Photographers are forever looking for inventive new techniques to help them get the most out of whatever it is that they’re trying to capture. Whilst for some, this is simply a matter of finding the best angles, for a select group of pioneering individuals and front-running companies, drones have emerged as being the most exciting new way to capture the perfect shot.
What’s particularly exciting is that this new practice of drone-aided photography is far from being limited to the super rich; as even reasonably priced commercial drones can still be fitted with high-quality cameras. This is allowing users to practice photography in an entirely new way.
For those professional photographers and cinematographers being granted permission to use drones in their work, the opportunity has arisen to show familiar settings and in an entirely new, and utterly breath-taking light. Often, this approach has meant that sites which have stood for centuries are only now being witnessed from certain perspectives.
Amongst the real pioneers of this new method of photography is Amos Chapple, who’s been using a drone to capture the world for a number of years. Chapple’s ‘Air’ series captures some of the world’s most iconic sites from previously impossible angles, and with staggering results.
Whether capturing a sleepy, snow dusted Saint Petersburg, the neatly arranged streets surrounding Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia, or the deprivation of Mumbai’s slums, Chapple’s images have brought the world to life in a truly innovative way.
In light of photography’s constantly evolving technological development, and the recent national attention that Chapple’s work has gained, we spoke to him about his experience of drone photography, and how he’s seen the practice developing in the time since he first started using the technique.
Why did you decide to start using a drone in your photography?
I think every photographer has had those moments when they think “if I was just a few metres higher up, this would be amazing…”
You’ve taken some astonishing drone photographs over time, what is your favourite, and what is your favourite place to photograph in this way?
My favourites are all the early pictures I shot in Saint Petersburg. I was taking pictures I knew had never been done before and no one minded my doing it, not even the police! It was an incredible period.
Image provided courtesy of Amos Chapple
How do you feel that the field of drone photography is progressing, and do you think that increased regulation will pose a threat to this?
It’s certainly progressing quickly but I don’t feel this is necessarily a good thing. The golden age of drone photography was from 2013 to 2014, now it doesn’t have the excitement it had before. Drones are a nuisance now, where in the beginning they were something of a wonder.
What are the main challenges to taking photos with drones; have you ever lost control of your drone, or had it risked by adverse weather?
The main challenge is always the weather, the more iffy the weather the better the photo, but if the weather’s too wild you can’t fly.
I’ve crashed two drones, one had a propeller fly off, the other I think had a “flyaway” malfunction. I was using an unfamiliar camera on that second one and I think the Wi-Fi must have somehow been activated, causing interference with the controller.
Image provided courtesy of Amos Chapple
Are some countries more accepting than others of drone photographers?
Now it’s more about which countries don’t have the need for drone laws. I’m very excited to get into countries like Kyrgyzstan, and explore more of Armenia before they too start to impose laws.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to use drones in their photography?
Just don’t be a nuisance. Keep away from people & don’t run risks. You represent a group of people & every bit of bad publicity makes things harder for the rest of us.
As well as individual photographers utilizing drones in their profession, a number of new agencies have emerged to make use of UAVs’ ever-evolving capabilities, and the opportunities that they offer in both stills photography and in cinematography.
One such company working in this field is Skyvantage, a UK company specializing in UAV enabled filming and photography. With permission granted from the Civil Aviation Authority, and BNUC-S certified UAV pilots, the company produce world-class aerial imagery, and offer a perspective that is noticeably different even to that shot using traditional aerial filming methods.
We spoke to the company’s managing director, Toby Pocock, about both how and why Skyvantage use drones in their profession:
What unique advantages are offered by using a UAV in cinematography?
Naturally, obtaining an aerial perspective gives you so many more creative possibilities. It can also provide locational context, which isn’t achievable from most ground based shots. As a drone can act as a giant dolly/tracking rail, it can heighten the production values significantly. The drone is also far quicker and easier to set up than tracking rails and dollys, so you can film and get shots quickly without any preparation.
Are there legal limitations on where and what you are allowed to film?
Yes, you always require landowner’s permission to fly a drone over their land. You need 50m in all directions clear of any cars, roads, structures or people unless they are deemed under your control. Various no-fly zones exist in the UK including most of London. To fly in these areas requires liaison and permission from the CAA and sometimes other authorities too.
Could you tell me a little about the drone you use, and the advantages it offers in filming?
If fly with a DJI S800 EVO. It is a 2 man system which is normally vital for achieving great shots. Retractable landing gear so that 360 pan operation is possible and real time downlink so that we can see what we are filming on the ground. A decent gimbal - I use Zenmuses also make for a smooth shot. I film with a Panasonic GH4 which is a great camera for aerial filming as it is small but films beautifully in 4k.
