Drones and Fireworks: Is This Really Stupid?

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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 preferpilots are on their own and should follow the safety guidelines (PDFestablished 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.

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Comments (29)

"I just don't think the risk of an equally spectacular disaster is a worthy tradeoff. ". I agree.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 6, 2014 2:54 PM    Report this comment

Yes agree, the risks outweighed any benefit to any individual or group. It seems that the proliferation of UAV or drones or RC aircraft or whatever you want to call them has spawned a proliferation in applications that are designed to make people money. This will, of course spawn a further proliferation, and so on. I can see a not too distant time where there are about as many UAV's floating around, B004, as there are piloted aircraft above. Maybe not as many, but a heckuva lot... There will likely be little or no control over their use as to implement any controls would overwhelm agencies like FAA and their counterparts in other jurisdictions. So the likely scenario is lots and lots of uncontrolled toys floating above us, all of which are subject to the laws of gravity. Adding the laws of chance and the quality of chinese manufacture then there is a very high likelihood that one of these things is going to run amok and land on someone's head. Add to the mix flights through spectacular - and very risky - environments full of AAA like that described above and the likelihood increases monumentally. I say that these things should be controlled: that anybody considering using one for commercial gain - including publication of any footage filmed from one - needs to be licensed as competent to operate it and aware of the "rules of the air" just like me, a PPL.

Posted by: Phil Faidley | July 6, 2014 8:22 PM    Report this comment

I observed a quad copter at a municipal fireworks show in suburban Denver Friday. It was equipped with dual red lights and dual green flashing lights that made it clearly visible. I found it an annoyance at best, like a bug in your line of sight you just can't swat.

The operator didn't fly it into the fireworks, instead keeping it over our heads a hundred feet up or os. Instead of enjoying the show, i kept wondering what would happen if the thing was damaged and came down in the crowd.

About 10 minutes into the 30 minute show, he brought it down, making it easy for any interested cop to follow it right to him. Apparently none were interested as it went back up again 10 minutes later. A few light aircraft flew over during the show as well, at what seemed to be a nice safe height. Whether those pilots were taking an equal risk with the safety of the crowd is debatable, but as the whole thing took place within the KBJC class D airspace, I doubt it.

Posted by: Mike Conde | July 6, 2014 9:15 PM    Report this comment

The 'laws of chance?' Hmmm.

If it was a stupid move, it sure was balanced by spectacular cheaply. Rivals million dollar CGI.

Spectators need to be aware, insurance premiums paid, no lights on the vehicle and keep it away from people, FAA keep out, and go for it. And if you're in a rush, go ahead and run, carefully, with scissors. I do.

I'm by no means a fan of ubiquitous flying toys, but done right, it looks like it can really augment frozen stares and craned necks everywhere. Like the song said, 'time to say goodbye' ...to past viewing experiences.

Posted by: David Miller | July 6, 2014 11:19 PM    Report this comment

The footage reminded me of long-ago (pre-911) flights, during which we'd orbit Independence Day fireworks displays - at detonation altitude, but at a "safe" distance. Our airspeeds were much higher that those of the quad-copters, so we'd cover a much greater distance during the display interval of any given pyrotechnic device. The most vivid result was the ability to see that the explosions were not flat "lollipops," as they appeared to be when viewed from the ground, Rather, they were distinct spheres; their evolving shapes made kinesthetic by our relative motion at 100kts or so.

Even at our safe" distance from the displays, upwind turns would take us through the smoke-and-aroma-laden aerial byproducts. The sweet smell of gunpowder in the hot summer cockpit air added immeasurably to the unique pleasure of these rare summer flights. Knowing the local schedule of various communities' displays, we often could commute from one display to another, in time to take in a half-dozen of more events in one evening.

All of this was done with the knowledge of and helpful coordination of local ATC. In the post-911 environment, the presence of small aircraft in proximity to any fireworks display became considered to be a hazard to humans everywhere, and an obvious opportunity for unspecified terrorist acts. We (and lots of other local pilots) abandoned the practice.

In the posted video, the quad seems to be confined to the river corridor. Arguably not a threat to onshore viewers, but potentially a factor for the inevitable swarm of light passenger boats that congregate in the area near such displays. Somewhat lost in all of this risk-assessment, is the very real (although statistically minimal) personal injury risk presented by the fireworks themselves. Despite claimed adherence to "strict safety procedures and standards," every year we hear about injuries - sometimes fatal - caused by professional fireworks displays. I'm left to wonder how much risk the presence of a remotely-piloted quad added to the display portrayed in the video. I have no idea....

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | July 7, 2014 9:44 AM    Report this comment

Over the years a fairly substantial number of people have been injured and killed by public fireworks displays gone awry, so being near one is not risk-free, and I doubt the presence of a UAV ups the risk by any amount that is worthy of consideration.

