Drones, Drones, Drones (UAVs)

Amazon Prime Air
Amazon Prime Air

According to Natalie Sommer, an associate producer at 60 Minutes, before Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos ushered Charlie Rose into a secret room at Amazon’s corporate headquarters, he offered the reporter half of his fortune, and a trip to Las Vegas to spend it, if Rose could tell him what was in the room. Well, Charlie Rose is still working for CBS and PBS.

On a large, polished, wood table sat two 8-rotor drone helicopters emblazoned with an Amazon Prime Air logo, the vehicles of a futuristic concept to deliver your Amazon order, assuming it isn’t a heavy appliance like a television or toilet, to your home within 30 minutes after you place the order. That’s only half the running time of an episode of the CBS Sunday night news show.

This segment and its many followups in national news media presented the scenario of thousands of drones home-delivering everything from a tube of toothpaste, if you are caught short mid brushing, to your Domino’s pizza with its cheese still bubbling. Bezos cautioned that it may be a dream deferred, subject, of course, to FAA approval and regulation. But he was optimistic it would only require a few years and affirmed that Amazon will be ready to “fly” by next year.

The devil is in more than the FAA details, Mr. Bezos. It’s in the not unrealistic fact that the skies above our very heads might become more crowded than the runways of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport on a Friday evening. And what if the payload on the drone is not the latest Clive Cussler best seller, but a GoPro Hero3 on a DJI Phantom Quadcopter with a 3-axis gyro, piloted by a pimply-faced teen, and hovering outside the window of his girlfriend's bedroom? Lots of cans of worms!

2. phantom-2-vision-feature
DJI Phantom 2 Vision with proprietary onboard camera

In fact, recent news stories (not just Bezos’ publicity-driven fantasy) suggest that the FAA is not going to be the only federal or law-enforcement agency to have a full plate of legal issues and lawsuits to dine on in the coming decade. Competition over air-space corridors might be the easiest to legislate. Thornier yet are certain looming questions of privacy rights, sexual “Peeping Tom” infringements, aural and visual harassments by drones buzzing around in public spaces, and the very real danger posed by malfunctioning, mis-piloted or mis-programmed drones — including higher-altitude (but still amateur) drones that already have nearly caused midair collisions with commercial jets.

Is even the decades-long history of boys flying model airplanes in jeopardy? Will fixed-wing craft or ones without video cameras be exempted?

Google and YouTube searches easily supply dozens of news stories and videos of all the situations I allude to. I didn’t give much thought to the Amazon delivery stunt until I received an email from my camera operator, Ben Spek, with the header “drones, drones, drones,” with links to news stories of a Seattle woman who was frightened by a hovering camera drone outside her window as she was dressing. I found videos of out-of-the-box amateur drones taking to the air (even as their new owners were still reading instructions) and crashing into high rises in midtown Manhattan, then falling onto the street below, nearly injuring a pedestrian.

Two U.S. national parks, Zion and the Grand Canyon, had already banned drones as a menace to tourists. Here’s a drone fail in the Grand Canyon.

Yosemite is another park that banned drones after they were seen tracking climbers up sheer rock faces. And now, drones have been temporarily banned in the entire National Park system pending safety studies.

Even more alarming is the deployment of amateur drones in a kind of real-life video game, with “fighting drones” being designed to withstand fire or a shotgun blast, even using their cannons to launch paintballs on victims below. The mind reels at how "open carry" states might deal with this.

Game of Drones
Game of Drones

The Los Angeles Times even reported the unexpected decision by the LAPD — never thought to be especially cautious in its zeal for surveillance — to place its two drones in the hands of Homeland Security until clear guidelines regarding their deployment can be determined.

The FAA, however, has authorized tests of drones in several locations in Alaska, an area with much less crowded skies. Drones’ potential for crucial topographical surveying and wildlife counts is explained here. Maybe Alaska and North Dakota are ideal places for Amazon Prime Air, though one can’t imagine a close enough “fulfillment center” as launch pad.

So what makes this more than an item of passing interest to cinematographers like me? Here is a personal point of reference: after recently finishing principal photography for the film A Walk in the Woods, our production formed a splinter unit to photograph scenics in four Southern states, well known places on the Appalachian Trail. We included aerials from a camera drone. All the sites were chosen within existing guidelines, were distant from other people, and were piloted by a professional team with substantial experience. The drone was no out of the box amateur rig but an ingenious DIY model.

