The Rise of the Drone

Welcome to the new surf-veillance state

| posted on January 30, 2014

Watch Pipe From Above by Eric Sterman.

On a bright North Shore morning, Pat Myers stands on the beach at Pipeline, his hands gripping a set of joysticks controlling the small, quad-copter drone that sits patiently next to him. Out to sea, 10- to 12-foot sets explode on the Second Reef as a bevy of pros and locals savor the perfect conditions. From where he stands on the sand, Myers has a perfect vantage point of the lineup. After checking the conditions, he deftly maneuvers the joysticks and a sharp buzz cuts through the air as the four motors of his drone click to life and the robot begins pulling itself toward at the sky. Flying a few hundred feet above the sets, Myers maneuvers the drone just inside first reef and begins to hover. In a few moments, a set will march through Pipe and all of the action will be captured from a perspective that was unimaginable just a few years ago.

“I think the use of drones in surfing is going to change the game,” says Myers, who lives in Sunset Beach, California. “When people go on magazine trips in the future, I don’t think it’s unrealistic to have a water photographer, a land photographer, and then someone to operate a drone. The perspectives these birds offer are amazing.” With more than a decade of experience working as a videographer for Quik, Myers is as qualified as anyone to endorse the capability of this technology.

Last winter, he was first introduced to the potential of drones in surfing when he was tasked to film Mark Healey on the North Shore. Pro wake-skater/cinematographer Dieter Humpsch had been experimenting with the concept, so the two decided to partner up for a session. “As soon as I tested it out last winter, I knew it was going to change things. And it has. The drones can discreetly track a surfer, keeping the subject stationary in the frame as the wave falls around them. It’s a unique way to convey the feeling of surfing to someone that has never tried it.”

WATCH: Jaws From Above

While the American military has been using drones both as weapons and for surveillance on battlefields for decades, it wasn’t until recently that they began to attract commercial consumers. According to Travis Pynn of GoPro, the sharp spike in commercial drones can largely be attributed to a single machine: the Phantom 1. By producing a more stable and easy to fly drone at an attainable price point—the Phantom 1 drone currently retails for under $500—that can be equipped with a GoPro camera, anyone with the desire, some disposable income, and a small amount of practice can effectively use the machine.

“Nearly every day here at GoPro, we’re privy to new and really amazing perspectives that our customers are capturing with the help of our cameras and drones. Whether it’s at Pipe or in Nepal, we’re constantly seeing these amazing new angles,” added Pynn. “In the past year, we’ve seen more and more people getting into it and I think you can credit a lot of that Phantom 1 drone. It’s stable, affordable, and the GPS really makes it easier for your everyday consumer to get into it.”

While the potential growth of drones and surfing is imminent, there are a number of serious hurdles facing the commercial side of the industry. Most notably, from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Despite a reputation for being slow to grasp the implications of some technological advancements, the federal government has already taken measures to address the growing use of commercial drones. As it currently stands, it is illegal to sell photos or video captured by drones.

According to Ian Gregor, a spokesperson for the FAA, when it comes to recreational photography and videography captured from a drone—so if you’re not going to sell it—you’re in the green. The FAA only has a problem if you’re trying to profit from it.

“As long as video [captured by a drone] is solely for their personal use, the FAA considers it to be recreational. Recreational use of airspace by model aircraft by hobbyists is covered by FAA Advisory Circular 91-57, which limits model aircraft operations to below 400 feet above ground level and away from airports and air traffic,” said Gregor. “But if the same person flies the same aircraft and then tries to sell the video, or uses it to promote a business, or accepts payments from someone else to shoot the video, that would be a prohibited commercial operation.”

WATCH: Rincon From Above

However, while there have been cases of the FAA issuing citations, they haven’t been aggressive in pursuing the matter. While the threat of punishment from the feds doesn’t seem like a likely scenario, some videographers have found legal loopholes around the law by charging for the actual edit of the film, and not specifically for the footage.

