The Rise of the Drone

Welcome to the new surf-veillance state

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.”