely heavy restrictions in Class B airspace, but that's 80/30 at KBKL, so I didn't need to worry about that, and I'm sure the controller would have told me if it were otherwise. I've attached a page from the Inspire manual that describes DJI's programming.

At the end of the day, I certainly hope a deadly plane/drone accident never happens. That's exactly why I encourage a proactive approach by those of us that are more familiar with the ramifications.

Sean Walsh's picture

So actually it's not the drones that scare you, it's the drone operators.

Patrick Schmitz's picture

I can totally relate to that. I see three types of drone operators: the responsible ones, the uninformed and the idiots. The first category know the rules, the second don't and the third are the ones appearing in the news and giving drones a bad reputation.

The government over here (The Netherlands) recently started a drone awareness campaign in the media and online to inform the people about the do's and don'ts and I have noticed that it surely helps.

Alex Cooke's picture

That's a good breakdown of the bunch. How does the campaign frame the message?

Patrick Schmitz's picture

By using several use cases they try to explain what is or isn't allowed. Some of the things I have heard talk about not flying near or over large groups of people, don't get near airports and keep the drone on the ground when emergency services are nearby. They explain everyhing in such a way that it should be common sense.

Alex Cooke's picture

That's how I believe most of these things should be framed: in a way that's easily internalized.

Alex Cooke's picture

I completely agree; it's just not worth the risk for me. Even without cellphones, you're right; the chance of serious injury or death is just too high for me.

And yes, I completely agree. I wish manufacturers and/or the government had had a little more foresight before a mass market device capable of such maneuvers hit shelves, but we're past that point now.

Spy Black's picture

I guess if you're young, and especially if you have a family, you may not want to risk riding a motorcycle. Not everyone shares that mindset of course, and there's plenty of families that ride together.

Me? To paraphrase an old Morrissey lyric, "I'm old, I'm going to die anyway." I'd rather die on my motorcycle on the road than in a nursing home wearing a diaper full of shít...

Alex Cooke's picture

Sure, to each their own, of course. To quote Jefferson (slightly out of context): "it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

Campbell Sinclair's picture

yeah I purchased a cheap Syma to practice on but I already knew all the issues with drones. All the publicity surroundings drones seems to be the DJI and similar and smaller ones get ignored. In Australia all drones under 2kg do not need CAA certification (DJIs slip under just) but MUST obey all rules regarding airports and flight paths. Ignorance is not a defense either,.

Eduardo Cervantes's picture

I'm scare of drones because it's the closest thing to citizen surveillance 24/7. They also remind me the robotic flyers in Terminator. I think sooner or later they will be heavily regulated and will become mainly government and corporation tools.

Mike Patrick's picture

Good article, but it does beg the question: Why now? Remote control aircraft have been around for a long time. Radio controlled planes and gliders have been in the sky almost since aviation began, with hobby helicopters right after, and I don't recall ever hearing of one bringing a plane or helicopter down, or even of any instance of collision, or of any worry about it. So, why now? I see the risks, but it's still interesting that this issue of hobby craft endangering full size planes and helicopters is now suddenly an issue that "scares" people. The truth is that birds present a bigger risk to aircraft than hobby craft do and the government has not yet made a law requiring birds to obtain registration and licensing - although I suspect that's not far off. ;0)

Simon Dyjas's picture

Good work! Sometimes we find ourselves in a place of responsibility and I'm glad you did the right thing with tower control. That bird through the windshield is scary as fuck btw. It's nuts to think there are so many new drones that aren't piloted by photo or video people.

Thanks for making us aware of this. It's easy to get complacent these days with all this new tech available. Also teaching people new outlooks is never a bad thing. (I'm not talking about them shitty email programs either lol)