Playing Drone Tourist —
a Glimpse of the Future?

Here come the selfie sticks of the skies, drones, for better or worse.


Earlier this month, I spent a great week on vacation in Iceland. Like many tourists, I took pictures. Unlike many tourists, one of my cameras was a drone. Drone photography definitely added a uniqueness to my experience. However, it also exposed first-hand many of the issues that drones are likely to bring to tourism as they drop in price and become more accessible.

I’m far from a drone expert or avid hobbyist. I got my drone as this past Christmas as a gift from my family. I’ve taken it out to fly a few times in our local area. Iceland presented a unique chance to use it, so I decided to try it on the road.

My drone is a DJI Phantom 2 Vision. DJI no longer seems to stock this model. It was just replaced by what looks to be the excellent Phantom 3 series.

The drone has a built-in camera. When the drone is flying, what the camera sees is sent down to my smartphone. From that, I can control whether to take still pictures or to record video.

Can I Even Take This Thing?

My first challenge in playing drone tourist would be whether I could even take the drone on my domestic flight within the U.S. and then internationally to Iceland. The FAA and TSA have no explicit rules against them, that I could find. Rather, the focus is on the lithium batteries that power them. Those are the regulations you need to be concerned with.

After doing a little research, I found that plenty of people had safely transported drones on flights as carry-on baggage. I also came across an excellent FAA guide (PDF) covering the types of batteries you can include in carry-on. My drone — and most commercially sold drones, it seems — are well within these limits. I printed the guide in case an issue came up during security screening. I never needed it. Of the four times I took my drone through carry-on security, I was questioned only once. In that case, the screener just didn’t know what to make of it so asked that it have one of those explosive wipe tests done. It quickly passed, and I was on my way.

How Do I Carry a Drone Around?

The second challenge was how to actually transport the drone. It’s about the size of a bowling ball, though fortunately it weighs much less. After more research, I settled upon a Fearless backpack that met carry-on size restrictions. There are plenty of other cases out there. Here’s a nice video review of my backpack versus another one that helped me in deciding.

The case was pretty expensive compared to the cost of the drone itself, so I debated that a bit. But, it seemed the best way to transport it. While traveling, after dropping my case a couple of times accidentally, that proved wise. A downside to the case is that the prop guards around my propellers had to be removed. That means you have to spend a few minutes screwing them all back in before taking flight, if you want that extra protection.

As it turned out, I never put the prop guards on. Where I was flying tended to be so open that I didn’t feel I needed the extra protection. That meant I could get my drone out of the bag and up in the air within a few minutes.

What Rules Govern Flying My Drone?

The third big challenge was knowing where I could even fly my drone. From my regular reading of the news, I knew that in the US, drones have been completely banned from within US National Parks. I also know that my model is prevented from being flown in close proximity to airports.

DJI has an entire no fly map that shows where its software, if your drone is properly updated, prevents or limits flying. Disneyland, near me, isn’t on that map, though I understand it’s supposed to be a no fly zone. Iceland, where I was heading, has only two no fly areas listed: near the main international airport and one at an airport in the north. Interestingly, the domestic airport near Reykjavik isn’t included in these.

If there were bans on flying drones near local attractions in Iceland, or anywhere, there seems to be no easy way for pilots to know these. I think that’s going to become even more problematic as drone usage grows around tourist destinations. Some type of easily found common database is needed.

The Don’t Fly Drones Here maps is a nice start, but it’s not perfect. For our local area in Orange County, California, it shows a much wider restriction around John Wayne Airport than DJI actually limits its devices to:

The Don’t Fly Drones Here maps seems to match the guideline promoted by the FAA-backed Know Before You Fly site, which is no flying within five miles of an airport without contacting the tower. But DJI might be right, because it uses a graduated system of height-restrictions around an airport — one that also varies depending on the class of airport involved:

For major airports, DJI prevents any flight within 1. 5 miles. Beyond that, flights can happen but are height-restricted.

Back to that Don’t Fly Drone map: it doesn’t show that for all of New York City, drones can’t be flown, at least according to this NPR story from last year on drone regulations. For France, which I know has some restrictions for Paris, it also shows nothing. For Iceland, where I went, it also shows nothing.

