Evogood.com It’s like they were made for each other. What better way to celebrate America than by flying a piece of controversial technology through an explosion? As Independence Day approaches, enterprising drone pilots will be hitting the skies to get the best footage of the colorful festivities. Last July 4, Jos Stiglingh stunned the Internet with a drone-shot video of what it looks like inside of a ring of fireworks—but such stunts will likely be more difficult to pull off this year. All of Washington D.C. has been declared a “no drone zone” by the FAA and some police departments around the country are outlawing them as well.Reasons, predictably, go back to safety. According to FAA regulations, most of the mandates for operating an unmanned aerial vehicle make using one at such an event a challenge, if not entirely impossible: You can’t fly a drone higher than 400 feet, through or above surrounding obstacles, and you have to be able to see it at all times (a difficult feat in a dark night amidst exploding lights). Of course, it’s not always possible to make sure event attendants are adhering to these rules.
“Someone brought a drone last year and flew it through the fireworks without asking and we didn’t even know until the video popped up online,” says Andrea Arnold, who’s a Senior VP of Public Affairs for Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp, which helps run the city’s July 4 event (one of the biggest firework displays in the country every year). She says while drones aren’t banned from the event, the FAA regulations are enforced. “We had one inquiry this year, one gentleman who asked about bringing a drone. We directed him to the FAA’s guidelines and told him what he couldn’t do, and he chose on his own not to bring his drone.”
Arnold says that while security at the event (which last year drew 280,000 people) doesn’t have any official recourse for checking on drone use, she’s certain if they notice people with drones, they’ll be asking questions. She also noted that “people who want to fly drones usually know to call and ask.” There is something of a loophole to local regulations, though. If drones aren’t entirely banned in an area and state or local governments are simply regulating their use, then the location you launch them from is what’s being outlawed—however, if you are outside that designated area and fly your drone toward the fireworks, well then… technically, that’s OK. As attorney and drone enthusiast Peter Sachs explains, though, there may be a safety zone that your drone cannot enter. These safety zones are determined based on the size of the fireworks. (Yet more reasons to check with your local fire or police department before going rogue and just flying into the explosions
Of course when talking about about drones and safety precautions, the same question continues to come up: How unsafe is it really? While pyrotechnician Mike Tockstein declined to offer how probable it was for a drone to hit a firework shell and shoot down to earth, marring potential human victims, he did call it “unlikely.” He says you should probably be more concerned about the fate of your UAV.
“It is more likely that the drone could get hit with a star flying out of the exploding shell at a high velocity,” he says. “The closer the drone is to the point at which the fireworks are exploding in the sky, the higher the probability of not getting it back after that flight.”
This is new and relatively unchartered territory for hobbyists, event organizers, and the FAA combined. But if you decide to throw caution to the wind (and, possibly, your drone into the garbage), there’s one thing you should absolutely do: Ask questions.
“Make sure it is OK with the pyrotechnician in charge of the display ahead of time,” says Tockstein. He says that in addition to safety reasons, whoever is in charge might be able to tell you the best route or spot you should pick to fly your drone. “I would probably let someone fly their drone through a display of mine,” he says, “but it would depend on the venue and logistics of the show site. Safety would be the determining factor. The rules I would lay down would be that the drone is not allowed to fly directly over the fireworks guns or the fireworks crew, and that the drone operator would be outside of the ‘fallout’ zone.”
“I will be flying and videotaping my town’s display this year as I did last year,” says Sachs, the attorney and drone owner. “I coordinate with the fire department and the police department by letting them know (as a courtesy) and I remain outside the safety zone at all times.” Sachs suggests you checking with all the requisite authorities (which includes the Coast Guard if the display is over water) ahead of time, and also warns against flying over large groups of onlookers.
“A drone pilot can obtain great video or photos or fireworks and still maintain safety first. They need only fly safely and responsibly at all times.” Sachs says, no matter how high the temptation, don’t fly a drone within a display. “That’s just a matter of being creative. In my mind, flying safely and responsibly take precedence over ‘getting the perfect shot.’”