The common idea of drone photography is that a skilled user operates the drone from below using remote control, but what about one that automatically does all the work for you, or even follows you around?
The Lily, known by many as the ‘Selfie Drone’ is able to just that, and is aimed at being a new alternative to mounted cameras such as those made by GoPro, which are hugely popular amongst extreme sport enthusiasts and athletes.
Using a tracking device to gauge their position, the Lily drone films its owner as they move, and travels with them in pre-selected manner, whether alongside, behind, in front, or even continuously circling them. It’s able to film 20 minute periods of activity in full HD, can travel at up to 25 miles per hour, and is also fully waterproof. Working the drone is simple too; users need simply turn it on, check that its eyes are glowing blue, throw it in the air and Lily automaticaly takes care of the rest. Take a look at this video of the Lily drone in action:
Picture stories from the whole wide world
European cities photographed from a drone by Amos Chapple, in pictures.
Remote Pilot Qualification
Lily Drone Camera
For a number of enthusiasts and professionals alike, drone building and design is far from limited to the hands of commercial enterprises, and is something which all can hope to become involved in for themselves. Often all that's needed is a 3D printer, a little know-how, a steady hand and an internet connection.
These DIY drones rely heavily on open source software - that which is shared freely with the public by its creator - allowing them to be reproduced, studied, or crucially changed by anyone and everyone with a desire to.
We spoke to Ivan Gayton, the GIS and Technological Innovations officer at Medecins Sans Frontieres, about how open source software can be used to create DIY Drones. He says that an original UAV design that he’s developed would not have been possible without the combined work of countless contributors from around the world. He also believes that it’s only through small contributions from lots of people that such advanced technology can become freely available to all.
As well as being a lot of fun, the humanitarian worker turned drone developer says that drone technology could play a crucial role in helping people in the developing world, as open source guides empower them to build their own, and use them to map the areas where they live. Due to this belief, he’s contributing to the field with his own open sourced design for a drone, made of parts that can be printed from a commercial level 3D printer. In his words he’s aiming to create:
“a low cost, open sourced UAV that anyone can build, even in low resource settings”
For Ivan Gayton, the solution isn’t sending in emergency response teams with expensive equipment to save those in need, it’s about people helping themselves with the use of drones.
“Because most of the work that I’m doing is in the open source world, and there are enough people doing it in that world, it’s actually plausible that this could be democratized, and put in the hands of Congolese and Bangladeshi citizens”
Gayton’s drone design makes use of the cheapest materials available to him, in order to expand the number of people who can use them. We ask if he sees his drone as ever becoming a competitor to commercial drone companies:
“I’m after empowering people in Sub-Saharan Africa, with something which isn’t as going to be as slick and cool and work straight out of the box... that’s not the market I’m after, I’m after people who want to be mapping from a 200 pound drone”
With materials like insulation foam, bamboo and elastic being used in his drone designs, Gayton jokes that his own quadcopter drone is known as ‘The Ghetto Quad” amongst his peers.
Ivan Gayton’s overarching humanitarian ambition for drones is to use them to map areas of the world that currently aren’t. Maps assist greatly in emergency relief efforts, allowing emergency responders data with which to base their response, as well as giving possible clues to disease outbreaks and vulnerable areas. To this end, Gayton is involved in MSF’s Missing Maps Project, seeking to map the developing world using volunteer mappers’ images to assist those in need.
“You’re really going to save lives if you get this mapping done before the disaster, so as part of the Missing Maps Initiative, we’re trying to proactively map vulnerable areas, so when things go wrong, we’re ready”.
Whilst experts, enthusiasts and commercial companies have been busy creating DIY drones for a number of years, institutions around the UK are also now offering students the knowledge and experience to contribute to this thriving new industry. From September 2014, in the Institute of Mechanical Engineers’ Unmanned Aircraft System Challenge, UK students were tasked with building a drone capable of carrying out a representative humanitarian mission.
Judging took place in July 2015, and a team from Southampton University, who successfully created a fixed-wing drone capable of autonomous flight, won the competition. We spoke to the team’s captain, Michael Ladhams, about the challenge of building a fully functional drone.
Firstly, how well did your UAV perform in the challenge?
We managed to take off autonomously, and were able to drop two payloads within 25 metres of their targets. As the UAV appeared to have swung off course on the way to the third point, the judges feared that we’d lose it and ordered that our safety pilot take control. As it was flying autonomously, we'll never know whether it would have made it to that third point.
How much of a challenge was it to build a UAV, and do you think that a wide range of people will be able to build them in the near future?
We built our UAV with the knowledge that we’ve picked up from 3 years of an engineering course, with minimal guidance needed along the way. Certainly, far more people could build a UAV, they’re becoming far more affordable, and people are building them as a hobby.
