IN THE SHOWTIME SERIES HOMELAND, Carrie Mathison, played by actress Claire Danes, leads drone strikes against terrorists from the comfort of her CIA station. But the same technology that makes drones—also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs—convenient military weapons, has also helped advance the careers of real-world civilians, including a growing list of flyfishing photographers and filmmakers.
Dallas-based photographer Matt Jones added a camera-wielding drone to his arsenal about a year ago. “Getting up in an actual heli just wasn’t feasible because of the cost,” he says.
“Then these smaller, more affordable drones started making their way into production, and I started experimenting.”
According to a recent story by CNBC, more than 200,000 drones a month were sold worldwide in 2014, and industry experts expect that number to double this year.
Consumer-driven options from companies like DJI, maker of the popular Phantom 2 quadcopter, are available for less than a grand from several online retailers, including Amazon and Brookstone. The French-made Parrot AR.Drone sells for less than $500 and can be operated from an Android or iPhone-based app.
Armed with such futuristic devices, photographers can give liftoff to anything from a GoPro to larger DSLRs, such as Jones’ Canon 5D. More professional systems can run upwards of $10,000, and those models have longer flight-time capabilities and legitimate gimbals—a mechanism that keeps cameras level at all times and can be remote-adjusted for pan and tilt.
Jones says he logged about 50 hours of online simulator time before taking his camera airborne. He’s since packed his Phantom 2 along on international shoots to Mexico’s Ascension Bay and Argentine Patagonia. Like Jones, northern California-based photographer Lee Church has been operating his quadcopter for more than a year, but cautions new buyers to do as Jones did, and put in some practice time. “My heart still goes a thousand miles an hour every time it takes off,” Church says. “An early test flight resulted in my mother-in-law’s flowers getting an unintentional trim, and I broke a prop when I ran out of batteries over a 30-foot sandstone crag in Utah.”
Meanwhile, other hobbyist UAV users continue to make headlines. Last fall, Yellowstone National Park slapped a Dutch tourist with a $3,000 fine for dumping his drone into Grand Prismatic, the park’s largest hot spring. The National Park Service has a strict no-drone policy. As does, evidently, the White House, where a “flyaway” Phantom crashed in February, causing news agencies like CNN to speculate whether its operator was drunk or just low on batteries.
Almost all commercial use of drones is technically illegal without permission from the Federal Aviation Administration, but this law is enforced about as strictly as jaywalking. Recognizing this, the FAA recently released new, watered-down rules for drone use in U.S. airspace. Highlights of its 195-page document include allowing commercial drones in low-risk, controlled environments. Recreational users can still pilot drones below 500 feet, within eyesight, in places like their backyards, and well away from the Super Bowl. The NFL doesn’t like drones either.
“Regulations seem to be undefined and mostly unenforced right now,” says photographer and drone user Nick Kelley, an editorial staffer at Outside magazine. “That’s why so many of them are flying around.”
With more of them in the air, the novelty of the drone shot diminishes. Still, UAVs deliver advantages in height, unimpeded line-of-sight, and fresh POV perspectives, dramatically contrasting the standard vantage point from ground, drift boat, or underwater. And in addition to cool photography, there are other fish-related drone uses being discussed. Just before Christmas, officials with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife announced that they’d be purchasing two drones to help conduct aerial surveys of spawning salmon and steelhead.
While drones in good hands might help produce compelling shots or more accurate redd counts, some people also find them offensive. State legislatures in Oregon and Montana are currently exploring bills that would eliminate “harassment by drone” in areas where anglers and hunters, or fish and wildlife, could be herded, spied upon, or egregiously lowholed.
“The drone sat there and watched me for 10 minutes,” says a Montana angler who recently testified before the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee. “Our biggest concern was who was watching us.”