Can We Stop Calling Them Drones? They’re Just RC Helicopters With A Camera

I don’t know when remote control helicopters became drones, but I think its way past time we stop implying that a fancy RC helicopter with a camera strapped to it is some sort of autonomous Terminator robot.

Terminator Drone Helicopter Hunter Killer photography drone

OK sure, in the beginning I know that somebody though that “drone” sounded a lot cooler than “model airplane”.

Its exactly the kind of thing the model airplane geeks I know would adapt instantly.  Not to mention, I’m sure selling “drones” is a lot easier than selling “remote control model helicopters”.

(In the interest of search engine optimization and my penchant for hypocrisy, I am however going to refer to RC model helicopters as drones for the remainder of this article.)

Bart: Milhouse, this is boring. Make it crash or something.

Milhouse: Perfectly level flying is the supreme challenge of the scale model pilot.

But enough is enough – real drones kill people with missiles or make honey, pretend drones hunt down humans in a dystopian near future – a remote control helicopter with a camera flies around and takes pictures of stuff.

Drone photography drone video regulations

Drone Bee Aerial Photography and Video


(Ok, maybe we can call this bad boy a drone – just because it is actually the coolest RC model helicopter ever.)

Best Buy Parrot RC Drone Quadcopter drone photograpy drone video

Even Toy Drones Are Crazy Sophisticated

I grew up building every type of model airplane and remote control vehicle imaginable.  I had a nitro powered remote control boat that went over 80km per hour.  I used to launch multi-stage rockets in my backyard.  I even built a submarine once.

And the first thing I did once I learned how to fly my model airplane (which was much larger and much more powerful than any electric “drone”) was to figure out how to strap a camera to it.

But look at the specs for this $300 toy RC quadcopter by Parrot:

Parrot AR 2 Drone

HD Video Camera?  Check.

Programmable Flight?  Check.

Automatic Stabilization and Navigation System?  Check.

First Person View Flight?  Check.

The point is that even toys are now sophisticated enough to be called drones, and the name “drone” has become a liability.

Incedentally, Parrot just released a new version of this Drone, the A.R. Drone 3.0 or Bebop (a name sure to confuse fans of the Ninja Turtles) that comes loaded with a 12 megapixel fisheye camera, and a two kilometer range with first person view flight!

(BTW – I am pretty sure it is illigal in both Canada and the US to fly a RC vehicle beyond unaided direct sight, so unless you have mutant hawk eyes, this drone is built to break the rules.  I will confirm this with a future post.)

There is also the brand spankin’ new DJI Phantom 2 Vision Quadcopter Drone with integrated first person view (FPV) camera and GPS flight mode.

Now, we’re talking about regulations, restrictions, licensing and insurance for what is still just a small remote control helicopter.

Taking photos and video from remote control vehicles is nothing new – but its only recently that there have been enough of them flying around and crashing into things that they have attracted mainstream attention.

Regulation of Drone Photography

The last thing we need as an industry (or society in general) is regulation of what should be common sense – especially when there are already existing regulations that are perfectly capable.

Call me a crazy conspiracy theorist, but the only time I see regulations on commercial aerial photography actually being enforced is when governments or corporations that fund governments have something to hide.

You know, like when National Geographic photographer George Steinmetz was arrested to taking aerial photographs of a feedlot in Kansas.


The Three Complaints Against Drone Aerial Photography

There are three main complaints related to drone photography:

1. Privacy Concerns

To me privacy from being photographed from the air by a drone is not really a legitimate concern.

Anything a drone with a camera can see from the air, you can already see right now from Google Earth, from conventional aircraft with a telephoto lens, or from the ground.

The only difference is that a drone can provide a unique perspective – and this is especially true for video.

Google Earth View of Niagara Falls

Google Earth View of Niagara Falls



Of course, flying a drone over something interesting is a lot easier and cheaper than finding a nearby hot air balloon – so the frequency of photographing or filming something worth seeing from the air is drastically increasing.

This has led to some recent minor conflict as both the general public and autority figures adjust to the possibility of being photographed from the air – not unlike the adjustment to being photographed and filmed by anyone with a cell phone which is currently ongoing.

But, if we are going to regulate drone aerial photography and video due to privacy, lets include conventional aerial photography and satellite imaging as well.