While the positive implications that drones may have on surf cinematography are many, the technology could also very well prove to be a double-edged sword for surfing. Both Myers and Pynn from GoPro are adamant that some sort of etiquette and training should be enacted to keep lineups clear and surfers safe.

“If you don’t know what you’re doing or you’re not being careful, accidents will eventually happen. We definitely need to implement an etiquette and safety system,” says Myers. “If you think about it, we already have similar concepts in place in the lineup when it comes to catching waves. Photographers have a similar set of rules so that we’re not imposing on each other’s angles and space. I’d like to see the same unwritten laws be created for drones, because we’re on the brink of the boom.”

  • ALeeMiller

    As a photographer, I say it sure has some vantage points that’ll allow amazing shots. From a surfer’s point of view though, it feels like someone pulling up my surf’s-skirt…

  • Jimmy the Saint

    I loved the Rincon clip but how noisy are they? The one shot where the guy throws a rock at it sounded pretty loud, and annoying.

  • Mike Pannone

    So here is the government doing the only thing it knows how to do, besides murder.
    Why must it interpose itself between human beings engaging in free exchange of ideas and value? Government prohibits, restricts, limits, or deems special privileges. Why do we need such a gatekeeper. Can’t an activity just happen? Why must we be subjected to constant monitoring of economic activity? The government bubble is going to burst. It’s just a matter of when.

    I appreciate the peaceful use technology, here is the potential for a drone to earn a living without having to kill another human being and the government just won’t have unless it gets it’s cut.

    Can you say, “Mafia”?

    • Rayray 99

      Because it can be used to both impose on our privacy, think paparazzi, or bought and used by terrorist to both collect intel and potentially used as bomb delivering devices. Remember that there are people with ill intentions towards others. The government makes plenty of money of your taxes, I doubt the chump change they would make in the sales of hobby drones would constitute your “mafia” remark. It’s also not a “free exchange of ideas” if somebody is profiting from it. But that is your government protected constitutional right to voice your opinion

  • Sabbie

    A well thrown rock should put an end to this annoying buzzing.

  • Mike

    “If you don’t know what you’re doing or you’re not being careful, accidents will eventually happen. We definitely need to implement an etiquette and safety system,” says Myers.

    In my opinion, accidents are going to happen regardless of how good the pilots or how careful they try and fly. Your hovering a heavy piece of camera equipment hundreds of feet above peoples heads it just takes one small mistake and you can potentially kill someone.

    • Kooks McGee

      how much do you think these things weigh and how high do you think they are going to be flying. you can’t go too high, a gopro is only going to capture decent footage so far above. The terminal velocity can’t be that high for one of these dropping out of the sky. Hurt? possibly. Severely injured? maybe. Die? highly unlikely.

      • Lickam Yballs

        The props on these things can cut flesh like knives through butter and weigh around 1.7kgs+ and can potentially fly at 50mph+, only a matter of time until we see accidents. Dji phantoms do have some reputation for random failures, add that in…

        • Kooks McGee

          I’ve been whacked in the hand by plenty of high end rc helicopter blades, I still have all my fingers, and have never even spilled blood if people are worried they have prop guards to closer them up Dubious of that claim Lil’ Yballs.

          • Lickam Yballs

            so, if yourself or your wife/kids are sitting on the beach/swimming in the sea and i come along and hurl a 1.5kg quadcopter at em from 20 feet away and get em square in the head everything is gonna be cool with you? just an example obviously. add 10″props that i ‘forgot’ to install guards on too. we still all good?
            the rules hobbyists have always stuck by is don’t fly over people, the phantom flyers seem to be unaware of this ideal,accidents will happen.i can tell for nothing i would not want to be hit by my fpv quad when it’s hauling ass, it would make a real mess.
            didn’t a young man chop most of his head off with a heli in brooklyn last year? your fingers are very lucky.

