Drones and Fireworks: Is This Really Stupid?
With the explosions from the 4th of July celebration finally subsiding, this video has gone viral on YouTube and I wonder if it’s going to ignite some post holiday explosions of its own. (Thanks to Edd Weninger for sending the link; the video popped up on numerous sites over the weekend.)
First, the particulars. The video was filmed by Jos Stiglingh in May over Palm Beach, Florida. The fireworks were part of a local event called Sunfest and weren’t related to the 4th of July. Stiglingh flew a DJ1 Phantom 2 quadcopter not just near the aerial fireworks display, but into the explosions. He edited the footage to an aria, Con Te Partiro, by Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli. The footage is quite spectacular; the music motivates me to return to my Italian lessons.
Now for the fall out, which such high-profle things have a way of causing. As we all know, the UAV industry and the FAA are struggling and tussling over how to regulate the great profusion of unmanned and remotely piloted vehicles being flown to every purpose imaginable. The FAA seems paralyzed as the industry swirls with new developments and aircraft while practical regulation drags. Then something like this comes along.
Judging by the YouTube comments, people who view the video like it, but many aren’t sensitive to the risks. The small percentage of viewers who are seem to be somewhat appalled. Reluctantly, I have to side with them, even though I take a generally laissez-faire attitude toward drone flying in U.S. airspace. Ignore, for a moment, the FAA’s inadequate and arbitrary prohibition against drones being flown for commercial use at any altitude—this doesn't appear to be commercial use—or above 400 feet without a specific authorization. I don’t know if this flight exceeded that, but that doesn’t matter.
The FAA has basically decreed that below 400 feet, UAV—RC if you prefer—pilots are on their own and should follow the safety guidelines (PDF) established by Academy of Model Aeronautics. Judging by the footage, it’s doubtful that Stiglingh’s flight conformed to the letter of the AMA guidelines, much less the spirit. Forbes author Gregory S. McNeal worked himself into an absolute lather over the legalities involved, but that misses the larger point: never mind abritrary rules, what are the actual risks?
In my view, the risk is real enough, but not large. The AMA guidelines require a safety line to separate spectators from the aircraft and at night, the aircraft is supposed to be illuminated. It’s not clear if it was. Further, in this case, the drone was essentially intentionally flown into the equivalent of small-scale AAA. As a callow youth, I had a summer job setting up professional-grade fireworks for the local town’s 4th of July display. These ain’t bottlerockets. There’s a reason they call them mortars and they need to be handled carefully and isolated from external influences. The thought of a damaged drone pitching into a mortar rack is none too comforting. Maybe it wouldn't cause much trouble, but you'd want to avoid it if you could.
As is often the case, the display was fired from a barge offshore. Did the crew on or near the pyrotechnic barge know that a drone would be dodging their shots? Did the spectators sign up for the small risk of a damaged and/or out of control quad coming their way? I doubt it. I am just philosophically opposed to exposing unawares people to risk when the reward for doing so is minimal.
Maybe it’s a little soon to say that drones filming fireworks is a trend, but there was another example in Nashville over the weekend, albeit not as spectacular as Stiglingh’s work. While I admire the brass and creativity that went into this filming—not to mention the spectacular results—I just don’t think the risk of an equally spectacular disaster is a worthy tradeoff. Even if the risk is minimal, the optics are lousy. The UAV community is struggling against what I view as the FAA's overstatement of risks this technology represents, but we shouldn't give the FAA ammunition by doing stuff that's really stupid. I'm not sure Stiglingh's flight qualifies as that, but it strikes me as ill advised. I can just imagine the headlines if it had gone wrong. By the time the FAA got done, you'd need an ATP just to buy a quad.