Drone F.A.Q. – Farming & Photography

I’m asked a lot of questions about drones and drone photography. Here’s a few answers to F.A.Q:

What is the difference between a ‘drone’, ‘RPA’ & ‘UAV’?

None!

‘Drone’ is the commonly used name for pilotless aircraft.

R.P.A. stands for Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPAS stands for Remotely Piloted Aircraft System, which may also include other essential items, eg the controller; not just the drone itself).

U.A.V. stands for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle.

Different names – all referring to the same thing.

Some prefer to make the profession sound more sophisticated by scorning the term ‘drone’, but it’s very apt, as ‘drone’ means a continuous, low humming sound – and male worker bees, who operate on ‘programmed’ instincts rather than independent thought.

Not all drones have cameras attached – but being an aerial photographer, I can’t imagine why you’d want a drone without a camera!  (Yes, yes, I know innovative farmers are putting them to good use, soil mapping etc…)

Do drone pilots have to be licenced?  Do drones have to be registered?

Consumer drones are relatively new, so the laws governing the operation of drones are constantly evolving, worldwide.  The rules are complex and differ according to the size of the drone and what it is being used for – and vary between countries.

But the underlying aims of drone regulations are the same, worldwide:

  • Keep people safe on the ground – ie don’t fly too close (and preferably, never fly a drone directly above anybody’s head, even if well over the legal minimum distance).
  • Keep air traffic safe – stay well away from take off and landing places used by planes, helicopters, gyrocopters, gliders, balloons, hangliders and any other manned aircraft – and well away from their ascent and descent airspace.

Air safety authorities have very strict guidelines regarding minimum distances from people and manned aircraft (etc), in addition to minimum visibility distances.

For the most accurate and up-to-date information on rules governing drone usage, check the national aviation governing body in the country concerned. Which in Australia, is CASA – the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. It’s vital to note that the onus is entirely on pilots (including drone pilots) to ensure they keep abreast of rule changes.

You will need to be licenced to obtain insurance for drone-related activity – which is of course a ‘must have’, if you’re in business.

There’s a few factors involved in determining whether you need a licence to fly your drone but as a rough guide – if you are wanting to operate a drone weighing more than 2kg; or in towns/cities or near airports and helipads; or at night; or closer to people than 30m, you’ll have to be licenced.  If you’re on a sizeable farm or station well away from aviation landing facilities, and you want to fly a drone weighing less than 2kg on land you own, and you’re not being compensated (eg paid in cash or kind) for photos or videos produced, you won’t need a licence. But there are still restrictions on what you can do – no flying at night, above 400ft, or within 30 metres of people and buildings – etc.  Bear in mind that these are the drone operation rules that apply today – it could be a different story tomorrow.  Do your own preliminary research with the drone retailer and confirm details with the relevant civil aviation body. It’s vital to check exactly what applies in your circumstances.  ‘Ignorance is no excuse in the eyes of the law’, and the rules are strict to ensure the safety of other people and operators.

For security and safety reasons, in some countries there is a push for all drones above a certain weight (eg 500g) to be registered. Eg at point-of-sale, similar to the way identification details must be provided when purchasing prepaid SIM cards in Australia. All vehicles have to be registered – why not ‘vehicles’ in the air? Though small, there is great potential for disaster if a drone is mismanaged or worse, in the hands of someone intent on causing harm.  Compulsory drone registration would allow purchasers to be quickly identified rather than remain anonymous, as currently. So registration seems eminently sensible.

What privacy laws should drone photographers be aware of?

At present the laws protecting an individual’s right to privacy are way behind technology – such as drone cameras; and digital communication – such as social media. Particularly in Australia (parts of the EU have tighter laws.)

I have always run my business on basic ‘do unto others’ principles and have always encouraged other photographers to do likewise.

If you are relaxing on the beach, poking around your garden, or enjoying the peace and quiet of a national park, do you want some unidentified person pointing a drone camera at you? I certainly don’t – so that’s how I treat others.

Being professional doesn’t just mean following rules and regulations, it means using your head.

What costs are involved in drone photography?

At present full licencing costs more than $5,000 AUD (plus time studying). When added to the cost of purchasing a quality drone and acessories required to do a good job, the upfront minimum outlay sits around $10,000. Drone technology is rapidly improving so most commercial drone operators would be upgrading their equipment every year or so, to maintain competitive quality aerial photos and videos. So capital expenditure is ongoing.

Are drones hard to fly?  Is it hard to take good photos with a drone?

El-cheapo drones are very difficult to fly – more akin to the drones of old, which lacked sophisticated ‘fool proof’ software. Relatively speaking, basic manouevres with the latest DJI drones are a piece of cake, because the software is now so advanced – the motors are balanced automatically and the GPS tracks with precision. However – best-practice aerial photography & videography techniques do take a lot of practice to perfect.

Drone cameras are also improving in leaps and bounds. Just as on the ground, taking photos and videos from the air is as easy as pressing a button. But – taking good quality aerial photos and videos is not simple. As a quick scroll around YouTube will show – the internet is awash with dull-as-dishwater drone videography and photos which include the most fundamental of errors.

Two quotes from people I know spring to mind:

A university photography lecturer, “You can teach anyone the technicalities involved in photography. But it is very difficult to teach someone how to ‘see’ (what makes a good photograph), if they can’t.”

A drone retailer, “Anyone can learn to fly a drone. What’s really hard is teaching them how to take good photographs.”

It’s smart to first learn the principles of photography inside out and upside down on the ground, before becoming airborne. As it’s exceedingly inefficient learning basic photography at the same time as mastering drone operation. Plus – aerial photography involves an extra layer of difficulty. On the ground, many photographers scrape by on ‘get lucky’ right place/right time shots. But in the air, experience shows.

Any photographer wanting to create photos and videos that stand out from the billions online are on a lifelong treadmill of having to constantly improve (whether taking photos on the ground or from the air). Photography is an incredibly competitive business.

Outback drone photography - on OBE Organic's Adria Downs Station, Birdsville

Outback drone photography – on OBE Organic’s Adria Downs Station, Birdsville

I have been taking aerial photographs since 1988, and buying a drone was just a natural extension of what I’ve already been doing.  Given the outlay involved, aerial photography remains a costly business, even though hiring a helicopter may not be required.  (In the same way that professional digital photography is still expensive, though film is no longer purchased and processed.)  But I love the freedom of drone (and digital) photography.

I’m looking forward to taking my drone on the Ireland/UK ‘Paddock to Plate’ farm tour in July/August 2018 – to demonstrate drone photography to passengers and take photos of the tour group enjoying the farm tours.  It’s a great value tour as there is no extra cost involved for the extras – and I’m very much looking forward to the fun we are going to have!

I also run workshops on drones – drones in agriculture and drone photography: Drone workshop Details

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