Let me preface this blog with a few statements that might perhaps show my bias or approach to the subject.
1. I am a kite flier
2. I have a drone
3. I use my drone to fly around kites and take photos/videos
4. I obey the rules, but I don't necessarily want to see more rules, I just don't want more douchebags.
If you have watched some of my recent Youtube videos you will notice broad sweeping shots from overhead; it is no secret that these are from a drone. A year ago Paul and I were looking into drones for better footage and to help elevate our various projects, and we settled on one that is small and quiet. Currently one of the quietest on the market and that was critical to us; along with great battery life, the ability to hold steady in 25 mph winds and a pretty amazing gimbal/camera. There were some trade offs, but ultimately, I think we made the right choice for what we are doing.
There is a little bit of a learning curve to flying drones, and then another parallel curve to learning how to film in a manner that doesn't feel choppy or causes the viewer to get motion sick. That is still one I am working on, and adding in the complication of learning to fly around and near kites. Going for those dramatic sweeping overhead landscape shots is easy. Find a great view and fly a path. Boom. Done. Now focus on a subject that is moving anywhere from 0 mph to perhaps 30mph, flops about, creates turbulence, and does not always have a predictable path. Throw in the dramatic sweeping views, flowing shots, and lets just say that it is taking a bit of time and work to understand exactly the best way to fly a drone with and around kites.
The relationship I have with kite fliers (being one myself) and being so closely tied to one of the best sport kite fliers in the world means that I have a bit of an easier approach to a symbiotic flight than say Johnny Pilot showing up with their drone. Most of the time when I am filming a kite we are off by ourselves in a rather remote location and don't have to worry about other people, other kite fliers, or other drones. However, being at the Washington State International Kite Festival brought into perspective something that may be a new challenge. Myself and a few other kite fliers brought our drones, and at random intervals spoke with kite fliers and filmed overhead. It was not easy, and it took a lot of work coordinating with the fliers upwind and downwind. (And actually announcing to everyone what I was doing) Some of the shots were super easy, like this one where I simply set upwind of the mega fly then rotated around the flight path.
As I said earlier, prior to this I had been filming closer to the pilots, and they knew full well that the drone overhead was me. I encouraged people to come ask me questions, talked with them, and showed them that I was keeping my distance.
Near the end of the mega fly I noticed another drone hovering around. Which if you have super keen eyes you might see the white body of it in that video downwind of the kites in the first half of the video. Mr. Johnny Pilot was generally rather well behaved and stayed far away from the kites, opting for the bigger cinematic views. Respectful and out of the way. I had a quick chat with him later about his drone and turns out he is a local youtuber and was capturing content for his channel.
A few days later I was back at the 'Fortuna Camp' hanging out and had attempted to film Ron Gibians' kites from above to much frustration. It was not an easy place to fly, and there was a lot of other issues going on so I brought the drone down and we went about our merry way. As we were sitting there chatting I noticed a random person walked out into the space next to our camp with an older DJI Phantom (which is a larger louder drone) and attempted to fly. The person wasn't a kite flier, and was trying to weave through the birds nest of kite lines overhead. I walked over and chatted with them for a little bit to find out who they were. Just an enthusiast flying on the field. Perhaps the seeing my drone encouraged him to fly his? I tried to give him tips on some places to fly, and that the kite lines were not the only dangers of flying next to kites, to which his reply was something along the lines of "well I have obstacle avoidance". For those not in the know, this is a function of some drones that will prevent you from running it into a tree. The drone senses objects in its proximity and will stop it. It is a bit misguided to think that your drone, no matter how much you paid for it, is capable of seeing a thin string. Sigh... this approach.... is bound to end up in an accident.
So, what happens when a kite and a drone come into contact? Well, I can honestly say that I haven't seen it happen yet, so this is all speculating. Most drones have a prop-stop function the moment that there is resistance to an unguarded prop rotation.
If you look at this photo it shows a little bit of the aftermath of an accident. I was landing the drone into my hand when an issue arose and the drone slid back towards me and the props made contact with my arm. The drone immediately registered that the props had resistance and the props stopped and the drone fell. Tis but a small scratch that was a little irritated, but no blood was drawn. I was fine, the drone was fine, the world was fine.
Ideally if the prop were to make contact with the sail of a kite or become entangled in kite lines, the prop-stop will kick in. The most likely outcome is the following:
Kite: Tangled lines, tears in the sail. Unlikely that a spar will be broken, but could potentially happen.
Drone: Entangled, potential damage to prop motors, damage if it falls from height.
The chances of a catastrophic incident happening (say, drone catches on fire and catches the kite on fire which drifts downwind and ignites a wildfire) are fairly slim. What is more likely is that a drone will feel like it is pestering, annoy, or harassing a kite flier. Coincidentally the same has been said about kite fliers. :) So what is the best solution? Do you go the route of regulation, or just let things happen and deal with them in the moment?
I feel the best way to avoid this is for everyone to be open to communication and proactive about planning. I don't necessarily want organizers to come down hard on the proactive rule side, but perhaps if we as drone flying kite fliers help to establish some guidelines, then perhaps we can keep the skies open for everyone. I figured I would get started simple with a simple infograph that others could use.
Would love to have others input and see if we can make this into something that works for all of us!