n 2009, I dropped out of my last year of film school to pursue the whole YouTube thing. Back then, drones weren’t a thing. It just wasn’t an option. But around 2012, a friend I met through social media was hooking up his Canon cameras and even his RED cameras to drones, shooting high-quality video. Building your own gigantic rig like that came at a price, but for me, the result was worth it. We were creating shots that no one had seen before. Now, that thing is accessible. So accessible. I don’t travel anywhere without one. But I’ve found that drones can be a crutch. Even a couple of years ago, I was still so excited by the technology that I was falling away from the actual narrative. I was relying too much on that type of footage, and it wasn’t connecting with the audience. That started hurting our videos. I was jumping in too fast and forgetting to capture the story we were trying to tell. So I took time to learn how to use the footage, how to balance it with our other footage. Because, in all our videos, I want to show as many perspectives as possible. Drones give us that. They’re part of our storytelling.
A GREAT VIDEO DRONE: THE IMPOSSIBLE TINY DJI SPARK
Folding arms mean that instead of carrying a backpack the size of an oil drum, you stash your drone in a jacket pocket or camera bag.
You’re watching your drone’s feed on your phone. See that rock ridge across the valley in front of you? Tap on it. The drone flies there, no joystick use required. Wave your hands to tell it to focus on you as you climb.
New TVs, monitors, and laptops start at 4K resolution. If you want to shoot future-proof video, modern drones are up to the same standards. Look for non-4K drones like the Spark to get upgraded soon.
New drones use a combination of GPS data, proximity sensors, and software to prevent crashes. Those systems have gotten much better. Yes, they’re still fallible, and crashes happen, but now, you can be sure that when you tell your drone to return, it’ll go around the patch of Douglas firs instead of through them.
Drone vocabulary: the gimbal
Without that rig attaching the camera to the hull, drone footage would be unwatchable shaking. The gimbal’s small motor senses aberrations from the horizon in three axes—pitch, roll, and yaw, as on an airplane—and shifts equally in the opposite direction, keeping the camera steady so you get beautiful, turbulence-free video. You can find bigger, more expensive versions of the same basic mechanism guiding the thrust on SpaceX rockets.
DRONES AND THE LAW
Getting a License
If you plan to sell drone photos or video you shoot, you need a license. That means giving the FAA $150 and passing a pretty difficult written test. Search for “FAA airman testing” for an official list of testing centers.
Registering Your Drone
Unless you’re flying a lightweight (less than eight ounces) training drone, register it. Seriously. The process costs $5, takes two minutes, and could save you from $25,000-plus fines if you accidentally fly somewhere you shouldn’t. In the U.S., go here.
When you register your drone, you agree to a handful of reasonable rules—keep your drone in your line of sight, don’t fly over traffic or big groups of people, stay at least 5 miles away from any airport or hospital with a helipad. If you want to do those things, apply for a temporary FAA waiver. Other rules, anecdotally, fall into the same category as jaywalking. Technically illegal, but most people do it anyway. For one, you’re not allowed to fly over any person, and you can’t pilot a drone from a moving vehicle. (You mean like you see in drone advertisements?)
Yes, Dutch police have trained bald eagles to hunt drones. Yes, amateur tinkerers have made radar guns that jam and drop them from the sky. But when police subpoena or fine a pilot, it’s usually because the owner published a video or photo online and law enforcement saw it. One notable exception: The guy who crashed his DJI Phantom on the White House lawn. He just confessed and paid his $5,500 fine. Be extra cautious on the East Coast, where a disproportionate number of $1,000 to $2,000 fines get issued for vague infractions—operating an aircraft “in a careless or reckless manner” is one you see often.
Where You Can Fly
The AirMap app will tell you of any special restrictions for the area you want to fly, or if there are airports nearby. Double-check the results with the FAA-developed (but buggy) app B4UFLY.
I WAS AN UNDERAGE DRONE PILOT
Two summers ago, I started a business taking drone photos of properties for real estate companies. A local paper wrote about me, and some drone publications picked up the story. Then people started commenting: “This is illegal.” I was mortified, because I didn’t mean to do anything wrong. I registered my drone like you’re supposed to. But I had no idea I needed a pilot’s license to sell my photos, and that the minimum age for that license is 16. The FAA emailed me, saying that they would take “significant regulatory action.” I was 15 years old, and so scared that this government agency was contacting me. I apologized and completely stopped my business. A bit later, an FAA UAS—a fancy term for a drone regulatory specialist—named Marilyn spoke to me. She was really nice, and so understanding. She said that shutting down my business was the right thing to do, and that she would help me prepare to take the test so I could get my license when I turned 16. I spent my spring break preparing for the FAA Part 107 Remote Pilot Knowledge Test. The day before my birthday, I passed. Now, I’m a licensed pilot continuing my drone business. But even if you aren’t a professional, everyone should follow the FAA’s rules. At least register your drone, because when you do, you learn the regulations, most of which aren’t just rules. They’re important: Stay below 400 feet, keep a line of sight—basics that everyone should follow, even if you’re taking a drone out just for fun. Which I still do.—Ryan Felner
Ryan Felner used a site called Gold Seal UAV Ground School. You get tutorials for every topic, practice tests after each section, and a final review with hundreds of questions very similar to what’s on the actual FAA test. “I barely had to look over anything else after watching all of their videos,” he says.
THE DRONE FAQ
Should I get accessories? Which ones?
Yes. If your drone doesn’t have them, start with propeller guards. For $20 or so, they can be the difference between gently bumping into a tree or a catastrophic (and expensive) crash. If you’re going to remote locations, extra batteries (about $90 each) mean more flight time and footage per outing. You probably don’t need extra micro SD cards for storage. A 16-gigabyte card will hold about 45 minutes of 4K footage, which will outlast two full batteries on most drones.
Do pro moviemakers really use drones?
Yes, usually high-end models like the DJI Inspire 2. The Wolf of Wall Street, Jurassic World, and Captain America: Civil War all have scenes shot on drones. It’s much cheaper than renting a helicopter.
Can my neighbor shoot down my drone if I fly onto his property?
No. We generally don’t encourage vigilante justice, especially in this case. It’s explicitly illegal to shoot or sabotage any aircraft, which includes the drone you bought at the Apple Store.
How bad is water for a drone?
As with most consumer electronics, a bit of water won’t kill a drone, but if it starts raining, bring it back. Drones have exposed circuitry and will die if they get too wet.
How fast do drones go?
The Teal Sport Racer ($500) will go 85 mph, but most recreational models top out at around 40 mph.
What do I do if I crash it?
For chipped propellers or landing gear, buy and replace them yourself. If the camera gimbal or body is damaged, get quotes from independent, manufacturer-certified repair shops. They don’t all honor warranties, but shipping to places like STC Electronics in New York City or Carolina Dronz in South Carolina will be faster than sending a drone back to the manufacturer.