Logan Campbell -- Logan@Aerotas.com
This past weekend, I was at the BottleRock music festival in Napa, California. Being a professional UAV pilot myself, it always piques my attention when I see UAVs being operated commercially. Every day at the festival, there was at least one UAV operating over the crowds. While we at Aerotas were not in any way involved with the UAV operations at this particular site, it provides an opportunity for us to weigh in on the commercial aspects of flying drones like this in public.
Drone Video Content
The aircraft used for these shots was a DJI Inspire 1 Pro with an X5 camera, and it was clearly operated by professionals. The above shots are smooth, well framed, and well edited. One technique likely used to get this quality of video is dual operator control, in which one person pilots the aircraft, and the other can focus exclusively on control of the camera. Regardless of whether this technique was used, the shots taken are impressive and do a good job capturing the event itself.
Drone Safety and Operations
If there is one criticism that we have for this operation, it is about safety. While the Inspire 1 is a well tested and reliable aircraft, unexpected crashes have been known to happen. Weighing in at 7.5 pounds with propellers spinning over 5,000 RPM, this aircraft could cause serious harm if it were to fail and hit someone. Despite the aircraft’s reliability, there are numerous single points of failure on the aircraft. If the power system, speed controller, or even a single propeller was to fail, the UAV would come crashing down on whatever is below it -- in this case, is a dense crowd of people.
This is a safety risk, but not one that is impossible to manage. The most important consideration is to have good operational and emergency procedures. Operational procedures will cover the inspection, testing, storage, and maintenance of the aircraft to ensure that potential errors, like battery defects, motor obstructions, or propeller chips are all identified and fixed before an operation takes place. Emergency procedures in an event like this would involve coordination with first responders and medical personnel to have a plan in the event of an accident. It would also be important to coordinate with emergency personnel so they are aware of exactly where and when the aircraft will be operating over people.
All of this does not eliminate the risk, but it does make the operation safer, and keeps the public safe in case something does go wrong.
Legality of Drones at Public Events
Even with the highest standards of safety, there is currently no possibly way that this operation was legal. Federal 333 exemptions and hobbyist community guidelines all agree that flying aircraft like this over unprotected crowds is both unsafe and illegal. Additionally, there were numerous manned aircraft operating in the near vicinity of the festival. Though none of them were ever dangerously close to the UAV, federal guidelines would mandate the immediate landing of the UAV when a manned aircraft is close.
Though this operation was definitely illegal, it appears that it was run professionally and safely, posing little risk to people on the ground or aircraft in the shared airspace. We hope that whoever was operating this aircraft was at least aware of the laws that they were breaking. Sadly, it is all too common for commercial operators to be completely unaware of the legal status of operations like this.
Recommendations for Commercial Drones at Public Events
The photos and videos taken from the air at BottleRock was impressive, and will be an amazing addition to all of the media generated from this event. However, it is important that the operators and organizers of the event are aware of the safety and legal risks that they are taking, and plan accordingly. While crashes of well maintained aircraft are rare, they are still possible, and every potential outcome should be planned for.
Logan is the founder and CEO of Aerotas. He graduated from Harvard Business School in 2015 and brings experience in a broad range of industries, including agriculture, real estate, and finance. A lifelong tinkerer and avid UAV enthusiast, Logan also has hundreds of hours of flight experience over a broad set of different UAV types.