First month with my drone
“Hey are you getting some good shots with that drone?”
I turn around to see a police car inching past me. He asks me to land it. I comply, shaking my head as I realize I will not be getting the shots I wanted of the Croton Dam. He makes small talk, a nice guy. But he checks my license and writes down my FAA drone registration number. I ask if it’s illegal to fly the drone here, to which he answers no. I ask why there is no sign up or anything—I wouldn’t have flown the drone if I saw one. I did my research prior to driving up here, I said, and the website of the Westchester County park system, which owns the dam and the reservoir, does not mention anything about drones. I get off without a ticket and am on way, concerned that pretty soon I will not be allowed to fly this drone anywhere.
People are very touchy about drones. I can’t fly it within the DC beltway, where I live, due to national security flight restrictions. Understandable enough. But now Virginia, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut—to name a few states—have banned drones in state parks. At Flag Pond Nature Park, a county-owned park in southern Maryland, a park ranger asked me to stop flying my drone over a deserted beach at 7:30am. A park employee at Glen Island Park, a Westchester County-owned park in New Rochelle, told me I couldn’t fly anywhere in the park, despite having been told that it was OK by another park official when I drove in and hardly anyone was there. Supposedly it was “against the law’ to fly in the park–even though I checked the county rules and regulations which made no mention of drones. When I told the guy he was wrong, and that only New York State parks have banned drones, he said that Westchester County is in New York and therefore drones are banned there too. I told him he was mistaken and should check the state law again, but complied with his demand anyway. All of this is unfortunate, because parkland is the best place to fly. I like taking aerial photos of the natural landscape and would rather not fly over populated areas. So if you can’t fly over lakes and beaches and forests in the early morning—when no one is around—where are you supposed to fly?
I’m not a lawyer, but from what I understand these laws contravene federal aviation law set by the FAA. The FAA has a few simple rules to follow when operating a drone: fly under 400 feet, always keep the drone within your line of sight, don’t fly over crowded areas, and don’t fly within five miles of an airport. I believe states can ban the take-off and landing of drones in their parkland, but cannot legally prohibit you from flying a drone over their land. This contradiction has not yet been challenged in federal court yet.
Legal issues aside, I’m addicted to flying my Autel X-Star Premium drone ($899). It’s not only fun to maneuver the quadcopter around in the sky, but it takes crystal clear pictures and 4k videos from a perspective we ground-based humans are not used to. It can go where helicopters can’t, and without disturbing the environment with rotor wash. I can fly three feet above a lake and take a picture of the drone’s reflection with barely a ripple in the water. I can fly it 30 mph an hour backward, sideways, all the while adjusting the angle of the camera to whatever direction I want. I even sent the drone into an long-abandoned building and took pictures of the interior, maneuvering through tight spaces. The wide range of practical applications for drones are almost beyond my imagination.
In order to start selling my footage, I need to register as a commercial pilot with the FAA. Currently I’m just a recreational user. But in order to qualify as a commercial pilot, I have to take an FAA exam called Part 107 for small unmanned aerial vehicles. The test is administered in FAA-approved testing centers around the country. I’m schedule to take the test in late September.
I’ve flown the drone safely over many different sites—beaches, Rye Playland amusement park (when no one was there), lakes, ponds, Camden Yards in Baltimore, Federal Hill (Baltimore), Long Island Sound, harbors, the Hudson River, farmland, ports, you name it.
I’m careful not to fly the drone too far away—the farthest I’ve flown it is 2000 feet away. I found it a little disconcerting though because I could barely see it at that distance. With first person view on the IPhone connected to my remote controller though, I can see what the drone’s camera is seeing. Even then I don’t like to fly with just that.
Take a look at the pictures and you can see why I’m hooked. I want to get my flying in now, because I predict one day they’ll be banned everywhere except private property. Try getting permission to fly over the property of someone you don’t know without providing compensation. It’s like asking someone if you can put a surveillance camera in their bathroom. Likely not going to happen.