          • Kooks McGee

            hurling them at me and accidentally losing control over your helicopter are two different things. If my copter didn’t have the prop guards and hit your kid giving them some stitches, guess what, your not going to have to pay for college with that lawsuit. My fingers arn’t lucky, watching 20 years of model aircraft and dozens of people whack their fingers and still having them isn’t lucky. Don’t think these are going to become common place, and don’ think that these are going to start scalping people like a band of commanche who just raided a wagon train full of whiskey. You are always going to be more likely to get skegged by someone than you are to have one of these drop out of the sky and hit you…especially in kooklifornia.

  • Wooly

    amazing photography! Opens a new world!

  • Marque Cornblatt

    Get this surf and water-ready drone today on Kickstarter. Drone torture test of “The world’s toughest drone airframe”

  • Drones are cool

    They are quiet. You cannot hear them over the pounding surf. Their flight time is rather short 5-10 minutes. One advantage, since they hover in place you can also use them as a line up. But it will suck when they are used by surfline to forecast spots without cams.

  • Kooks McGee

    some angles are good. Look at the footage of Ocean beach when it was doh-toh and the waves look like they are chest high, that muted the impact. I think it will get played out unless they can really stay with in 75 ft off the ground and get close to the action. BTW this technology existed around 2005, the only difference is cameras of that size have gotten immensely better making it feasible for professional quality footage.

  • Foobert

    We can use these to chase grumpy locals out of da water.

  • turpentine

    that music is terrible

    • NZsurfer

      NO. That music is awesome.

  • Rich Clark Images

    It is fairly simple really. They want to license it, they want some degree of control. Drones do present some very interesting questions considering their growing potential but I guess until they can license it, evaluate the future and how they can ensure people fly these things safely then the easiest way to deter people is to take away the financial incentive. I’d imagine the Surfing media will want the footage, they’ll perhaps have it ‘shared’ with them and maybe they’ll find a way to compensate the sharers. The scope for the technology though is huge. When drones get bigger, as the demand grows then the potential for issues also increases. ‘Surfer decapitated by drone’. ‘Drone crashes into crowd’.. It is a superb perspective but it also threatens existing licensing and aeronautical industries.



  • Ricardo Santos Luís

    MAGAZINE: You, as a media member, and opinion maker, should stop
    calling “drones” to these small UAVs, because the word “drone” carries a
    really negative meaning, because the drones are the UAVs used by Police
    and Army forces to control, spy, and attack people.

    could start calling these kind of UAVs, that are used for shoot videos
    and photos, as well as to make some really cool stunts and maneuvers,
    MULTIROTORS, or MULTICOPTERS, or specifically, if you know which one,
    its “name” (quadcopter, hexacopter, and so on).

    By calling it “drones” you make people really suspicious and they see a MULTIROTOR enthusiast unpacking and preparing his gear.

    Please, begin to contribute to a better opinion about this subject.
    Thank you.

    Cheers from Portugal!

  • Tim Hamby

    Drone cinematography is spectacular, imo. The ability to get those low level shots without being overly intrusive, and their overall maneuverability are keys. They can really show off the beauty of the natural environment and the lines surfers draw (so perfect for point breaks). The government isn’t sure how to go about it just yet, but desires to regulate them so that people aren’t flying and crashing them into high-traffic areas like highways, commercial buildings, large events, etc., let alone spying on neighbors, dropping bombs, or interrupting other air traffic. But, they’re working on it and will get it figured out soon because the Genie’s out of the bottle. If I was a photographer, I’d get on this train right now and get it figured, out or bring someone on my team to be the drone guy. When it’s legal to sell, there’ll be all kinds of opportunities in industries from real estate, to tourism, competitive sports, you name it. Just as with photography, those with inherent creative talent will rise to the top. Stoked to see surfing (wake/skate) help lead the way.

    • Mark Tomor

      Well said and very insightful Tim !

  • LT

    where can I download that song?

    • jen

      Lindsey Stirling is the artist and she is touring right now. She’s an amazing artist.

  • Mike

    It is 2014 and people are still using dubstep for music in edits???

  • Pedro

    United States citizens always make simple things complicated

  • Gina Lee

    Amazing results with the drone!

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