The drone cross-over is now fully complete. As little as a couple of years ago owning a drone was a niche gig and drone photographers were very much in the minority. It used to be a novelty to see an aerial photograph in your feed, alongside all those VSCOed shots of girls in folksy dresses and floppy hats standing in front of mountain ranges. But these days every Instagrammer with over 2,000 followers has a Mavic in their gear bag and the novelty value of a drone shot has disappeared forever.
However as drones have gone mainstream I’ve also noticed a worrying new trend that threatens the longterm future of this type of photography for everyone. To put it simply, growing numbers of photographers and filmmakers are either wilfully or through simple ignorance, ignoring local and federal laws and flying their drones illegally or in an unsafe manner to get ‘the shot’. The problem starts at the very top, with worldwide megastars like Casey Neistat and stretches all the way down to the little league Instagrammers and their #travelstoke followings. My concern is that sooner or later something is going to go horribly wrong and wide-ranging legislation will be introduced that effectively kills drone use.
Regulation of drone use varies enormously around the world, but most countries have some sort of legal framework in place to ensure drones are flown safely. The Australian system is similar to that of many countries in that (broadly speaking) you’re not supposed to fly anywhere near people, you shouldn’t fly anywhere near an airport and you shouldn’t put your drone so high up in the sky that it enters the flight space of real aircraft. There’s obviously a lot more detail around the various regulations, but these are the three basic ones that many countries enforce.
In Australia the airspace is regulated by our federal aviation safety authority called CASA. In the US it’s the FAA, in the UK it’s the CAA, in Germany it’s the LBA and so on. As soon as you put a drone in the air you are required to abide by the regulations enforced by these various organisations. Even countries you might think would have no legislative framework in place probably do – case in point – Namibia and Bolivia.
Okay – confession time – I will put my hand in the air and admit that I had absolutely no idea that I had to abide by the rules enforced by these organisations when I first got my drone. Had I known about all the rules governing drone (or RPAS as the authorities would prefer me to refer to them) usage beforehand I might not even have bothered. And I’m absolutely sure that many of the photographs and videos that appear on Instagram and Facebook on a daily basis are taken by people who have no idea either. Whether it’s flying a drone to Bunnings to get a snag or putting your drone directly above the Bondi Icebergs pool while people swim in it, many of these shots are taken by people who are ignorant of the law. But, as the saying goes, ignorance is not a defence in the eyes of the law.
As I see it there are two angles to this debate – the safety issue and the legal issue – or common sense and the law if you like. Common sense is the area that seems to be most lacking in the drone photography scene and I’m sure that we have all seen many examples of images or videos which present a clear danger to people and property. To me it is common sense that I should not fly my drone over people because I understand that if the drone failed it might injure or possibly even kill someone. To me it is common sense not to fly my drone over roads which have vehicles travelling up and down them because if the drone failed or I simply lost control of it, it could cause a crash with potentially catastrophic results. To me it is common sense not to fly my drone over buildings because I respect people’s privacy and I could damage their property. To me it is common sense not to fly my drone in close proximity to real aircraft because I could cause an aircraft with human beings on it to crash into the ground and kill them.
Then there’s the legal issue and the problem with people deliberately flying their drones illegally in the full knowledge that what they are doing is wrong. I see examples of wilful law breaking all the time – YouTube is full of examples of people who know that what they are doing in against the law and yet still they do it.
These, ladies and gentlemen, are the dicks with drones. They are going to fuck up the drone scene for everyone, whether they fly drones for photography, for videography, for sport or just for fun. Any day now something bad is going to happen and when it does you can kiss goodbye to your cool impromptu aerial shots and you’ll have to hire a helicopter like the old days. And that’s why we can’t have nice things.