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Shawn Vestal: Photographer’s birds-eye view has wings clipped by FAA

It was New Year’s Day, and Spokesman-Review photographer Jesse Tinsley had it off. Still, there he was at Sanders Beach, photographing the Polar Bear Plunge – the annual mental-health red flag at Lake Coeur d’Alene.

Instead of a camera, Tinsley was holding a remote control unit. The images were being captured by a small camera hanging from a small drone hovering over the lake. The resulting birds-eye-view video showed squealing, shivering plungers rushing into and out of the water.

“I was so tickled with it I went ahead and put it up on the newspaper’s website,” Tinsley said.

With that, Tinsley landed on the unstable leading edge of an issue that combines technology, journalism, privacy, personal freedom and federal regulation. Many are watching closely to see what the Federal Aviation Administration does when it releases new rules for commercial drone use in 2015.

Until then, though, Tinsley’s wonderful beach video is officially a no-no. Posting it crossed over into commercial territory. When the journalism website did a story about it, Tinsley called it a “gray area.” An FAA spokesman retorted: “There is no gray area.”

“I … stepped in the bear trap,” said Tinsley.

But he’s certainly not the only bear. A lot of photojournalists are interested in the capabilities of drone photography, and many of them have rallied behind Tinsley. Major networks like CNN and the BBC have used “unmanned aerial systems” to capture images of natural disasters, public works projects and sports, according to a New York Times piece in November. University journalism programs have begun tiptoeing into teaching drone journalism, though they’ve been ordered to stop any flights until they obtain permission from the FAA.

There are also many commercial uses on the horizon, from photography and filmmaking to real estate to the much-hyped prospect of Amazon deliveries. USA Today, in an article this month on the expected explosion of drone uses in the coming year, put it this way: “(T)here are drones for all budgets and uses.”

Popular Mechanics wrote that of all commercial users, “The biggest beneficiaries may be farmers who hope to use cheap (unmanned aerial vehicles) armed with cameras to monitor the health of their crops, employing aerial photography – digital and infrared – to fine-tune delivery of water, fertilizer, and other chemicals.”

A lot of photojournalists have been using the technology on their own time, trying to avoid crossing over into “commercial use,” while preparing to use a tool that could expand news photography in exciting new ways.

That was Tinsley’s approach. A 52-year-old resident of Post Falls, he’s been a photographer at the newspaper for 24 years. He’s also a former pilot, with an understanding of the rules governing air space. As a result, he entered his drone experiment very thoughtfully – he knows that commercial aircraft don’t fly below 500 feet, and he knows that there are exceptions for emergency helicopters, and he knows that flying over private property would be at the very least unwelcome by many. So he set guidelines for himself before he even began, he said. He bought the drone and cameras himself, uses them on his own time. A half-dozen of them have run in the newspaper and on the website.

After his Polar Bear plunge video drew some attention, S-R Editor Gary Graham decided that the paper would avoid publishing or posting drone photography until the rules are clarified.

Tinsley earned his pilot’s license but has let it expire as parenthood and other factors made him reconsider the risk. Still, he says, “Like a lot of kids, I love airplanes. I’m just an airplane geek. I wanted to fly a camera, rather than fly myself.”

He bought his DJI Phantom Quad Copter in September. The white gizmo has four small plastic propellers and weighs a couple of pounds. A small GoPro camera – the kind that snowboarders and mountain bikers put on their helmets to record their adventures – attaches to the underside, and Tinsley has modified it with vibration-dampening shocks. As the drone flies, the camera stays fairly stable underneath. Tinsley can control the device from the ground and programs the camera to take an image at regular intervals, but there is an old-school delay in the process – he can’t see what he’s captured until he gets to a computer and pops in the memory card.

Tinsley took me out to Riverside State Park this week to illustrate how his quad copter works. He flew it out over the Spokane River near the suspension bridge at the Bowl and Pitcher. It buzzed and hovered in the air over the river, shooting a picture every two seconds – capturing stunning views of the churning, deep-green river, the snowy banks and rusty foliage, and the bridge bending gracefully in the fish-eye.

I’ve seen that area a ton of times, but never like that.

“I think it’s a wonderful way for a photographer to get a different view,” Tinsley said.

Drone technology radically scales down the potential, and the potential problems, associated with the satellite imaging and aircraft-based photography. While a lot of people have rolled their eyes or complained about the FAA’s prohibition, Tinsley said he understands that there are issues the feds will have to consider. He knows someone will do something stupid or dangerous with one at some point – fly one over Brad Pitt’s house or drop it onto somebody’s head. He hopes the FAA develops a system that allows for responsible users to use the things without overbearing cost or hassle.

Because even though the technology is more accessible, it’s not that cheap. That whirring white drone out there above the Spokane River represented an investment of more than $1,000. For that reason, Tinsley doesn’t press the limits.

“How far will it go? I don’t know,” he said, “and I never will.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.