The 47th annual Balloon Fiesta kicked off earlier this month and has a new obstacle to contend with. The flagship event held in Albuquerque, NM has had logistical problems in the past, but a new problem has arisen in the form of drone enthusiasts looking for the perfect shot.
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is a popular event held every year that draws a crowd of around 100,000 people who want to see the spectacle of hundreds of balloons in the air at once. As the years pass, Balloon Fiesta has grown into an event that hosts over 500 hot air balloons and massive crowds.
In the past, Balloon Fiesta has seen its share of dangers that have resulted in tragedy. For example, the 1982 explosion of a giant 12-story hot air balloon called the El Globo Grande that killed four people and injured five, or the numerous instances of hot air balloons colliding with power lines throughout the years. Though hot air ballooning is reportedly a very safe form of aviation, unique dangers still exist. As technology advances, one of those dangers comes in the form of hobbyist drone pilots attempting to get the perfect aerial photo.
How Officials Are Combating Unauthorized Drones
This year, to fight the increasing risk of a drone versus hot air balloon accident, officials for the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta hired security agency Aerial Armor to monitor drone activity around Balloon Fiesta Park. According to its website, the Phoenix-based company specializes in “detecting and deterring drone-related threats for all scenarios.” The company uses a DJI AeroScope, which utilizes the existing communication link of DJI drones to gather data and monitor the flight path of drones within a roughly 10-mile radius.
For the event this year, the FAA implemented a Temporary Flight Restriction (or TFR) within four miles of the Fiesta Park. Throughout the week (beginning on October 6), Aerial Armor has detected 458 drones (as of this writing), almost half of which have violated the airspace and entered into the TFR, and that number is still growing.
As photographers, we’re always looking for the better shot. Our passion drives us to find better angles and new perspectives. The Balloon Fiesta is one of the most photographed events in the world, so it seems fitting that photographers want to find new ways to photograph it. This year’s Fiesta shows that there is a real risk involved with UAVs and their pilots' desire to get the best shot.
Of the 458 drones detected by Aerial Armor this year, only one has permission to be flying over the crowds at Balloon Fiesta Park. According to DroneDJ, only Jesse Sansom, owner of Colibri Media House, is authorized to operate a drone over the Balloon Fiesta. He’s flying the DJI Matrice 600, equipped with a high-end Canon camera to get professional shots of the Fiesta. The fear is that other drone enthusiasts will see Sansom’s drone and think it’s ok to fly their own drone over the festival grounds. However, Sansom’s drone won’t be flying over any crowds or near any hot air balloons, though onlookers may not know that. Aerial Armor said it would be reporting all of its findings, as well as the flight paths, serial numbers, and GPS data of all the drones that violate the TFR throughout the week. The FAA has not made a statement whether it will pursue charges with the information provided.
If you find yourself in Albuquerque this week for the 47th annual International Balloon Fiesta, get some great photos, but keep your drone home. No picture is worth risking the lives of others and a hefty fine or prison time for violating the rules set forth by the FAA.