NYT review of photo drone recommends illegal and unsafe behavior

This review really missed the boat on both law and safety issues for drones. Some of what it discussed is illegal (unfortunately – I think the present law against commercial use of UAVs is too strong). A lot of it is unsafe, or rather it will be unsafe in the hands of newbies who buy this expensive but very-easy-to-use piece of technology.    Review – The Phantom 2 Vision Photo Drone From DJI – NYTimes.com.

If you have the $1200 for one of these undeniably cool machines, and the interest, the best approach is simple: buy one, and give it to me.  More seriously, here’s some good advice about learning to do photography with these.  It’s written for photographers who fundamentally are not interested in the flying part, and it’s not nearly “sufficient” for safety, but it gives a good idea of what you are in for.

Here are two videos of idiots flying these vehicles and having nasty crashes.  After the break: my two exchanges with the NY Times about the article.

My initial letter complaining about the review:

To the Editor,

Your recent review of the Phantom 2, a drone for photography, should not have been printed in its current form. (“STATE OF THE ART Civilian Photography, Now Rising to New Level”)  It was full of unwise, dangerous, and, in the US, illegal advice. A three pound flying machine, with blades running at 12,000 RPM, will hurt the pilot or anyone else it hits. Dangerous advice in the article included flying over groups of people (it mentions weddings), flying at 1000 feet altitude, and flying by yourself. Commercial use is illegal. There was no mention of battery fires, precautions to avoid blade strikes, collisions, and many other safety issues that experienced radio control hobbyists know how to deal with.

Their response to me. I guess I touched a nerve.

Dear Dr. Bohn,

Thank you for your email. We understand your concerns, though we disagree with your claim that our article contained “unwise, dangerous, and, in the US, illegal advice,” and do not believe the anything you mention warrants a correction.

Kit Eaton’s article “Civilian Photography, Now Rising to New Level” provides a review of an available technology, which falls within the realm of duties with which The Times’s Business desk is charged. In the piece, we make a point of acknowledging that “regulations governing drones — whether for commercial use or by hobbyists — differ among countries and localities and are changing quickly.” Much as one of our duties as a newspaper is to keep readers informed of news and developments potentially of interest to them, it is our readers’ duty to act responsibly on that information.

That being said, Mr. Eaton’s admission that the DJI Phantom 2 Vision might be “the first camera-carrying drone you may want to own,” as well as his choice of the one word to sum up his experience with the device (“fun”), makes it hard to argue that his review doesn’t offer an implicit endorsement of its purchase.

Although we stand behind our article, your perspective and concerns are both valid, and perhaps warrant further discussion within our pages. We encourage you to submit a letter to the editor (letters@nytimes.com), though for obvious reasons we cannot guarantee that it will be selected for publication.

Thanks again for taking the time to write, and for your thoughtful engagement. We certainly appreciate it.

Louis Lucero II

Assistant to the Senior Editor

The New York Times

My long reply, laying out more evidence about safety and legality:

Dear Mr. Lucero,

Thanks for your fast response, and I will take your advice to write a letter to the editor.

I agree that the article in question  does have a caveat:  “regulations governing drones — whether for commercial use or by hobbyists — differ among countries and localities and are changing quickly.”  But it is highly misleading. Regulations are not “changing quickly” in most of the US, and in the few localities where they are changing, it is in the direction of tighter limits. Across the US, some of the behavior in the article is unequivocally forbidden by government regulation – and will remain so at least for the next several years. More important, in my mind, is the safety issue, which the article does mention while simultaneously recommending unsafe uses.  (Wedding photography and beyond Line-of-sight both raise huge safety issues.)

FPV and quadcopter  technology are great. I hope they will continue to progress fast. DJI has indeed done a great job of packaging several technologies in a way that is easy to use, and comparatively safe. But encouraging your readers to drop $1200 on illegal commercial use is something an editor should have caught. Of course, no product review is responsible for explaining all the things that can go wrong with a technology.  But the more unfamiliar or dangerous a technology, the more you have a responsibility to at least point readers to sites where they can learn more.