Even when there are rules, you still have problems. That drone which crashed in a Yellowstone National Park hot spring last year did so after a ban was in place. The drone crash at the White House this year happened despite Washington DC restrictions. A tourist in Paris got arrested last yer after flying around Notre Dame, apparently unaware of the restrictions.

In lieu of easy to find rules, I relied on common sense. I wouldn’t fly my drone any place where I thought I’d be interrupting the experience for other tourists or where I felt I’d be potentially dangerous. I’d also keep a close eye out for any rules or regulations in places I was at.

What follows next is my tour of Iceland, as seen by drone. I’ve left a few comments along the way in terms of how I tried to figure out potential restrictions and just common etiquette. At the end, you’ll find an overall summary of how my experience left me wondering how the future of drone tourism and the rules (or lack of them right now) will evolve.

Strokkur Geyser erupting, as seen by drone

Filming a Geyser in Geysir

My first drone photography happened at Geysir geothermal area, which has several geysers and from which the English word “geyser” comes from. There were no rangers nor any type of “national parkness” about the area, so I was pretty much on my own about whether I could fly or not. I was also acutely aware of the Yellowstone drone crash. I didn’t want to be the tourist who dropped their drone into an Icelandic hot spring. To be safe, I flew way back from a parking lot. I also felt this was far enough back that I wouldn’t distrurb those on the ground watching for a geyser eruption.

I’d hoped flying above the area might make for an interesting aerial view, but nothing really came out that great, as I was keeping myself so far back. I did capture the Strokkur Geyser erupting. This wasn’t hard. It goes off every 10 minutes or so. You can see it below:

Obviously, this would have been much more impressive if I were closer. But it was my first drone tourism photography, and I wanted to be cautious, as explained above. This also highlights one of the coming drone tourism problems. What happens when there are five or ten people like myself are out there with drones?

Will they become like the selfie sticks of the sky, where there are so many that they can feel intrusive or potentially dangerous? Imagine this especially if smaller more portable drones emerge. It can sound like sci-fi, but it doesn’t seem that far in the future that people might have a little drone they can just toss in the air to get those aerial selfies they’ll no doubt want.

Filming a Downed DC-3

What tipped me toward bringing the drone to Iceland was out-of-the-way attraction my wife had heard about, the remains of a U.S. Navy DC-3 that landed on a beach in the south. It’s OK. No one was injured, when the accident happened in 1973. The remote site and object sounded like a perfect place to fly my drone.

The plane, at least for us, was easily reached after a 10–15 minute drive along a sand-gravel road. You can locate it here on Google Maps. We had a 4x4, but we’d probably would have been fine in a regular car. That’s no guarantee to others, so don’t blame me if you get stuck.

Since this was an isolated spot with few people around, I had no concerns about flying the drone. The plane itself is really amazing, and the drone let me get a shot from high above that really reflected how isolated it is. My goal was to shoot nice video circling it. Unfortunately, the wind, rain and my piloting skills (or lack of) never let me pull this off. But here’s a short-fly by that I felt was the best of the lot:

If you want to see what a real drone photographer could do, look here:

That’s by Eric Cheng, director of aerial imaging for DJI, which makes my drone. I hadn’t realized he’d shot this before I went out. I found it after researching more about the plane after visiting it. It defintely gives me something to aspire to.

By the way, drone selfie!

I also wanted to film the Skogafoss Waterfall not far from the plane. It was too rainy by that point to do so. But look at this video from someone else, especially 1:50 in. Wow.

I found footage using the Travel By Drone site, which is a great place to see drone photography from tourist destinations around the world.

Hallgrimskirkja

Of all the subjects I filmed, I was most nervous about Hallgrimskirkja, which is a beautiful church that dominates Reykjavik. There are often many people photographing it, in waves as different tour groups arrive and depart. I went in the late afternoon on a day when no services would be happening, so I felt I wouldn’t be bothering many people.

Still, I wanted to be cautious, especially as the wind started to kick up more strongly after I arrived. Rather than fly directly over the building or around it, my goal was to get a shot showing what it was like going from the steeple downward.