Photo / Image provided courtesy of Michael Ladhams
Do you have any concerns about the wide availability of drones, and their potential to be used maliciously?
UAVs have existed in the form of model aircraft for a long time, which are essentially the same. People have long feared the malicious use of aircraft, so in this way, drones are no different. However, with their capacity for autonomous flight and their ability to drop payloads, they definitely offer some new capabilities for misuse.
There are a lot of companies at the moment talking about widely incorporating UAVs into public places, do you feel that this is a reasonable expectation?
From our experience, I can’t see how they’re going to justify that these UAVs will be safe, we’ve come across so many unexpected safety problems.
How do you feel about current safety regulations, are they tough enough?
It’s a difficult one, everyone can see that there are safety concerns, and it would be reassuring to see more in place; but at the same time, we’ve had to get around a lot of CAA regulations to build our UAV, and we don’t want to see their commercial applications limited by over-regulation.
Do you feel that your UAV, and others in the competition, could have real-world applications?
Definitely. When we saw the situation after the Nepalese earthquake, we were all sure that drones similar to ours could help people in need. The main challenges are to increase their range and overcome the safety concerns that we’ve come across; once this is the case, there are definitely real-world humanitarian uses for these UAVs.
The right of individuals to live a free and uninterrupted private life is protected by laws around the world, with Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stating:
“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation”
The protection of our privacy is one of our fundamental freedoms, but has come under threat in recent years from unmanned aerial vehicles. Often equipped with high-resolution cameras and able to hover just about wherever their operators want to fly them, they offer an easy way to survey private property.
Whether its individuals, companies, governments or law enforcers who are operating them, the fact is that drones are a very effective, relatively cheap and easy method of surveillance. With the opportunities they provide to commercial operators and police, as well as to individuals with nefarious intentions, drones are fast becoming a serious privacy concern to people across the globe.
As is often the case, celebrities were amongst the first to suffer from this new method of intrusion, and the ease with which drones allow both civilians and paparazzi to film them within their own property.
Miley Cyrus posted a video of a drone hovering over her house in 2014, whilst Selena Gomez, Halle Berry and Jennifer Garner also reported being photographed surreptitiously by drones around the same time.
Following these incidents, and as a response to the threat to privacy which drones pose, legislation was introduced in California in 2014 to ban the use of drones for capturing images or recording the voices of people who did not consent to it. This was aimed at preventing the severe harassment and privacy intrusions that many celebrities fell victim to. However, many - such as former celebrity director of security Sean Burke - have commented since that the Paparazzi already routinely break the law to get the best shots, so legislating may only make a limited difference to their activities.
In a further response to the threat of drone-aided privacy invasions, Californian policymakers passed a bill in August 2015 prohibiting any use of drones over private property, apart from that between 350 feet, and the legal limit of 400 feet in the air. The bill intends to make flying over people’s land a crime in the same way that driving or walking over private property now is. State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, who authored the bill, explained that:
“People should be able to sit in their backyards and be in their homes without worrying about drones flying right above them or peering in their windows”
In the UK as well, drones have proven to pose a significant threat to privacy, as well as regularly breaking numerous other laws. As members of Europe, UK citizens are protected by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which stipulates that:
“Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence”
However, according to a House of Lords Internal Market, Infrastructure and Employment Committee inquiry of late 2014, this right is routinely denied to British people as a result of nefarious drone use. As part of this enquiry, the Lords took testimony from Chief Inspector Nick Aldworth of the Metropolitan Police.
Aldworth reported that drones infringed privacy rights in a number of ways, and were often used to hover outside windows and film people, as well as to embarrass them by posting pictures online.
Chief Inspector Aldworth also made clear our current inadequacies in dealing effectively with the problem.
“We have undoubtedly seen it flown in controlled airspace, we have undoubtedly seen it used to harass people, and we have seen it flown in contravention of the air navigation orders, so I think that concern arises by the fact that there is clearly a means of offending that we do not seem to be able necessarily to address quickly.”
Professor Duncan Bloy, a Media Law lecturer at Cardiff University, is an expert on Privacy Law, and told us his thoughts on how drones could interfere with our rights, as well as where he sees the law as standing on UAVS.
First, we asked whether drones flying over private property in the UK could be breaching our privacy rights.
“There is plenty of case law to support the view that when on private property a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. So I would have a reasonable expectation of privacy when sunbathing in my garden.”
“However, that privacy protection would disappear if there is a public interest justification for 'invading' my privacy. That may be to capture me committing an illegal act such as trading in drugs on my property.”
“So logically someone on a public highway that takes pictures of me in my garden without permission is breaching my privacy rights under Article 8. Taking that one step further if a drone is flying 'lawfully' overhead then it could be similarly argued that the air is a public 'skyway' and that gives no rights to photograph private property unless there is an overriding public interest. The trouble is we need a court case to determine that principle.”
