With its legs and feet unfolded, the drone is about the size of a frying pan, and when it rises into the air, it’s loud, the four spinning propellers buzzing like a beehive. It hovers at eye level for a moment, and then the pilot sends it zooming straight up.
“I’m going to take some pictures of Main Street,” says Carol Seitz, professional photographer and recently certified drone pilot, as she maneuvers the device by means of the controller plugged into her iPhone. We’re standing in the Phoenicia Park, which is a public space and currently unpopulated except for the two of us, and therefore a legal place to fly.
Seitz recently passed the FAA drone pilot licensing test, required for anyone using a drone for commercial use. Recreational users do not have to be licensed, but if they run afoul of the myriad regulations, hefty fines may be levied. It took Seitz two and a half weeks of studying eight hours a day to absorb all the necessary regs and learn how to read the maps and notifications she has to check before going out to fly — NOTAMs and METARs included.
The NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) system was put in place in 1947. Notices are filed with the FAA to inform pilots about potentially hazardous events occurring in a given area, such as helicopter landings, military exercises, airshows, parachute jumps, temporary obstacles. If a drone meets up with a helicopter, the ‘copter has the right of way.
Seitz unfolds a local aeronautical sector map, indicating obstructions such as mountains, towers, and turbines. The map is spattered with concentric circles that mark the airspace around airports. Each circle has a number, indicating the altitude of the airspace, which widens as the altitude increases. “Airspace around the U.S. is congested, but it’s also safe,” said Seitz. “It’s tightly controlled because there’s so much traffic.” She points out private airports in Hunter and Roxbury. A drone can’t fly within five miles of any airport without a waiver, which can be applied for only by a licensed pilot. In some places — most of midtown Manhattan, for instance — drone flight is prohibited. Other areas are restricted, meaning a waiver might be available to a licensed pilot through the FAA.
Then there are METARs, Meteorological Terminal Aviation Routine Weather Reports, complex reports issued hourly to analyze weather conditions that might affect flight. Seitz had to cancel our first interview appointment due to wind.
“You can’t fly at night without a waiver,” she said, “and commercial pilots can’t fly over people who aren’t involved in the operation.” She has been working for Ruth Gale Realty in Phoenicia, shooting their clients’ properties from the air to reveal the often spectacular settings of the homes. She doesn’t shoot weddings professionally but pulled out her drone to photograph a bride and groom sitting in a heart made of lilacs. Drone video is also in demand by filmmakers. “I can act as pilot on commercial shoots if the drone operator is not licensed,” said Seitz. “I’m making decisions while you’re operating, and you have to follow the regulations.”
Line of sight
Seitz’s drone is a portable that cost $800 and weighs less than two pounds. When folded up, it fits in a six-by-four-inch case. High-end commercial drones can have a nearly six-foot wingspan and run into the thousands of dollars.
Each time Seitz flies, she begins by performing a safety inspection, making sure all parts are intact as she unfolds the drone’s four legs and tilts down the feet. She sets it on the ground, plugs the controller into her cell phone, and calibrates the GPS in the two devices. On the phone’s screen, she can view what the drone’s built-in camera is seeing.
As the drone whirs upward, Seitz explains, “It has to remain in the pilot’s line of sight at all times. If it’s going beyond your visual distance, you have to have observers stationed along the route to keep it in view.” It’s illegal to fly above 400 feet. The controller warns the operator with a verbal message when the drone is approaching the altitude limit. By the time the device reaches that height, it’s a barely visible speck in the sky. Birds sometimes try to attack it.
Using the two levers on the controller, Seitz sends the drone up to hover over the park at an angle that gives a splendid view of Phoenicia, usually available only from the ridge overlooking the park. She presses a button on the controller to snap photos.
After about 10 minutes, the controller announces the battery is running low. Even if the pilot doesn’t guide the drone back to the ground, it will automatically return to the base so it doesn’t crash. A couple minutes later, we watch it land exactly where it took off. Seitz swaps in one of her three $80 batteries and sends the drone on another short flight, so she can take a picture of us gazing up at it.
After all, whether you’ve got a phone or a drone, what’s an afternoon in the park without a selfie?