Mission accomplished:

This is good time to note that my drone’s camera isn’t mounted on a gimbal. You know those drone videos where the view is rock-steady? That’s from a gimbal-mounted camera, which isolates the camera from the shakes of the drone’s body. The original drone my family gave me for Christmas didn’t have a camera at all, so I upgraded to one that did. But I didn’t go for the most expensive model because I wasn’t sure how often I’d really fly it or want to feel terrible if I crashed it. With a gimbal, the shakiness you see above and in some videos to come would be less, despite beginning piloting skills and the often strong wind.

For a more aggressive and impressive fly-over, see what this person did:

The Sun Voyager

Along the harbor in Reykjavik is a unique sculpture called The Sun Voyager. This seemed a perfect opportunity for me to try for a shot that circles the object, as I wanted to do for the DC-3. I also felt filming would be relatively safe. There are often few or no people there. There were no restrictions that I’d heard about or seen. So off I went, feeling nervous because it was also the first time I flew my drone over water.

I never got the full circle that I wanted. There was still some wind, plus I’m just too new a pilot to get that down as smoothly as I would have liked. Oh, and then there was snow. But I got a partial circle, which made me pretty happy.

The Harpa

A short walk from The Sun Voyager is Reykjavik’s beautiful Harpa concert hall and conference center. It was after-hours, with few people around, so I felt comfortable flying the drone to capture an aerial view of it. But being cautious — especially with the wind again fairly strong — I kept back from the building and didn’t feel comfortable doing any type of fly over. Even if it had been a perfectly still day, flying over a building just feels like one of those things I wouldn’t want to do, without special permission.

The Bridge Between Two Continents

This article opens with a drone shot I took of what’s called The Bridge Between Two Continents, a place where the Eurasian and North American continental plates are just slightly apart, enough so that a bridge across them has been constructed.

This was an ideal place to fly a drone. It’s not any type of national park. It’s difficult to even know who runs it or built it. Groups come-and-go, so that it was largely empty of people we went. The cold, rain, snow and wind also probably helped with that.

Given the weather, I didn’t get to do as much flying as I’d hoped. But I got a few aerial shots as well as this 360 view of the area:

I have to give a shout-out to DJI here for the quality of its drones. The wind was blowing from 15–25mph. Occasionally, a gust would knock the drone hard, then it would level right back to where it was and continue to solidly hover right where I put it. Amazing. I knew the wind was strong, and my backup plan was to ground it in case it couldn’t maintain itself in the wind. That was never a problem.

The Cautious Tourist & the Uncertainty to Come

Overall, taking a drone was a fun way to explore a new form of photography in some great locations. However, I felt limited in how I could film because of my caution. Even if something was allowed, as I believe was the case in everything I did, how acceptable would it really have been for me to be flying over buildings like the Hallgrimskirkja or the Harpa? I look with envy at great shots and video others have gotten by getting close up like this. But even if I had better piloting skills, there’s still a part of me that feels like to fly that way, I ought to be asking someone.

That’s the problem — who do you ask? Does an attendant at some information point in a building really have permission, even if they say yes? Realistically, if drone pilots start asking, I’d expect most places to simply say no. Who would want the liability for saying yes and then having a drone crash into a window or worse, a person. If drone photography grows, I wouldn’t be surprised if more places declare you can’t film over them even if legally, they might not be able to issue such restrictions.

Local authorities themselves might be able to issue restrictions, but then the concern is that they might end up being too broad. Heck, banning drones from flying in any part of U.S. National Parks is pretty restrictive, when plenty are huge, with wide-open spaces. Actually, as I understand it, the blanket ban is a first step in figuring out an appropriate policy that might be less restrictive, which is good.

The biggest problem is yet to come. As drones drop in price, become more portable and popular, that “selfie sticks of the skies” situation I described earlier seems likely to come. I don’t think anyone’s going to want to be in popular locations with multiple drones buzzing about. But I don’t think the reaction to this should be restrictions that are too broad. Hopefully, appropriate rules will be put into place and made easy for drone pilots to find.

In the meantime, happy droning. It’s pretty much a golden age where the ability to fly — for better or worse — is as broad as it’s likely to be for some time. It’s already getting less, a that trend is sure to continue.

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