I knew I had less than 30 seconds. I’ve been in Thailand enough to know what a fast-moving summer rain cloud is about to dump a few inches of water on me in a matter of seconds, and I had $1,400 worth of flying computer 300 feet in air that one rain drop could send crashing to the ground – and I still didn’t have the shot I wanted. The drizzle was starting to make my iPad Mini viewer difficult to see so I slammed the camera control to its highest setting and began pushing frantically at where I thought the shutter button was on the iPad. The raindrops began splattering on the iPad, make further shooting work impossible so I pulled back all the way on the left toggle and my drone began dropping out of the sky. I slid it sideways to avoid the rainforest trees and reeled it in, thankful I had chosen a deserted parking lot as my launch pad. Without having to look for other people or cars, the last 100 feet went quickly and I leaned over the drone to shield it from rain as I wound down the motors. Another day in the life of a drone pilot trying to capture the beauty of Thailand through a drone.
My decade-plus love affair with Thailand began in 2002 when I met my future wife in Railay Beach – she was managing an internet café and I was there on a rock climbing trip. Two years of long-distance relationship followed by a fiancé visa, a wedding and then a little boy, and eventually turning some raw land on a primitive island into a small resort, and my ties to Thailand were solidified.
Combining drones and temples happened the first time I brought a drone to Thailand. My brother-in-law is a former Buddhist monk and was watching me fly my drone around my father-in-law’s sugar cane plantation, when he approached be about using my drone for doing roof inspections on the Buddhist temples, or wats as they are called in Thailand. He explained that the way the monks currently do roof inspections is to the send a monk – usually the skinniest and lightest – up a rickety ladder to visually check out the temple roofs. The problem is that the ladders are made from bamboo poles with crossbars made from bamboo or random pieces of wood, all help together with some combination of nails, screws, and strips of old inner tube tried around the joints. So, you want to be 40 feet up in the air on one of those ladders trying to look for cracked roof tiles? Me neither.
With visions of thousands of monks looking nervously between their feet to see if the last bailing wire-repaired cross piece was going to hold up, the family piled into our pickup truck and headed over the temple. The monks had never seen a drone before, but quickly grasped the concept. Drone have several (usually four) propellers that spin to give drone lift. The controller allows you to fly the drone through two toggle switches that cause the motors to move at different rates, thereby allowing the drone to go up and down, spin around, and move horizontally in any direction you want. The drone also has a camera that can take stills and videos, and is controlled by a dial that rests under your left index finger.
We asked the monks which roofs they wanted inspected and they very politely told us to only do what we could. After one battery it became clear that all the roofs needed inspection so we flew all of our batteries and came back the next day for more flying. We then downloaded the images and video to a laptop and the monks looked if over and made note. After seeing the footage from the roof inspections, the monks were delighted and used the drone images as part of a proposal for funding repairs of their temple.
Back to my current flight, the rain was beginning to pour so I grabbed the drone and, hunched over to protect the drone, controller and iPad from the rain, sprinted as best I could back to our van. As is typical in Thailand, 20 minutes later it had stopped raining and I had just enough battery life for one more flight . . .
One of the most rewarding experiences for a drone photographer is to get his or her work recognized. Being an artist with a paintbrush, guitar or movie camera requires the artist to put work for general artistic critique, and whether the reviewers are qualified or not to render an meaningful opinion, the feedback you receive on your art to a certain extent defines you as an artist. The same is true for artists who fly drones to create their works of art.
One thing that separates drone artists from painters, photographers and musical composers is that we have to create our art under a fairly rigorous set of laws and regulations – in short, the possible canvases upon which we can create our masterpieces are limited by rules such as how high we can fly, how close to airports we can fly, whether we can fly over groups of people, whether we can fly in national parks, etc. On the surface this should create a limited, but fair playing field, since all drone photographers have to live under the same set of rules, right? Well, not exactly, because some drone photographers flagrantly violate the rules – and as opposed to being banished from the profession, fined, or sent to jail (all of which are allowed under the laws they treat like toilet paper), they are rewarded by an eager media machine that cares more about the spectacularness of the shot than whether it was taken legally.
This media machine rather than working with the governing bodies and law-abiding dronists actually encourages illegal droning through its turning a blind eye to the legality of the shot. Examples of this abound in our industry, and cause me to believe that unless we do a better job of regulating ourselves, the FAA and its foreign counterparts may regulate us out of business. For example, I have seen a number of drone photography contests where a substantial percentage of the “winning” photographs were clearly taken illegally. Shots within 5 miles of airports, shots over crowds of people, shots in national parks.
The technology to assess whether a shot was legal or not already exists: when I submit a picture to any of the major drone photography websites my pictures are automatically geolocated onto a map, upon which the B4UFly or another map program showing where legal and illegal space can be easily seen. For any photographs submitted from within a banned area, the photographer should have to show proof of permission to fly in that are or the photo would be automatically disqualified. Pretty easy, isn’t it? Why hasn’t this been done? Well, heck, that would take away a lot of really amazing pictures, and we can’t have that, can we? Actually, we can have that. I can fly my drone over nearby Palomar Airport and shoot a plane taking off, and I guarantee you that my picture of the pilot shaking his fist at my drone just before it hits his windshield would be an headline grabber – but that doesn’t justify allowing such a picture even on a drone photography website, much less having it win a contest.
My other pet peeve is news stations that pay for and use drone photographs that are clearly taking in violations of the law. Here in San Diego County I have seen a number of videos used on the local news that were clearly taken within 5 miles of local airports by drone pilots I personally know do have any kind of 333 or Part 107 “status”. It’s pretty easy to pull out Google Earth and figure out that the USS
But for a drone, some photos were taken.
But for some photos, a Dronestagram account was created.
But for a Dronestagram account, a top pilot interview was given.
But for an interview, a speaking opportunity in England was offered.
But for a speaking opportunity, a side trip to Dover to fly drones was planned.
But for the side trip, a lengthy hike along the White Cliffs of Dover was organized.
But for the length of the hike, extra batteries were taken.
But for the extra batteries, a backpack was heavy.
But for a heavy backpack, a shoulder muscle was strained.
But for a strained shoulder muscle, a typing posture was changed upon return to the US.
But for a changed typing posture, carpal tunnel syndrome was caused.
But for carpal tunnel syndrome, an exercise routine was changed.
But for a change in exercise routine, a back muscle was strained.
But for a muscle strain, a back was examined.
But for the examination, a strangely shaped mole was spotted.
But for the mole, a dermatologist was consulted.
But for the dermatologist, a biopsy was performed.
But for the biopsy, a skin cancer was diagnosed.
But for the diagnosis, a skin cancer was removed.
But for the removal, a dronist is now cancer free.
But for a drone.