I may have just witnessed the future of personal drones...not sure if I like it

I've never owned a quadcopter, but have often thought of getting one. I work in the remote robotics industry and have been a fan of quadcopters, FPV and personal "drones" for years. That may change, though, if what I experienced yesterday is what we can expect in the future.

My wife and I were at the beach most of the day yesterday. There were probably a hundred other people in our small area, mostly families with kids. People had their awnings set up, bar-b-ques grilling, and kids running around just having fun. About mid afternoon a fellow showed up with a DJI Phantom (I recognized it because I often thought of buying one) and full FPV gear, not 10 feet from where my wife and I were, and not more than 30 feet from all the kids running around. He then launched and flew the drone up and down the beach, sometimes hovering over people, sometimes flying over boats and paddleboards that were passing by.

While I was in the water, his drone buzzed over my head, hovering maybe 5 feet away from me and stayed there. Just out of reach but definitely "studying me" like a buzzing giant mosquito. It was my first experience like this and I gotta tell you, it was creepy.   I don't know this guy. I don't know his flying skills. I don't know how well he maintains his equipment. I don't know if he's shooting video of me and, if he is, what he plans on doing with that video.  Is he a convict?  Is he a child molester?  I know nothing about this guy who is flying his quad just feet above me and is watching me so intently.  The one thing I did know was that this guy's drone was invading my space and my privacy.  He was watching (and probably videoing me) and I didn't like it. And I'm a guy, I can only imagine how I would have felt if I were a woman. Or a parent watching this drone hover over my small child.  In that brief moment my feelings about personal drones reversed 180 degrees.

If what I just witnessed is the future of the technology, where people no can no longer live with any degree of privacy or space, I, for one, can no longer support it.

Views: 4406

Comment by Jonathan Hair on July 21, 2014 at 11:54am

We are in agreement. We have to be careful about the perception of a camera, no matter how absurd it may be and not make our situation worse. I am not defending the Phantom pilot's flight as it was certainly bad enough to make someone come on DIYdrones and complain.

I do, however, take objection to the OP using "child molester" to potentially describe the RC pilot. Thinking something is 'creepy' or in poor taste is one thing, but labeling them as potentially being someone guilty of such heinous behavior is over the line and stretches even the most extreme interpretation of the situation. I hope people will think about it more before making such statements and I will call them out on that every time, even if it is common!


Comment by Alex Kuehn on July 21, 2014 at 1:40pm

I work in unmanned aircraft research at a university in Arizona and have been an avid RC enthusiast for 14+ years now and I find myself feeling physically unsafe a lot these days when there is a "drone" in the near vicinity. I love unmanned aircraft and I think they are an untapped potential source for a lot of good to come, but the way the general public perceives them and the way a vast majority of "amateur" UAV operators use them is unnerving. They have no respect for the inherent safety concerns you need to take into consideration every time you fly one of these systems.

An example. I was recently at a 4th of July event in the town where I live. As evening fell and the fire works show began I noticed three lights off to the side of the crowd and a very apparent buzzing sound. It took me a little bit, but I located the pilots and talked to them after they landed. They were hired to take aerial video of the fire work display and I would say they did their job both professionally and safely. They operated off to the side and away from the people and there was always three of them, so someone was watching for people that might have wandered up to them and presented a potential safety concern. 

Later that same night however as I walked back to my car I saw another multi-rotor. This one was obviously not a professional setup, and it took me a really long time to find the person flying it. This person was not operating it safely. He was running it up and down the crowd at a high rate of speed. I don't know if he was taking video or what he was doing, but just being near this situation made me feel unsafe. I got in my car and left. Looking back on it, I wish I had confronted the pilot and told him to be more safe, however I have observed through my work at the university that you can tell these people how to operate them safely and they still will not because they don't believe you about the safety risks. They are so convinced that it is just a harmless toy. 

It is not simply amateurs either though that have this attitude. In the past year, at the university I work at in the unmanned aircraft department we have had a number of injuries as well close calls with technical failures and inexperienced pilots. Back in the spring of this year I was supervising a class of unmanned aircraft system minors and I was struck in the back of the legs by a small 3DR quad copter. I had to go to the emergency room and received 7 stitches in my knee. This happened in a "safe" environment. There were two instructors, myself and the professor and while I was keeping a student from crashing their quad another hit me. Before this incident I had pleaded with the university to buy me buddy boxes and only allow one to fly at a time so that I could monitor their flying. They said that was unnecessary and I was over ruled. Look what happened. As if that wasn't enough, following that incident we recently had it happen again, however this time it was a high school student at a summer camp. Once again they ignored my advice to fly one at a time and or get buddy boxes as a safety precaution, saying it was unnecessary and would waste too much time and it results in a high schooler going to the ER with severe cuts on his hand. It amazes me really. The people making these calls are engineers and have PhD's and the way they talk about ethics in engineering you would think they should know better than to run up a large mutl-rotor inside a class room(yes, they do that to even after I refuse saying that's reckless). I was even at an RC event recently(club fun fly) and someone was flying a DJI Phatom right next to peoples faces trying to get video of everyone at the event and I cringed every time it came by, just waiting for there to be an electronics failure. And that was a pilot I knew knew what he was doing and would never try that with an RC plane, but he had abandoned his safe flying practices as soon as there was a camera on it and it was called drone. 