Wayne's Drone
Homemade Octocopter for A WALK IN THE WOODS

Just like the Steadicam before it, these small 4-rotor and 8-rotor drone helicopters mounted with HD cameras, from GoPros to  Canon 5Ds, are quickly changing the scale of imagery that can be photographed for feature films. Many productions that have been unable to afford traditional piloted helicopters with sophisticated camera-stabilizing systems can now engage a two-person ground-based crew of pilot and operator to shoot sweeping images that “open up” a film. But that is only a small part of drones’ potential as a new camera system.

Last winter, watching director Nabil Ayouch's Horses of God, the Moroccan entry for the Academy’s foreign-film Oscar, I saw a shot that took my breath away. A group of boys are playing on a dirt soccer pitch in the Casablanca slum of Sidi Moumen. Everything is photographed at ground level, with long-lens panning shots intercut with wider-angle close coverage on the Steadicam to build up the action sequence. A very low-angle shot then follows several boys chasing the ball — and suddenly sweeps past them, rising above their heads to reveal the intricate warren of passageways in the slum beyond. The camera continues up higher for an overview of the slum and of downtown Casablanca. It is a stunning moment because it comes at the end of an eye-level sequence. It also sets up the disjunction between these still innocent, poor children playing soccer in a trash-ridden, dusty lot---- with the indifferent modern city nearby. The film climaxes with a sequence set years later, in May 2003, when these same boys, now trained suicide bombers, simultaneously blow up several buildings in downtown Casablanca, killing themselves and 33 people. This single camera move, made with a small HD camera on a drone, set up the visual and narrative flow for the rest of the film.

Here is the trailer. There are several brief cuts of the boys on the pitch early on, and a very brief overhead drone shot tracking though the slum at 0.44:

The film ends with another aerial rising above the slum at sunset, hovering as the scene dissolves into night.

Not every film can hope to make such stunning use of this new technology, and the possibility of filmmakers continuing to use it may be in grave danger, thanks to hotshot hobbyists and the merely curious who have $1,000 to buy a Star Wars-y Phantom Quadcopter and a GoPro. If local and federal legislation becomes a hornet’s nest of permits and restrictions, it will weaken the ability of low-budget filmmakers to afford this extraordinary technology. (Mainstream-movie producers will, of course, be able to negotiate the permit pathway.)

This is the first time I can think of a promising technology adapted for filmmaking being put under such potentially devastating scrutiny. The issues are real, of course. Public safety and privacy are matters of great consequence and may finally override any beneficial application to motion-picture production. I hope this is not the case.  The drone footage we shot at sites along the Appalachian Trail is stunning, and I'm confident of how much it will add to the finished movie.

But I worry about what may come next. As if addressing my concern, Ben sent me a story of a recent blog post by Martha Stewart. It includes several photos of her farm made by a Phantom Quadcopter. Her post reads:

These drone-like, radio controlled aircraft are lots of fun to play with and they take extraordinary photos. However, controlling them takes practice and getting used to. Since my farm has lots of open fields, Dominic thought it would be the best place to get acquainted with this new toy. The results were amazing!

Martha Stewart's farm as seen by a Phantom Quadcopter.
Martha Stewart's farm as seen by a Phantom Quadcopter.

Will the use of  camera drones by celebrities, real-estate agents, and amateurs (who consider them "toys")  in this gray area between recreation and commercial promotion obstruct or help support the case for their continued use by serious filmmakers?

There's real urgency to act for those who see this technology as a tool to expand cinematic style, and not just as a hip delivery system for Amazon.  Too often, it's corporations through their lobbyists who become the decision makers when a new technology emerges, not the artists. Sony's insistence on 16x9 (1:78) as the HD video format, when 1:85 had existed as the standard for decades, is one example. If camera-drone technology has a real future for filmmakers, especially for indies and documentaries, it's time to step up to the plate. What do you think?

A 7-year-old pilot

A 7-year-old pilot (from a CNN story). Consider the possibilities.

A late footnote: Amazon has just formally petitioned the government for permission to test  its Amazon Prime Air program. 

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