Story and photography by Ralph Bendjebar
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known as drones, have been in the news a lot lately, not always on a positive note. Reported sightings near airports, sport stadiums and large crowds or urban settings have caused alarm and consternation from public officials and the FAA, which has led to negative and (sometimes) alarmist coverage from news organizations. Of course, the problem lies with inexperienced and reckless users rather than with the exciting technology these UAVs offer for the gathering of unique and useful images and footage.
As an avid landscape and wildlife photographer with a background in commercial aviation (my day job), I became intrigued with the possibilities of utilizing UAVs. They can be fitted with stabilized cameras to record images and footage not otherwise obtainable except at great expense with manned fixed-wing aircraft or rotorcraft. The rapid technological advances that enabled adaptation of this technology to small UAVs from their larger military cousins have produced capabilities that rival ground-based camera systems. The latest is the DJI Phantom 3, which allows stabilized 4K footage and 12 MP DNG files. It also provides full camera control through a controller-mounted tablet. The DJI Inspire 1 Pro is fitted with a MicroFourThirds (MFT) sensor that takes 4K video, 16 MP stills and has the unique feature of interchangeable lenses. Thus the capabilities for capturing exciting and memorable footage and images have become a reality.
The larger question is: How will we incorporate this technology into a crowded and complicated airspace? The FAA’s mandate is to ensure the safety of all users in the national airspace. While UAVs are not yet able to sense obstacles and other aircraft, the technology is being developed and will soon be available. The rules as currently stated are designed to separate UAVs from manned aircraft and require line-of-sight control by the operator.
Commercial UAV operators (those who charge a fee for the sale of their media) are currently required to apply for a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization and exemptions from some of the requirements governing manned aircraft (Section 333 of the FAA Modernization Act 0f 2012). Operators are required to have a pilot’s license, and specific restrictions apply to the operation of their UAVs, such as daylight-only flights within line-of-sight and prohibition from flights within restricted areas, such as near airports, stadiums, public events, etc. Final rules for commercial operations have been proposed that would require certification and training. A pilot’s license will no longer be required; only a thorough knowledge of flight regulations. There is no real benefit to having a pilot’s license in operating UAVs, as the skills learned to fly a manned aircraft do not transfer to the skills needed to operate a UAV.
Because of irresponsible and reckless incidents in the recent past, the National Park Service has imposed a no-fly rule for UAVs in all national parks. Personally, I believe this is an overreaction to the actual nuisance they have created for other park users and wildlife. Hopefully, the many millions of acres of pristine wilderness will one day be available again for the purpose of obtaining inspiring and creative footage and images that showcase the beauty and vastness of our national parks and monuments.
New and disruptive technology often creates a period of instability and anxiety that requires adaptation and adjustment. Reasonable rules that require experience, training and coordination with park personnel to obtain permission for filming in uncrowded areas of our national parks should provide for the safety of park users and the tranquility of the wildlife within them. I am hopeful such rules will once again allow the safe use of UAVs in the park system that will balance the need for tranquility with the ability to showcase nature from an eagle’s perspective. UAVs offer an exciting window of opportunity to record the world from a different perspective. How we decide to employ that technology in a safe and responsible manner is still an open question.
Ralph Bendjebar is a resident of Minnesota who retired from Northwest Airlines in 2007 as an Airbus 330 Captain. He currently works part-time for Boeing as a B-787 flight instructor. Ralph’s photography career started with an avid interest in landscape photography that morphed into a further interest in wildlife. He loves photographing big cats on photo safaris, and his most recent trip in January 2016 was to his favorite location, the Serengeti.