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Community : Top Stories Last Updated: Jul 9, 2014 - 8:29:34 AM


Camera drones offer captivating new perspective
By Elizabeth Bush
Jul 3, 2014 - 4:19:20 PM

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Peter Finger, Photographer Peter Finger got a bird’s eye view of Daniel Island while using his new Phantom 2 Vision Flying Camera.
Professional photographer Peter Finger remembers vividly the first time he got a bird’s eye view of Daniel Island while using his new Phantom 2 Vision Flying Camera.
“It was absolutely ‘Wow!’” said the Daniel Island resident. “And it’s gotten even better.”
That was four months ago, when he purchased his first remote controlled “quadcopter” device to record aerial photographs and video. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) refers to the small machines as unmanned aircraft systems, but in the general public realm they are commonly called drones. Finger has since added another, more updated version to his repertoire.
Last week, he adeptly demonstrated how the system works while setting up in a grassy field near the Daniel Island Real Estate Sales Center. The sci-fi looking contraption weighs just about three pounds and sounds like a furious swarm of bees when activated. With the push of a button, it took off effortlessly from the ground and began soaring towards the sky.
“The green light indicates you’re going forward,” he explained. “…I can rotate the camera up or down.”
Four tiny sets of propellers whirled overhead taking the camera up 50 feet, then 75 feet, then 100 feet, the altitude Finger typically uses to capture his images.
“I can’t even see it if it goes above 180 or 200 feet,” added Finger, noting that higher altitudes often mean seeing fewer details in the landscape below.
In his hands, a screen from a mini iPad connected to his remote control displayed the images captured along the way. First the grass below, followed by the tree tops, and then, in the distance, the Wando River came into view.
“You can see the bridge,” Finger continued. “I can rotate it around so you can see the perspective of everything. There’s the dock…I can hover high and then zoom over it.”
A feature known as a “gimble” on the device keeps the camera stabilized and prevents jittery images. In addition, an integrated global positioning system (GPS) monitors where the drone is at all times. It will alert its user when exceeding safe altitudes, as well as if it is nearing an airport (where use is prohibited). The device generates full HD video and 14 megapixel still images.
“It’s pretty amazing stuff!” exclaimed Finger.
What are the rules?
Unfortunately, the rules governing use of camera drones are not as clear as the photographic images they capture. According to the FAA, a model aircraft is defined as a device limited to 55 pounds or less that is operated purely for recreation and hobby purposes. Currently, FAA approval is not needed for private use, but civil operators and public entities, such as law enforcement agencies, must obtain a Certificate of Operation. The agency advises users to not fly above 400 feet or within 5 miles of an airport, to keep it within the operator’s line of sight, and to avoid densely populated or congested areas (neighborhoods would likely fall under this category, according to City of Charleston Police Detective Ed Gracely). Additionally, use is prohibited in national parks.
On June 23, 2014, the FAA released a statement outlining the “Do’s” and “Don’ts” of flying model aircraft and offered a reminder that the devices are not to be flown “for payment or commercial purposes.” In March, a National Transportation Safety Board judge reportedly ruled that the FAA had no authority to prohibit commercial use, but the FAA is appealing the decision.
“There is a court (case) pending over who…has jurisdiction over and can regulate drones,” said Det. Gracely. “If the jurisdiction goes to the FAA, then they cannot fly less than 1000 feet.”
More detailed rules and guidelines for using smaller, lightweight devices for commercial endeavors are expected to be announced by the end of 2014. The FAA admits the increased use of unmanned aircraft devices has been challenging but acknowledges that they must be safely integrated into the National Airspace System.
Drones and privacy?
Then there is the issue of privacy. The FAA restricts drone operation in populated areas and limits use around spectators and crowds. But what about when a device flies over your home, capturing still photographs or videos? A group of Daniel Island residents asked that same question recently in a series of posts on a “Daniel Island Moms” Facebook page. The string of comments began when one resident discovered a camera drone “hovering over” her house. Others posted as well about seeing a similar device near homes in the Smythe Park area.
“To answer the question about the expectation of privacy from the air, there is none,” said Det. Gracely. “However, if the purpose of surveillance from the air is to seize evidence from a law enforcement perspective, then a warrant may be required. But just for the purpose of surveying the land and other commercial data gathering, no expectation of privacy applies.”
Det. Gracely did note that there are laws in place regarding acts of eavesdropping, peeping and voyeurism, but it is unclear at this point if or how they would apply specifically to drone use.
Based on the law (SC 16-17-470), it is illegal to view another person through windows, doors, or other like places, on or about the premises of another, for the purpose of spying upon them or to invade their privacy (certain exceptions apply). Additionally, the term “peeping tom” also includes any person who employs the use of video or audio equipment to conduct the aforementioned activities. “Voyeurism” involves creating photographs, videos and other recordings of a person without the person’s consent for the purpose of arousal or sexual gratification, while the person is in a place where he or she would have a reasonable expectation of privacy. If someone suspects they have been a specific target of an unmanned aircraft camera and have reasonable suspicion that a certain individual has spied on them, Det. Gracely suggests calling the police. If you see an unmanned aircraft system flying in a particular area, and want to make sure it is allowed, he recommends calling the FAA office in Columbia at (803) 765-5931.
To better define the issue of privacy as it relates to unmanned aircraft systems, Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts has introduced legislation known as The Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act. The measure is still under consideration.
Safety first
For Finger, safety has always been a top concern and he is careful to operate his quadcopter with the utmost caution.
“For me, plain and simple, it’s just another photographic tool,” he said. “I don’t have to get up on a ladder. To shoot a group shot, I can send this up!”
Using the camera drone, Finger added, produces unique images that would otherwise not be possible to obtain. Unmanned aircraft systems have captured videos of a volcanic eruption, a circular view of the top of a skyscraper, the close-up contours of a mountain range, and much more. And the technology of the devices continues to advance. For example, said Finger, new software is being developed that will “lock in” on a specific subject, such as a BMX biker who can be followed in a race. They are already being used to monitor crops, by alerting farmers when damages have occurred and whether or not additional supplies are needed.
“The applications are incredible,” Finger added.
Although Finger expects there are those who might misuse camera drones and potentially fly them in places they shouldn’t, such as at public events or near bridges, he is optimistic that the good the devices can do will outweigh the bad.
“There are many, many more benefits than the negatives, as far as I can tell,” he added. Common sense has to be involved.”
Finger is eager to see the new features developers have in store for the Phantom 2 Vision Flying Camera and other unmanned aircraft systems. In the meantime, he is content to enjoy the ride, while taking his love of photography to exciting new heights.

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