Bloy also told us that the question of whether the air above someone’s property is considered as part of their property is also important in determining whether an infringement has taken place. If the air above is public property, those flying drones could be seen as having a right to be there, whereas if the air is private property, flying above it could be categorised as trespassing.
When in a public place, however, the legal expert tells us that a drone will not be likely to infringe privacy rights, as, in his words “adults in public places are fair game”.
Perhaps drones’ ability to capture people when on their own private property is a necessary downside of their amazing filming potential, or perhaps this threat to our privacy is more significant.
As more and more people become drone owners, we could see our privacy rights infringed far more frequently, leading to tougher regulations like those which have been introduced in California. Conversely, people could learn with time how to correctly use their drones, and their misuse could be eradicated. Only time will tell.
Celebrities Clip Wings Of Paparazzi Drones (October 2014) Sky News.
Drone no-fly zone in California will stifle innovation, say industry advocates (August 2015) the Guardian.
European Court of Human Rights
European Convention on Human Rights.
Consumer-level drones are becoming more capable all the time; they’re getting smaller, smarter and stronger, as well as far easier to control. Some are able to relay images from the air at real-time, whilst others are strong enough to carry significant weights, and can be modified to release these at opportune moments. Whilst these drone capabilities facilitate a great deal of positive uses, they have emerged in recent years as increasingly being used by criminals in their illicit activities.
One way in which lawbreakers are seeking to use drones is to deliver drugs and weapons into prisons. Whilst any successful attempts will never make it as far as the press, there have been reports emerging from around the world covering instances where these drops have failed.
One of the earliest reports of an attempt to use a drone to enable criminality took place in South Georgia in 2013. Following a guard reporting seeing a ‘helicopter’ drone flying overhead, a search was initiated, finding a car carrying four people, pounds of tobacco and the drone in question. In this case, the incident was seen as a novel attempt by criminals, but in the time since, these drops have become more of a frequent concern to prison authorities both in the US and elsewhere.
In March 2015, a drone carrying Class A drugs, a knife, a screwdriver and mobile phones crashed into a razor-wire defence on top of the prison walls at HMP Bedford. The drone in question was a DJ1 Phantom 2, and the authorities were unable to trace the person controlling it. The DJ1 can be flown around 2600ft from its operator, showing one of the obvious advantages to criminals with using this method.
In a similar incident occurring in July 2015, a drone successfully dropped cannabis, heroin and tobacco into a packed Ohio prison yard. After a scuffle between a number of inmates, and the guards using pepper spray to break this up, the drugs were recovered. However, the drone itself escaped unharmed. A spokeswoman commented after the event that this was not the first time that an Ohio prison had faced problems as a result of UAVs.
Failed attempts have also alerted authorities to drones being used by criminals smuggling drugs across the border between the USA and Mexico. Early in 2015, one was found crashed in a Tijuana car park near the US border with Mexico carrying more than 6 pounds of methamphetamine, August 2015, two men pleaded guilty to charges of flying 28 pounds of heroin across the US border, after being spotted by Border Patrol cameras.
When we spoke to professor David Dunn, an expert in international politics and head of the University of Birmingham’s Department of Political Science and International Studies about the threats associated with drones, he iterated just how much drones could facilitate criminality:
“The potential use of drones for criminals is great, they provide eyes and ears over a potential target for criminality that are less risky and less expensive than deploying lookouts.”
Dunn explained that the wide-ranging capabilities of drones mean that they offer a whole host of potential uses for lawbreakers:
“If you wanted to steal farm machinery or livestock, for example, you could use the infrared element of a drone to see where the animals are, or indeed where the humans are. You could also monitor around the entrance and exit to see if the police were on their way. All of this information could easily be relayed back to a small team of people, who could use that knowledge to their advantage. In other instances, you could look at where security guards are in a factory at any one point, and use it to effect a robbery.”
“This technology offers criminals a new level of technological sophistication which allows them to operate their business much more cheaply and effectively than they currently do.”
From what we've seen, the concerns regarding the use of drones in criminal activity are far from unjustified. The unfortunate truth is that, as is the case with many influential new technologies, drone developments do create opportunities to develop novel means of criminality.
Crooks get creative to smuggle contraband. (November 2013)
Ohio prison yard free-for-all after drone drops drugs (August 2015) CNN.
Drone carrying drugs crashes near US-Mexico border (January 2015)
Mexico Drug Trafficking: Drone Carries 28 Pounds of Heroin Across Border To US. (August 2015) International Business Times.
Drone carrying drugs and weapons crashes into prison in smuggling bid (March 2015) The Telegraph.