On the other hand, as in anything that involves the public, perception frequently counts for more than reality. Whether flying a UAV or an airplane thought should always be given to how Joe Average Citizen is going to perceive your activity.

As far as the need for regulation of UAVs is concerned, I'm sticking to the position that watchful waiting is the right course of action. Writing a whole body of rules based only on "what if" scenarios is bad policy. Let UAV development & deployment proceed naturally and find out what really needs regulation before regulating.

Posted by: John Wilson | July 7, 2014 10:30 AM    Report this comment

In my opinion, you are greatly exaggerating the risks. The expended cartridges from these fireworks fall to the ground, and pose a greater risk than the possibility of a damaged drone. In any case, this video clearly shows that the drone was way out over the water, and thus posed little or no risk.

I'm sorry to say that more and more we are becoming a litigation ridden risk-averse society where we are attempting to eliminate all risk and woe betide you if you should, shock, horror, do anything that could possibly, in even the remotes sense, pose a risk.

I agree with another writer that public perception seems to count for more than actual reality, as another recent article illustrates, but rather than having some politician with an axe to grind, having no aviation background, much less knowledge, start demanding some knee-jerk reaction, let's see how these things develop.

Posted by: Adrian Ryan | July 7, 2014 10:47 AM    Report this comment

First of all, I don't know what it takes to set a drone on fire, but we wouldn't want to have a burning drone land on the roof of an old three-decker. Actually, there are a lot of places we wouldn't want a broken or incommunicado drone to hit. (BTW, fireworks look better against the dark contrast of the night sky instead of against the ground. Interesting, yes; better, no.

In the interest of general safety, how about embedding in each drone a transponder. Doesn't have to be on 1200, but some code that will set off my PCAS.

Posted by: Randall Wilhite | July 7, 2014 10:52 AM    Report this comment

Safety, legality etc. aside; I have to wonder what kind of damage his UAV suffered.

Posted by: Donald Purney | July 7, 2014 10:55 AM    Report this comment

I think we have enough regulation. The chances of the drone being hit or damaged were there but the chances that it would hurt someone or land on the firing barge were infinitely less. Was it a stupid thing to do? Yes but people do stupid things everyday, sometimes they get hurt or hurt others and then the police get involved. I am sure if there had been an incident where someone got hit by falling drone pieces the lawyers would have been lined up but for know can we be cautious on the side of freedom and forego more federal regulation.

Posted by: RODNEY HALL | July 7, 2014 11:38 AM    Report this comment

For now, it will be called unwise or irresponsible because of what might have happened. Only after someone is seriously hurt or worse by an errant drone falling into a populated area, will it be called a tragedy.

Posted by: Paul Curs | July 7, 2014 11:41 AM    Report this comment

Probably not much risk at all. Over water, and the drone appears to remain slightly ABOVE the canister level (that is, the level at which the canister explodes. The pretty part of the fireworks (the big shower of sparks) is extremely light material and almost no mass. Might cause minor damage to the paint of the drone (or small plastic parts), but not likely to bring it down (although there is ALWAYS an element of chance).

In terms of causing issues for call for regulation, hey - how does it compare with this? http://www.core77.com/blog/object_culture/man_scares_the_living_crap_out_of_parkgoers_by_chasing_them_with_grim_reaper_costume_hooked_up_to_drone_27245.asp

Posted by: JAMES M KNOX | July 7, 2014 11:44 AM    Report this comment

First off, that was an amazing video. quite creative and well put together. After watching I think the greatest risk was to the drone for certainly there were a number of close explosions. Were it to get hit by an upward projectile both would be destroyed, but little ground damage resulting.

As to risk, y'all get into cars, airplanes, you take risks each and every day; planning for many, training to respond, but always know that there could be the moment when "something occurs" that you had no control over, that is the risk of life. I don't think the FAA needs to do anything specific about this one moment nor needs to alter its current approach to drones other the eventually craft a reasoned set of regulations. It might include "thou shalt not fly a drone into fireworks", but till then the operator is the one most at risk to either losing his/her craft or getting sued for damages if caught when "something occurs".

Put it another way, you can't regulate stupid, only try to contain it.

Posted by: Justin Hull | July 7, 2014 1:05 PM    Report this comment

I thought the grim reaper halloween prank was hilarious, although it really scared the crap out of a bunch of people.

Liked when the dog finally brought it down.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 7, 2014 2:10 PM    Report this comment

Hey, I love fireworks.... and that was about the most spectacular video imaginable! Thanks to Jos for sharing his artistry with us all. A skillful drone pilot, and film editor for sure. Maybe he will win awards and acclaim for his fine work instead of bureaucratic perdition. For all the nabobs worried about FAA oversight and falling drone pieces...... get a life. Our all knowing and all powerful government can crush anyone of you it chooses, when it chooses, without regard to your merit. Politics as usual in the "Land of the Free."

