Regardless of your position on the political spectrum, there’s no denying that the Women’s March on Washington (and its “sister marches”) held the day after the presidential inauguration was a historic event. Millions of people in major cities, the world over, took to the streets to peacefully protest. However, looming (literally) above a few of those crowds was a bigger potential threat to their immediate safety than any worst-case scenario the new administration has conjured yet ― drones.
As I scrolled through my social feeds, happiness at seeing photos of ebullient friends participating in the marches soon turned to horror as I encountered several video clips containing aerial footage taken directly over crowds, which could only come from a drone. Naturally all of them went viral as an alternate perspective, that couldn’t possibly be captured at ground level, and this was a truly powerful testament to the overwhelming success of the movement.
One photographer, who attended the Austin, TX, gathering, shared footage of his drone flying directly over an estimated crowd of 50,000+ people gathered at the state’s Capitol building. To date, the video has 610K views, 9,000+ shares, and close to 700 comments. While some people were curious about how permission was obtained, many more savvy users knew gaining clearance was next to impossible and pointed out numerous violations on both state and federal levels.
— Antonio French (@AntonioFrench) January 21, 2017
From coast to coast, Orange County to Boston, drone operators uploaded their footage on Twitter and received a fair amount of traction and accolades in return. Even a mayoral candidate for St. Louis, MO, couldn’t help but share his perspective (note, I have not been able to confirm the creator of this footage). And why shouldn’t he? When a national news outlet like CNN is asking for permission to distribute it, how could the average enthusiast possibly know they’re in the wrong?
Why am I making such an issue of these seemingly harmless flights? As an avid remote pilot who has witnessed actual living birds come dangerously close to taking down my own drone, to watching people in a crowd throw shoes, for example, at unmanned aerial vehicles that veered too close, I understand the risks involved … and the potential consequences. Had a drone flying over crowds at any given Women’s March that day malfunctioned or unexpectedly collided with an object, causing it to fall from the sky, at least one person, if not more, would have been seriously injured or killed.
Last May, I attended a music festival in Napa,CA, and captured some spectacular shots of the crowd from the outskirts with my brand new DJI Phantom 4 ― now discontinued, a testament to how quickly the premiere consumer drone manufacturer is iterating. One person saw my post on Instagram and asked if I had also created this video chock full of aerial footage taken directly over the sardine-packed festival crowd? I didn’t, and thank goodness, because under Section 333, the gold standard of UAV governance at the time, flying directly over people was not permitted.
This rule made its way into Part 107 regulations, one which clearly states “you can’t fly a small UAS over anyone who is not directly participating in the operation, not under a covered structure, or not inside a covered stationary vehicle.” What if you’re flying as a hobbyist? Even recreational pilots operating a drone between .55 and 55 pounds must adhere to safety guidelines that include never flying over groups of people.
Drones have come a long way since becoming formally introduced to the masses in 2013. They are safe and reliable in the right hands. The tough truth about any form of technology, though, is that it is not completely infallible. There is a minor chance that something could go awry with a drone during flight, which is why the above restrictions for flying over crowds were established in the first place.
While an aerial perspective is a powerful one to capture, drone pilots need to make sure they’re attempting it in a safe and responsible manner. The folks over at The Oregonian executed their drone coverage flawlessly from the Willamette River that runs through Portland, OR. By angling the camera at the crowd from a safe distance, and not flying directly overhead, they were able to effectively portray the massive turnout of 100,000+ attendees while not endangering anyone’s well-being.
There will be many more monumental events of this scale occurring in the months and years to come. As of this writing, a March for Science is happening on Earth Day, Women’s March organizers are planning A Day Without a Woman, and Trump’s Tax Day is set for April on tax day (naturally).
These marches will undoubtedly draw massive crowds and while it may be tempting to fly into the thick of the action with your drone, remember the risks involved. The FAA could potentially come after you and revoke your Part 107 certification or fine you heavily. Even if that scenario doesn’t pan out, most professional studios and companies don’t want to hire or associate with a pilot that engages in risky, irresponsible behavior. So don’t be that guy (or girl). Let’s stay on the right side of history by flying safely.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons/Mark Dixon
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