I was recently in Europe as part of a team of four photographers/videographers assigned to cover a large regional convention. To kick off the event, the company had organized a road rally wherein groups of attendees would drive in from four different countries and all converge in Vienna, Austria. The four starting points were Venice, Munich, Budapest, and Prague. I was assigned to the Prague leg of the rally.
In planing for this event, we developed a shot list that each of the four of us would attempt to capture. We knew it would be important to get establishing shots at each of the four starting locations, so this was a big priority as soon as we arrived. Each member of our team of four was armed with a Phantom 2 with Zenmuse gimbal and GoPro Hero 3+ (See Building an Aerial Video Drone Fleet) in order to capture spectacular establishing shots of each of the starting points.
I arrived in Prague around 3:00 pm and only had a that afternoon and evening in the city before our leg of the rally would depart the next morning. I decided to head to one of the main landmarks in Prague, the Prague Castle. I usually do a bit more research on a place I’m visiting, especially when I plan to fly a quadcopter. I like to be prepared and find a place to take off that has the least chance of disturbing anyone or attracting attention. Partially emboldened by the presence of my supervisor and one of the owners of the company and partially because we didn’t have much time to see the city, we decided to launch the quadcopter from the inner courtyard of the Prague Castle.
We walked to the corner of the courtyard and started the preflight check and setup. In a few more moments the quadcopter was in the air and I was getting a bird’s eye view of the intricate castle and surrounding city beyond the courthouse walls. My main concern was to capture an establishing shot of the city so I did a few reveal shots where I rose the craft up over the wall to show the city. After that I did a few push and pull maneuvers, slowly pushing the aircraft towards the castle and then pulling it back. People immediately took notice of the Phantom flying above the courtyard, but nobody seemed to care much.
I knew I had got the main shots I needed so I started working my way back down when a Prague police officer suddenly appeared. We made eye contact and he said only two words: “Land now.”
So of course I complied. I landed the quadcopter and the officer came up and got a closer look. He finally asked what we were doing. “I’m a photographer. We’re just taking some pictures of your beautiful city.”
The camera always seems to be the main concern in these confrontations. Pointing at the gopro he asked, “Were you recording the entire time?”
“Yes, it’s just a gopro camera. We were just taking pictures of the Castle.”
About this time he started texting someone on his cell phone and told us to wait. A few moments later he got a response and just said. “Please don’t fly anymore. The President stays here so it’s a security concern.”
We gladly complied and then asked if we could take a quick picture with him which I think helped solidify the fact that we were harmless “tourists.”
After the incident I googled the Prague Castle. Turns out the Prague Castle is the official residence and office of the President of the Czech Republic. Located in the Hradčany district of Prague and dating back to the ninth century, the castle has been a seat of power for kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman emperors, and presidents of Czechoslovakia. The Bohemian Crown Jewels are kept within a hidden room inside it.
Quite a bit different of a response than I’m sure you would get if you were to fly over the White House.
We packed up the Phantom quadcopter and finished our walk around the rest of the courtyard. It is interesting that just because our camera was flying, it was now somehow more of a security concern than all of the other high resolution DSLR cameras that nearly every tourist in the courtyard had. I don’t think the officer’s request was unreasonable, but I do think the authorities tend to exercise more caution than they need to because they are unfamiliar with these flying cameras.
Some Advice for Flying Quadcopters in Public
1. Always have at least one other person with you to act as a spotter. Another set of eyes can help you avoid obstacles and keep an eye on any curious bystanders while you maintain focus on flying safely.
2. If you are approached by authorities, always remain calm and comply with their direction. It doesn’t matter if you think you have a legal right to be flying in a location. If you don’t comply, things will only escalate and you’ll end up getting kicked out, or worse.
3. If the authorities are giving you trouble, it can help to show them examples of your aerial photography. Have some shots ready to show them on your phone or iPad. Most of the time when they see how cool your work is they are much more likely to allow you to continue. This also adds legitimacy to what you are doing if you can show that you’ve done this before in other locations.
4. Ask permission when possible. In this specific case we didn’t see anyone that looked like they could give us permission so we decided to risk it and start flying and ask for forgiveness later if needs be.
5. Don’t do stupid things. Only fly if conditions are safe to fly in. If the weather is not cooperating, postpone your flight. If there are power lines in the area, find a different spot. In a public space, be extra cautious as any mistake can lead to a crash that you will have an audience for. If you’re not comfortable in the situation just don’t fly. It’s not worth the risk of potential damage to your quadcopter or other people’s property.