Posted by: John Langenheim | July 7, 2014 2:16 PM    Report this comment

This one instance was impressive and interesting. Next year will be a whole lot more interesting when five or six hundred people try to do the same thing with varying degrees of competence and common sense.

Posted by: Richard Montague | July 7, 2014 2:22 PM    Report this comment

This is a great video from a drone. I was trained in the service in drone electronics and pulse modulation, or coding. Years ago hacking was very very difficult or impossible as codes were changed at random immediately before each flight right at the side of the drone. No one knew what the codes was not even the operator flying the drone. Only one person, set the code. The code was changed after each flight. If the drone did not first see the code in a certain time frame in order for it to accept the flight commend from the ground the engine would stop and a parachute would deploy.

YES, a parachute. All drones in those days had a parachute that would deploy in an emergency. When the chute deployed a ground would be applied to the engine system and the engine would stop.

I think the people on the ground who do not like this video are frustrated pilots who do not understand, or can see, the future of unmanned aircraft in the near and long term future.

I look forward to seeing more videos like these with different views of many things we see from a two dimensional view.

Posted by: Weldon West | July 8, 2014 12:09 PM    Report this comment

Contemptuously operating drones is dangerous and stupid.

"Frustrated" pilot.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 8, 2014 10:45 PM    Report this comment

"I look forward to seeing more videos like these with different views of many things we see from a two dimensional view."

Me, too. I hear those guys that got arrested yesterday in New York have some good footage of the GWB and a police helo in pursuit.

Sorry, I couldn't resist. But you can't make this stuff up.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 9, 2014 9:09 AM    Report this comment

I think that like CB radios of the past the volume of violators will overwhelm most, if not all, enforcement attempts. However, things that may fall out of the sky are more dangerous than words being transmitted thru it.

Posted by: STAN TEW | July 9, 2014 4:58 PM    Report this comment

Brings to mind Alfred Hitchcock's famous classic where a flock of drones terrorize the small town Bodega Bay.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 9, 2014 5:37 PM    Report this comment

They are toys a lot safer than skateboards. How many hundreds of thousands of bones have been broken due to skateboards, putting a great strain on overworked health services, not to mention employers having to put up with no shows and then limited working ability? And then think of the aural pollution from their nasty plastic wheels which damage carefully carved and fitted stone paid for by the public purse. Not to mention the anti-social sub-culture, glorifying dirty, ill fitting and ugly clothes which go with it. The FAA should really crack down on skateboarding, (after all they do fly before they crash) rather than flying cameras.

Posted by: John Patson | July 10, 2014 2:41 AM    Report this comment

Normally aspirated skateboards do not climb higher than 100'ft. We're taking drones climbing thousands here. Although I agree about the filthy clothes and nasty attitudes subcultured, arrogant, anti-social crowd threat. Almost as bad as sports pilots.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 10, 2014 4:24 AM    Report this comment

When I hurt myself due to my own doing, it is my fault and I got what I deserved.

However, if someone I don't know and have no control over is doing something that I consider questionable, and it causes me to be injured or inconvenienced, even if the event that occurred had a one in a million chance of happening, that would piss me off. Especially if there was no critical reason for the person to be doing that something.

The video is cool. But had the drone gone out of control after being hit by shrapnel and injured an innocent party what would you all say?

Posted by: STEPHEN EGOLF | July 10, 2014 9:42 AM    Report this comment

UAVs are fun but, on a flight from Arkansas to MS on 07-05 I, encountered a UAV but it was at 1700 ft AGL and went a 100 ft or so under my wing. Then at lunch today I, was telling a friend who just got back from a trip looking to buy an airplane, and he had almost the same thing in central Ms. On day someone will hit one.

Posted by: david kelm | July 10, 2014 11:26 AM    Report this comment

Steve, unfortunately I have heard the non-flying public use the exact same argument against GA.

But, I completely agree that drone operators should be held liable for damages. Somehow, they will have be brought from the skateboard mentality into the FAA mentality. Otherwise, ditching in the Hudson could become a much more common occurrence (i.e. from drone strikes).

Posted by: A Richie | July 10, 2014 2:56 PM    Report this comment

"into the FAA mentality."

Well, let's not get carried away here. How about the GA mentality?

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 10, 2014 6:01 PM    Report this comment

Yes, I could agree with that Paul. It would be great if they thought like most GA operators. I was thinking more about drone operators having to rigidly follow FAA rules. My writing skills are greatly exaggerated.

Skateboarders usually don't give a darn about following any so-called rules at least for the ones I have encountered. The drone crowd is currently in this mindset. It will take some effort to squeeze them into recognizing and complying with rules of the air. But, like a previous poster said, it may end up like the CB craze of the 70s thus overwhelming any attempt to regulate it. Let's hope not.

Posted by: A Richie | July 11, 2014 2:56 PM    Report this comment

Here's the worst case: This comes to the attention of Congress after some particularly egregious incident. I hope we can avoid this.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 11, 2014 4:02 PM    Report this comment

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