2. Safety Concerns

Safety is of course a legitimate concern – nobody wants a flying hunk of plastic to drop on their head.

But realistically, there are a whole lot of other flying things that are way more dangerous than remote control helicopters that are completely unregulated.

According to the internet (which never lies):

  • Flying golf balls and clubheads annually send 40,000 golfers to emergency rooms.
  • Flying  children on trampolines account for an estimated 109,522 injuries every year.
  • Nearly 500 planes have been damaged from collisions with birds in the US since 2000

Again, the point is that safety concerns over collisions with remote control helicopters with cameras on them are (for the time being anyway) statistically insignificant.

3. Entitlement to Peace and Quiet

Nobody wants to be harassed by a giant buzzing mosquito – especially if you are trying to enjoy some peace and quiet at a National Park or other wilderness area.

Entitlement to peace and quiet (among other reasons) is what led the US National Park Service (NPS) to recently ban Drones from Yosemite National Park.

Although I personally question the actual impact a few random quad-copters would actually have on wildlife, the National Park Service is bang on when they say:

Drones impact the wilderness experience for other visitors creating an environment that is not conducive to wilderness travel.

Of course, the exact same thing can be said about other motorized vehicles – like motor boats, jet skis, ATVs and snowmobiles that are still allowed in many National Parks and other wilderness areas – but I for one am at least glad that it will only be the noisy, drunk teenagers across the lake that impact my wilderness experience on my next camping trip.

However, I do have to admit that annoying teenagers have only impacted my wilderness experience on very rare occasions – and I’m pretty sure the same could be said of photographers flying drones.

Voluntary Code Of Conduct For Drone Photography

Since the operation of remote control drone aircraft for the purpose of taking photos and recording video is still legally a little ambiguous, I propose a voluntary code of conduct for drone photography.

Really there only needs to be one rule:

Don’t be an idiot.

But, since rules control the fun, here are a few suggestions for the safe operation of remote control model aircraft from the Academy of Model AeronauticsAMA Model Aircraft Safety Code.

There are a few main points:

  • Yield the right of way to all human-carrying aircraft (duh).
  • Do not fly higher than approximately 400 feet above ground level within three (3) miles of an airport without notifying the airport operator.
  • Do not exceed a takeoff weight, including fuel, of 55 pounds.
  • Avoid flying directly over unprotected people, vessels, vehicles or structures (that might prove a challenge to anyone except landscape photographers).
  • Maintain control during the entire flight, maintaining visual contact without enhancement.

However, the AMA pretty much excludes all aerial drone photographers and videographers as their first person view (FPV)  rules of operation state:

The use of imaging technology for aerial surveillance with radio control model air, craft having the capability of obtaining high-resolution photographs and/or video, or using any types of sensors, for the collection, retention, or dissemination of surveillance data information on individuals, homes, businesses, or property at locations where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy is strictly prohibited by the AMA unless written expressed permission is obtained from the individual property owners or managers.
So I guess that leaves us with perfectly level flying…woo hoo what fun!

What Do You Think Is the Future of Drone Aerial Photography and Drone Aerial Videography?

Is aerial drone photography or aerial drone video, for either recreational purposes or commercial use an actual issue – or just the latest media frenzy fueled by an irrational fear of drones?

Do you fly a drone?  Have you had any issues with overzealous authority figures or disgruntled by-standards?

Should remote control aircraft be more heavily regulated – or just remote control aircraft with cameras?

Please leave a comment below and let us know what you think!

(Lead Photo: “Bladez Toyz Terminator Salvation Helicopter”, Photo 2: “MQ-9 Reaper in flight (2007)” Wikimedia (CC), Photo 3: “Drone 24a” Wikimedia (CC), Photo 4: “Parrot AR Drone 2.0“)

  • Denis Hipke


  • Jeff Langford

    As long as we can call them Annoying, unregulated and intrusive RC helicopters with a camera.

  • akshayjamwal

    Hahaha, I laughed out loud really hard when I scrolled down to the honeybee photo.
    Enjoyable article. Like it or not, I think the name ‘drone’ has stuck in popular culture and is probably here to stay, at least for a while.
    People are still exploring applications and the technology is already changing the commercial photography and videography market. Not all in a good way, either. I read a recent article about videographer’s from a news agency being fired in favour of drones.