While these are just a few examples from my personal experience, I know the problem is universal. It needs to be addressed, but unfortunately it is a very delicate subject and needs to approached correctly. I think the public needs to know more about this, but all they ever hear about is the invansion of privacy which I personally think is ridiculous. If your neighbor is spying on you with one of these that is a problem and you should deal with that as that is not okay. As for the rest of us(hopefully), I know I for sure have better things to do with unmanned aircraft than check up on my neighbors with a GoPro. 

Comment by Paul Jenness on July 21, 2014 at 1:45pm

I agree from the post description that this may not be good use of the a copter. (close to people flying, without prior approval from them)

If we give the guy the benefit of the doubt, that he is a top pilot, and is purely having fun, no  sinister motivation, just play:

A copter close to someone is quite intimidating.  I generally dont even fly my copters near myself, as I know their damage potential , so let alone someone in the public who is not familiar with one, it can be creepy.

I have a litttle hubsan x4 with prop guards,  even that close to people unfamiliar with them get a little weirded out.

Could be even worse if they paniced in the ocean.

If a person walked up to me with a camera and stood in front of me (or my wife and kids) filming, without me saying its ok, then I prob feel a bit uncomfortable also. The only difference with a copter is I dont know who is actually recording me unless I fidn the operator....so the weird factor goes up even more.

So yeah, Its not something I would be supporting.

If he kept a reasonable altitude and just stayed away from people unless they approving it (teens,kids like to wave to cameras etc) then that may be ok.

Good post


Comment by Dave Bozarth on July 21, 2014 at 1:45pm
If what I just witnessed is the future of the technology, where people no can no longer live with any degree of privacy or space, I, for one, can no longer support it.

So I just want to point out, that while in public you have no right to privacy from being photographed. The guy was a jerk, sure, but if you are worried about a non-existent right... you need to think again. You need to also remember that he has rights too.


Comment by Robert Palmer on July 21, 2014 at 2:18pm

I fly quadcopters and did not start off from a model aircraft background.  What I did was spend a lot of time on the internet tracking down rules, a safety guidelines, explanations of how to fly and a lot of technical information to build my own gear.  Starting out wanting to do the right think meant that I was well informed before my first flight at a local park and flying safely, if not complying with every aspect of the relevant laws.

Idiots flying near people in public spaces is one of the reasons the public has a negative view of this hobby.  Adding a camera just makes it more likely that people will complain.  Since I started flying a couple of years ago, all powered RC flight in local parks has been banned and there are significant fines for anyone caught.  Please note, this is Australia not the US and the ban is at the local government level (council). 

This blog is fairly representative of the concerns of the general public when it comes to cameras flying close to them and their children.  It is balanced and well written so it is sad to see people attacking the person posting the blog rather than the unnamed idiot flying around people just trying to enjoy a day at the beach.

Comment by Gary McCray on July 21, 2014 at 4:59pm

H Robert, an extremely responsible approach.

Unfortunately here in the US a lot of people want to get in aon the latest fad even if they know nothing about it.

Initially this worked out OK because the easy stuff to get for these people was the Parrot and the Hubsan X4 wich are small, light and have slow and easily stopped or broken props.

People could get one of those and fly it to there hearts content without anyone screaming either about safety or spying.

Un fortunately with the advent of the easy to fly Phantom with a GoPro dangling underneath peoples worst fears are being realized.

Completely incompetent, untrained and otherwise irresponsible people in large numbers are now deploying these things.

I personally have nothing against Phantoms and think they are an excellent quadcopter / photo / video platform in the hands of people who are truly equipped to deal with their threat level.

It's just that here that isn't what is primarily happening.

Comment by Darrell Burkey on July 21, 2014 at 5:29pm

Putting all the opinions aside, this activity is illegal. In the same situation I would approach the pilot and suggest that it was not a good place to fly letting him know my interest/experience in flying. Depending in the reaction I would file a complaint or call the Police.

If you aren't comfortable doing that then speaking with the life guards or local Police would be an option. Again, that activity is illegal and people need to know it's simply not safe. Just imagine if that copter failed and hit someone. How would you feel about not saying anything then? C'mon people, it's simply not safe to fly over the public and that close to people. 

As for photographing people in public, that's not illegal but it certainly is rude and disrespectful. I never photograph people without letting them know what I'm doing and making sure they are ok with it.

If I'm flying in a park where no one is around and people show up or come in from another direction I purposely move my copter far away or land it and go somewhere else.  When people come up and ask me about the copter they typically are very friendly and I've met a lot of very nice people that way. I always mention how dangerous the equipment can be if not used properly and to always avoid anyone they see flying close to people. They are usually a bit surprised by that comment and some have mentioned that they never really considered that. 

Comment by Adam Conway on July 21, 2014 at 7:18pm

I think you just witnessed an old-school idiot, who happened to have a drone.  It could have been worse, he could have had a pellet gun or a baseball bat instead of a drone.

Comment by Dave Bozarth on July 21, 2014 at 7:27pm

Darrell I don't think that his activity is illegal... At least not in the US and with local ordinances aside that is. Check this: http://dronelawjournal.com/

Certainly everything else you said is true. The guy is an irresponsible jackass, but probably did not break any laws. The law has not caught up yet and it is because of people like him that fair and well established regulations are needed. Personally, I feel that sort of behavior needs to be something that can be punished to ensure the safety of others.

Comment by Gary McCray on July 21, 2014 at 7:53pm

This kind of thing can always be criminally prosecuted as reckless endangerment, especially flying directly over peoples heads with a Phantom or bigger.

I think you would be likely to lose in court trying to defend against it.

And it could be either misdemeanor or felony depending on how far they wanted to push it, just hope you don't get a prosecutor trying to make his bones.


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