Two other relevant NYT articles, which DO discuss some problems with unmanned aerial photography technology:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/24/nyregion/still-unconvinced-home-buyer-check-out-the-view-from-the-drone.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/18/technology/drones-with-an-eye-on-the-public-cleared-to-fly.html?pagewanted=all

” we disagree with your claim that our article contained “unwise, dangerous, and, in the US, illegal advice”

Perhaps I should say “behavior that is forbidden according to current regulations of the Federal Aviation Administration.”  The FAA is being challenged in court, so we can quibble about whether it is “illegal.”

The relevant regulations for the entire United States, set by the Federal Aviation Administration, are:

1) No commercial use of UAV, except  by special waiver. (As far as I recall, only one waiver has been granted so far, in Alaska.)

Reference: http://www.faa.gov/about/initiatives/uas/uas_faq/index.cfm?print=go

which says “Currently, there are no means to obtain an authorization for commercial UAS operations in the NAS.”

Many professional photographers have begun to offer aerial photos, e.g. for real estate, which ignore this prohibition. They try to remain invisible, and many succeed. But if they become successful and conspicuous enough, the FAA sometimes shuts them down.

2) The article mentions flying above 1000 feet. Flying above 400 feet altitude is not illegal everywhere, but it is heavily discouraged.

http://www.faa.gov/news/fact_sheets/news_story.cfm?newsId=14153

Which among many other things says:

Model Aircraft

Recreational use of airspace by model aircraft is covered by FAA Advisory Circular 91-57, which generally limits operations to below 400 feet above ground level and away from airports and air traffic. In 2007, the FAA clarified that AC 91-57 only applies to modelers, and specifically excludes individuals or companies flying model aircraft for business purposes.

FAA guidance is available at: http://www.faa.gov/documentLibrary/media/Advisory_Circular/91-57.pdf  and  http://www.faa.gov/news/fact_sheets/news_story.cfm?newsId=14153

Enforcement of both rules is, to put it mildly, erratic and contentious. Personally, I think the FAA’s blanket prohibition on commercial activity is a mistake. Other countries are already taking a lead in experimenting and developing good uses of this technology. Nonetheless, these are the rules in the US and will remain in force at least until late 2015.

What about Unwise and unsafe?  Radio controlled vehicles cause minor to moderate injuries frequently, and, very rarely, fatalities. With something the size of the Phantom 2 a fatality is unlikely, fortunately, but injuries will be common.

Most problems with radio controlled aircraft in the past have come from inexperienced pilots who don’t know their limits, and don’t understand what they are doing. For example, flying “3rd person” and “first person” are quite different, and need their own practice. But although so-called “pilot error” is the biggest problem, any hobby-class radio controlled aircraft can fail at any time. Unlike manned aircraft, they have little redundancy.

Foolish and risky flying example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pU3a-94mfYk

From the article:

This drone is an intelligent, remote-controlled air vehicle that can fly far out of direct line of sight of its operator. It can record great video and photo stills from a thousand feet in the air over whatever “target” you can imagine.”

Fatalities: (http://www.rcgroups.com/forums/showthread.php?t=165885; http://www.stuttgarter-zeitung.de/inhalt.stuttgart-weilimdorf-folgenschwerer-unfall-mit-modellflugzeug.82ef0028-d125-4702-b43d-beaadce20b96.html;

http://www.rcgroups.com/forums/showthread.php?t=517499

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2413231/Roman-Pirozek-Jr-Man-decapitates-remote-control-helicopter.html

Other issues: privacy.

Most of these topics have been covered at one time or another on the pages of the NYT. I hope that you will continue to review new developments in UAV technology, but with appropriate caveats and without recommending dangerous behavior.

New technologies generally push social and legal limits, and this one is no exception. I appreciate the business section’s breadth of coverage of such issues.

Sincerely,  Roger Bohn

This is a contentious issue in the radio controlled hobby. For example some  newcomers who use these photo drones basically denying that any restrictions exist. “The FAA has no jurisdiction below 400 feet” is one nonsensical argument, for example. So I expect that lots of people will be upset by my letter, if it gets published. (My actual letter to the NYT is not shown here.)

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