Local New York news recently featured the story of an unmanned aerial vehicle (a UAV or drone) with a camera attached to it that crashed to the ground near Grand Central Station, in the middle of a busy part of midtown.
The drone's pilot, David Zablidowsky, was charged with a Class A misdemeanor for reckless endangerment. As the local ABC affiliate reported, "The FAA has yet to come up with concrete rules for unmanned aircraft systems, known as UAS or drones, but has said that 'UAS operations are currently not authorized in class b airspace which exists over major urban areas.'"
The questions around drone use have become important for the filmmaking community as the aerial shots that the consumer UAVs allow are often much cheaper than what it would cost to rent a crane, a helicopter or to license footage. Earlier, Indiewire had taken a look at some of the most compelling uses of drones for filmmaking and developed a Beginner's Guide to Drone Filmmaking. A recent profile of Tumblr CEO David Karp noted that the young exec has a whole legion of flyable things.
The ethics and safety surrounding UAV usage, however, are front and center in the minds of many people involved with the world of drones.
Writing from the Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference at NYU earlier this month, ProPublica's Cora Currier noted that the "industry line at the conference was that drones are merely a technological platform, with a range of possibilities. They don’t spy, or kill; the people ordering them around do." The people behind the tools, then, may need to be checked. Though it showed the city in a novel way, Zablidowsky's flight was controversial because he was flying his drone in between skyscrapers, smashing into them from time to time, 30 or so stories above the ground, and in a bustling city.
For filmmakers, the DJI Phantom and the Parrot have been popular choices. The Robot Dragonfly, a project of the Georgia Institute of Technology modeled off the flight dynamics of the insect of the same name, came out of research spurred by a $1 million Air Force grant and made over $1 million on its Indiegogo campaign.
Peter Asaro, a professor of Media Studies at the New School in New York, has taught the class Robots as Media for several semesters. In the class, students produce media and in so doing, they think about what it means that robots are a new form of media. "Robots are much more mobile than the bricks [cell phones] in our pockets. They can move around, pick things up..." He'll teach the course at the IFP Made in NY Media Center in the Spring of 2014. Check out these video about robot ethics made in his course's previous iterations:
For Asaro, there's a lot to think about when it comes to using drones for filmmaking. "The technology has features to it that are quite unique, that demand new modes of regulation. Any time you're taking video or film of public spaces, you have to know what you're going to use it for. If you're posting it to the internet and you're not making any money, that's one thing. But you're still showing people in public. If you're a filmmaker showing that in a film, you might need to get releases. As a filmmaker, you need to protect yourself and look at who is identifiable.
"There's this huge national debate going on about how to regulate drones: who has the right to fly them, where, what can they record, how can that material be used? Can the government do it? Can people do it for their own purposes? Can corporations do it, datamine it, sell it to other parties? The videos will be timestamped and geolocation-stamped."
And the safety of flying drones often requires one to be mindful of how to make sure they're being flown nowhere near flight patterns, which are usually invisible to the naked eye (there is an easier-to-follow rule that forbids flying three miles from an airport). In an article on Gizmodo, pilot David Cenciotti reminds us, "Anything hitting a plane configured for landing, hence slow and close to the ground, can theoretically cause a disaster."
Though he's concerned with the ethics and safety issues, Asaro also has an aesthetic complaint: "In the class, I want students to think about how you make films with these technologies, how you tell stories with them. The technology is moving really fast, but we haven't seen a lot of really great storytelling coming out of these new media."
He continued, "The story has to drive the technology -- if you're just taking it out of the box and shooting the video... that's fine. But it's when you start saying 'This is the story we're trying to tell, and this is what we need to do to have the technology meet the requirements of the story' -- that will create interesting films." For an example of storytelling following the attributes of the technology, Asaro points to sports broadcasting's use of the wire-driven Spidercams, which have changed how we watch sports like football.
One person who is interested in seeing the aesthetic possibilities of drone filmmaking is the photographer/filmmaker Nate Bolt. We put the spotlight on two of Bolt's video works in an earlier post. After being asked where he was excited to take his drone, Bolt said, "It's not really been a lot about the places for me, I guess. There's so many neat things you could do at the same exact place just by changing your perspective just a bit -- the shadows, the light, the perspective... you've got a floating tripod all of a sudden. It's not like I can't wait to go to Africa and shoot something unique."
One day, Bolt took his camera out for an afternoon poolside. "I wanted to do a slow motion thing of a girl jumping into a pool. Shooting at 120 frames per second, I could slow it down in After Effects, get a tight overhead shot. Because it's hard to steer those things accurately without a gimbal, I totally missed. But I ended up getting a shadow."
Bolt is really thinking outside of the box with his drones. "Light painting things [long-exposure photographs that track the drones' lights] is the one thing I'm playing around with now. You can light paint on a scale that's never been possible easily. We did one in Yosemite with the sequoias [the image at the top of this page]. The next thing I want to do is light paint a skyscraper. You can preprogram flights via GPS. You could paint a giant head in the sky with some kind of hacking."
But as Bolt has realized that the quadcopters sometimes become uncontrollable (he's on his fourth drone, and he recently slammed a drone into the side of his friend's parents' house.), he's paying a lot more attention to the safety of it all. "The Facebook DGI Phantom page is an open group. At first, I didn't give a shit about safety, and now I think about it all the time. I can see why people are nervous. People could wreck one into a car or hit a baby. When something happens that's bad, it's gonna get a ton of press."
For now, as regulations are hammered out, it might be up to individuals to be reasonable themselves.
Bolt told Indiewire, "Especially if you've flown them a bunch, you never know when they're going to inexplicably fall from the sky. Now, I'm much more cautious about where I take it and what situations I take it to."