Protecting the skies

The rise in popularity of drones has meant that festival and outdoor event organisers now need strategy in place to police any attempt to fly them in crowded areas, Mike Fletcher speaks to a specialist drone pilot

Drones, or to give them their proper title, remote piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), have increased significantly in popularity over the past few years.

Earlier this year, they were even used for the first time during the Super Bowl half-time show as hundreds of Intel’s Shooting Star drones created
a swirling, colourful backdrop at the start of Lady Gaga’s performance as she stood on the roof of Houston’s NRG stadium.

However, as anyone who watched the half-time entertainment may recall, when Gaga herself appeared to leap from the roof, and skydived into the stadium to start her show proper, the collection of drones didn’t follow. This was because the drone sequences were actually filmed earlier in the week, including a later segment, which saw them transform from the Pepsi into the Intel logo.

America’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) forbids drones from flying within a 35-mile radius of major stadiums. It also imposes other restrictions on drone usage, such as preventing drones from hovering too high, or from doing acrobatic manoeuvres directly above thousands of people.

The UK equivalent of the FAA is the Civil Aviation Authority and it too has strict rules regarding the use of drones. In the UK, to be drone safe, you must always keep your drone in sight, fly below 400ft (120-metres) and remain 500ft (150-metres) away from crowds or built-up areas. Failure to fly a drone responsibly could result in a criminal prosecution and if your drone endangers the safety of an aircraft by flying too high or too near to an airfield, the owner could face up to five years in prison.

With so much at stake and with so many restrictions in place therefore, just how are these UAVs finding their way into festivals and other outdoor events?

Andrew McQuillan is a pilot for Crowded Space Drones, a company that specialises in aerial work and has obtained special permissions from the UK Civil Aviation Authority to fly unmanned aircraft in crowded spaces, thanks in part to its background and expertise in crowd management at stadia, arenas and major events around the world.

“We host regular informative sessions for event planners to try and help them to put plans in place to prevent illegal drone flying at their events and to give them the knowledge of what is and what is not permissible” he tells Access. “The reality is that there are too many misconceptions about what can be done with drones, and if festival or event organisers don’t have proper strategy in place for dealing with visitors who bring drones onto their event site, or they’re using drones themselves and they hit someone, the consequences could be severe.”

The popularity of drones has stemmed from their ever-increasing affordability and the fact that you now can buy them almost anywhere these days, even at airport duty free shopping.

“Each drone is sold with a pre-charge, so in theory you could buy one 
at an airport, set it up in the departure lounge, decide you wanted a photo of your flight before take-off and launch it when you stepped outside. It’s a crazy situation,” says McQuillan.

“At public events in city centres such as marathons or parades, we have enforcement officers on the ground who know the law and can locate an illegal drone operator, disable the drone using an animatronic system and ensure that person is either cautioned or arrested. Using animatronic systems to disable drones in flight is expensive, but without it, many of these aircraft are small enough to hide in large crowds and can be scurried away in handbags or rucksacks,” continues McQuillan.

Crowded Space Drones is working with 11 major festivals over the coming months to not only police illegal drone usage but also to capture amazing footage by flying safely within the event environment.

In July, the company will be flying UAVs around Plymouth Harbour for MTV. It’s a location that presents its own challenges due to the large naval presence, so McQuillan is already doing site visits and planning the best fly zones.

“The aerial footage will look amazing but there are so many more safety procedures to put in place and restrictions to observe. The only way to get this sort of footage and images from large-scale outdoor events is to hire a specialist like us.

“In the long-term, drones carrying thermal imagery technology will 
be used at festivals to detect people over-heating in crowds or for better crowd management visibility. The potential is tremendous but these aircraft need better regulation in place to stop them being used by the event visitor and potentially causing a catastrophe,” McQuillan concludes.

Q&A with owen James, festival director at the London drone Film Festival
What are the benefits of aerial photography and footage to the events industry?

Aerial photography is great for the events industry as it can give a real scale to how big and exciting an event can be. Events can also be streamed live on TV or the internet via aerial filming.

Why do you think so many people are against the use of drones?

A lot of people are against the use of drones because they don’t really understand the technology and usually only think of the negative angles such as spying, crashing into aircraft and other privacy issues. Many people, years ago were also very much against the use of the internet but I think we can all agree that these technologies have brought great benefits to mankind.

How do you see drones being used in the future across various platforms

I see that drones will be used in all aspects of filming in the future; I predict that drones will get smaller, faster and be able to tolerate more extreme environments.

Improvements in camera technology will mean that smaller drones will be able to capture much higher quality video than they can today. Drones will also be able to seamlessly travel from air to underwater so they can explore the oceans in the same way they are exploring the skies.

What is your opinion on the different uses for drones?

I think drone delivery is a very practical proposition but it will take some time to integrate drones into the airspace or civilian and commercial aircraft.

In remote areas there is little reason why drone delivery cannot be used now as the concept is proven and reliable. Drones are already being used to stream news and festivals live as we speak and this will only grow in the future.

What are the benefits of aerial photography and footage to the industry?

The benefits include having an additional extremely portable and flexible tool at your disposal, which is capable of doing many of the jobs of a full-size helicopter at a much lower cost and also being able to shoot scenes that full-size aircraft or helicopters simply cannot achieve.