The Debate Over Drones


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As drones capture public fascination, they also raise legal, privacy concerns


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From Amazon’s plans for package delivery with unmanned aircrafts to aerial wedding photography, drones are, if not yet physically everywhere, then certainly permeating our consciousness. Even the trailer for the final season of NBC’s sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” set in the very near future, imagines drones as a common presence.

“It is the most advanced camera motion tool we’ve ever seen,” said Randy Slavin, a commercial and music video director who founded the aerial cinematography company Yeah Drones.

The New York City Drone Film Festival, which takes place at the Director’s Guild of America Theater on West 57th Street on March 7, will showcase expertly shot aerial film captured by filmmakers who know how to pilot the unmanned aircrafts expertly. What seems like a niche topic garnered plenty of interest. The festival is already sold out.

“It’s easy to get a drone in the air and it’s easy to get footage, but there’s a lot of complex elements in drone cinematography,” said Slavin, noting that, like commercial airline pilots, skilled drone operators log hundreds of flight hours to become adept at the technology. “It’s akin to any type of photography. You can buy a really expensive camera, but that’s not going to make you a better photographer.”

But what Slavin sees as revolutionary video technology has engendered controversy and some rightful concern, particularly regarding safety and privacy concerns. Unmanned aerial vehicles are highly regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, which works to ensure that the new technology is safely integrated into airspace. In 2013, a Brooklyn man died when his remote control helicopter hit him in the head, and commercial airline pilots have reported seeing drones, according to an in-depth investigation by The Washington Post. As recently as this week, a drone crashed near the White House lawn, sending the Secret Service scrambling.

Currently, any commercial drone operations, from Yeah Drones to Amazon, must seek an exemption from the FAA and prove their drone operations are safer than employing a manned aircraft. Hobbyists don’t need exemption status to fly below 400 feet.

Paul Fraidenburgh, an attorney who focuses on aviation and aerospace and represents prospective commercial operators, works with his clients to petition for exemption, a temporary process put in place by the FAA while it firms up more universal guidelines, which Congress asked that it complete by this fall. So far, the only filmmaking exemptions granted by the FAA are for closed-set, scripted operations, but Fraidenburgh expects news organizations will follow.

“We have to accept that this is the direction that all filming is going to go,” he said. “To take that out of the news media entirely, that’s obviously not sustainable for the future.”

Earlier this month, the FAA agreed to allow CNN to conduct research on ways to safely incorporate drones into its video reporting. While limitations will still exist for news organizations—72 hours advance notice is required for all commercial filming with drones, which won’t allow for breaking news coverage via unmanned aircrafts—Fraidenburgh noted that the FAA acknowledges the practical use of the technology in gathering and reporting news.

“This is a positive step forward,” said Fraidenburgh. “It’s the FAA saying, if you can show us that this is going to be safe, we’re not going to oppose it.”

Filmmaking is not the only commercial application for drone technology. First responders, Fraidenburgh said, were some of the earliest adopters of the civilian technology. Firefighters used drones to survey forest fires in Yosemite National Park in 2013, and farmers can monitor hundreds of acres of crops with drones, allowing them to detect issues with growth much earlier and more efficiently than with manned aircrafts, an advancement that could go a long way in decreasing hunger in developing countries, Fraidenburgh noted. UAViators, a sponsor of Slavin’s film festival, organizes a global network of drone pilots to aid in humanitarian missions.

“With what I’ve seen, I drink the Kool-Aid,” Fraidenburgh said. “It’s definitely going to change the world and change the United States probably before many countries in the world.”

Drones even affect his everyday conversations.

“My fiancée is terribly bored of dinner table conversations,” he said. “Any time we go out to dinner with someone, that’s what they want to talk about now.”

Slavin petitioned for exemption status with the FAA, and while he awaits word, he’s focusing on the film festival and practicing his flying skills. He stays away from heavily populated public areas and flies mostly indoors or on an empty basketball court near his Tudor City home. This is safer, certainly, than piloting in Central Park, but it’s also private. He found that the public is fascinated by the technology, and strangers would often approach him while he was flying.

“I’m practicing, I’m doing my thing,” he said. “When I’m flying, I don’t want to talk to anyone about it.”


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