BANGOR, Maine — “Is that a drone?” a woman walking her dog along the Bangor Waterfront asked late Monday morning. Her tone fell somewhere between curious and accusatory.
“Nope, it’s a quadcopter,” Bangor-based flier-photographer Monty Rand said as he stared down at his monitor while a small, multi-propellered machine hovered about 200 feet overhead.
“Oh,” she said with a chuckle, continuing her walk.
No matter what you call them — drones, quadcopters, unmanned aircraft, multirotor vehicles, toys, tools — they’re the topic of an ever-evolving debate regarding how and where they should be used, by whom and for what purpose.
‘The next cool thing’
Rand bought his DJI Phantom, one of the most affordable and popular quadcopters on the market, this spring. He has been taking photographs in the Bangor area for about 25 years, from shooting for the Penobscot Times out of high school to documenting events for the Cross Insurance Center.
“I’m always looking for ways to set myself apart, do new things,” Rand said. “This seemed to be the next cool thing.”
Unmanned aircraft offer a new perspective on things and places people see every day. Previously, getting this sort of view meant hiring a small plane or helicopter at great expense.
Now, with a few thousand dollars, a person can purchase an unmanned aircraft, Go-Pro-style camera, monitor, controller and a few upgrades for the same effect.
As the technologies improve and become more affordable, more people are taking to the skies.
Chris Trafford is creative director at HoverFlow, a Maine-based company that specializes in aerial photography, especially of remote and interesting geographic landscapes.
“What we like to do, it’s almost like exploring caves,” Trafford said. “You’re going to see something nobody’s seen before.”
Videos on their website, hoverflow.com, feature dramatic sweeping shots of coastal homes, isolated rivers and streams, and farmers’ fields.
HoverFlow runs a higher-end machine than the DJI Phantom. Theirs is a hexacopter with six rotors instead of four. It weighs more than the Phantom and comes with a heftier price tag — $10,000 and up. HoverFlow has been gathering short video clips and photographs for about two years.
“We go shoot for the love of it,” he said.
The company has received requests for footage from tourism agencies and others seeking stock photography and video of notable places in New England.
Alan Nyiri is a Vermont-based photographer who does fairly regular work in Maine. He worked with Down East Books for many years, publishing four books that feature images from across New England. Recently, Down East Magazine asked Nyiri to bring his DJI Phantom 2 to Bangor to shoot aerial images of a concert at Darling’s Waterfront Pavillion to run with a story about Waterfront Concerts.
The perspective he got was a new one — well above what you could get in a cherry picker, well below what you’d be able to get from a plane.
The full cost of the Phantom was about the same as an hourlong helicopter rental, he said.
Other uses are still being thought up. Nyiri said he believes the drones could be useful for search and rescue groups, providing the same vantage point as other aircraft but at a significantly lower cost.
Real estate brokers and developers could find it useful for advertising or surveying their properties.
Nyiri said he’s working with Cornell University on a project that will feature fly-over photography of the campus to commemorate the institution’s 150th year. The working title is “Cornell: A new perspective — The next 150 years.”
“I’ve been waiting for this all my life,” Nyiri said of the leap in technology.
“People tend to have two reactions,” Rand said of the times he’s flown his quadcopter in places where people can see or hear it. “They think it’s really cool or they freak out, like, ‘Oh my God, that’s illegal.’”
News the Maine State Police had purchased a quadcopter sparked resistance from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups fearing it could be used for random surveillance.
The sight of a drone over a Waterfront Concerts performance prompted several emails to the Bangor Daily News.
While Rand was flying his quadcopter over Dover-Foxcroft, a man approached him and threatened to call the police, claiming it was illegal for him to fly there. The drone was nowhere near the man’s private property, Rand said.
Like Rand, Nyiri and Trafford don’t like using the word “drone” to describe their machines and what they do, in large part because of the military connotations behind the word.
“I don’t understand the privacy concern when it comes to public space,” Trafford said.
Each flier said they do what they can to prevent concern. For example, they fly in rural areas or in early mornings when people aren’t out and about. Most of the time, they try to avoid residential areas in favor of public spaces.
“The privacy issues are no different than they’ve ever been with photography; they’re just in the air now,” Nyiri said. He wouldn’t raise a camera above a fence to take a picture of someone’s backyard without their permission, he said, and he wouldn’t hover his drone over someone’s backyard, either.
For others concerned about the growing use of drones, it’s a safety issue. Across the country, there have been scattered incidents when inexperienced pilots sometimes lost control of their remote-controlled copters, crashing them into crowds at concerts or events.
Dramatic videos emerged across the country from drones that flew around or through fireworks displays during Fourth of July celebrations, some of which sparked FAA investigations.
Still, as this technology becomes more affordable, more people will have access to it.
Rand, Nyiri and Trafford each said they don’t view their devices as toys and would support some form of regulation to ensure they’re operated safely. But what those rules might look like is still up in the air.
Scramble to regulate
As unmanned aircraft become more prevalent, regulators have been scrambling to get ahead of potential fallout.
“[HoverFlow] gets a lot of inquiries for stock photography, and about one in every five of those requests are for images and video in Acadia,” Trafford said. “We had the intention of going up there this summer because we knew we could discover some fresh perspective of some of the most noticeable, recognizable places there.”
The Parks Service said this ban is temporary until the agency comes up with a more uniform policy and set of rules.
Congress set a September 2015 deadline for the Federal Aviation Administration to come up with a set of standards and rules for use of unmanned aircraft in U.S. skies. However, the FAA recently reported it is well behind schedule in formulating those regulations.
The FAA’s rule in the air over the United States is relatively clear, at least above 400 feet. Below that level is where personal unmanned aircraft — ranging from remote-controlled planes to high-end octocopters — are allowed. Hobbyists do not need FAA approval to fly in that airspace.
What muddies the waters is the fact the FAA has stated anyone wanting to use an unmanned aircraft for commercial or business purposes must seek FAA approval. Federal courts have pushed back.
The FAA fined a photographer $10,000 for using a drone to shoot a promotional video for the University of Virginia Medical Center back in 2007. In March, an administrative law judge decided the FAA’s rules for restrictions on unmanned aircraft were “unenforceable.” Less than 24 hours, the FAA announced it would appeal the decision.
Trafford, Rand and Nyiri each said they agree there should be some rules and not everyone should be able to fly an unmanned aircraft. Each said they would be willing to participate in some sort of registry or licensing in order to fly their vehicles for their businesses. An exam or course to train people to fly them properly might also be a reasonable requirement, they said.
Many pilots are already using the regulations of Academy of Model Aeronautics, which lays out a list of more than 20 rules to follow, Nyiri said. Those include practices such as maintaining line of sight with your aircraft and staying three or more miles away from airports.
“This technology is not going away, so I think they need to firm these issues up,” Trafford said.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter @nmccrea213