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.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.