  • C Jacobs

    I hope the authorities regulate the (s)ugar (h)oney (i)ced (t)ea out of the use of these so called drones. I’ve been flying r/c helicopters and planes since the 70’s. Now these Johnny come latelies are giving us sport flyers a bad name. We’re being lumped in with them and their antics. The sooner the smack down is handed out the better.

  • Enrico Fugagnoli

    Whatever a man can imagine and create, a crowd will find it annoying, dangerous or immoral! They will find their life’s fulfilment in complaining, fighting against it and shout loud for rules and controls … so sad

    • John-Paul Danko

      Man – you could say that about so many things!

  • dorn

    Good article. I am surprised they are not calling them anything followed by something like, “and what happened next will change your life, absolutely amazing!”

  • Eric Jaakkola

    These aren’t the drones you’re looking for.

  • Eric Jaakkola

    I read a comment that honest to god blamed Obama for consumer drones violating our privacy.

    • Jayson Carey

      Thanks, OBAMA!

  • Wil Fry

    I like your title; I was thinking of blogging something similar a few days ago when I realized all the “drones” the news has been babbling about were actually remote control helicopters. I’m sure I’m not the only one that got confused over this mis-use of the word. Sigh.

    But I have to disagree with you about the privacy concerns. This isn’t even in the same ballpark as Google Earth/Maps, or conventional aerial photography. There are several (confirmed) reports of people hovering their camera-laden drones right outside someone’s home and hotel windows. Not to mention how easy it would be to hover just a few feet out of reach over back yards or any other situation where you previously (pre-“drone”) had a reasonable expectation of privacy.

    I’m not one to get over-hyped about stuff like this, but I do think there needs to be sensible regulation (and enforcement) because: idiots.

    • joe_average

      I respectfully disagree about privacy; this is not an issue with aerial equipment. looking in anyone’s window or house is a breach of privacy regardless of the equipment used. people who want privacy should close the window blinds. yeah, I agree, there’s lots of idiots out there. but we can’t blame the camera tools, just the tool doing the piloting.

      • Wil Fry

        Joe, perhaps I was not clear (it’s been known to happen). Clearly the “breach” is the same, as you say, regardless of how you do it.

        The author, however, was comparing the drone’s ability with that of Google Earth or “conventional aerial photography”. These are the author’s words: “Anything a drone with a camera can see from the air, you can already see
        right now from Google Earth, from conventional aircraft with a
        telephoto lens, or from the ground.”

        That’s what I’m contesting, because clearly a drone can get to places and see things that those other three cannot. No one can see in my back window unless they fly a drone in my back yard, or physically break in. In some U.S. states, someone breaking into your back yard can be shot, but not if they fly a remote control helicopter in there.

        As for “blaming the tools”, at no point was I doing that. Regulations and laws regarding flying, driving, etc., aren’t made because the technology exists. The laws are made because *people* use the technology.

        • UnrealPhotography

          This is one point I do agree with. That said, such tools should be regulated in how they are manufactured – I think any “drone” that has a camera strapped to it should be required to have something such as a bright, blinking light on it and whatnot to make it noticeable, and should be legally prohibited from flying a certain altitude on or near private property that has not agreed to have it there. Any such drones found where they are unwanted (again, made noticeable from proper manufacturing) have the right to be destroyed by the property owner if possible and the operator should be open to prosecution. Other than that, I don’t buy any of the other hysteria attached to the label of these “drones,” or what should properly be referred to as RC helicopters which are sometimes attached to cameras.

  • BuckCash

    ▸ noun: an aircraft without a pilot that is operated by remote control

    Works for me, especially since it’s a lot shorter than, “fancy RC helicopter with a camera strapped to it”.

  • Ahmet

    Comparing golf balls to RC helicopters… OK, do you think that playing golf in front of a rock festival stage is OK? Because someone will fly an RC quadrocopter there soon.

    Can a satellite or a full scale helicopter with a photographer take a photo through anyone’s bedroom window? Well, maybe some bedroom windows are possibly to give access to a spying telephoto lens from a helicopter, but I can hardly believe that no one notices a hovering heli in front of the house.
    Letting a noisy thing into nature is not OK. Reasoning with other present nosy things is stupid. If a dog shits on your doormat can I as well? It’s too bad you have snowmobiles and ATW-s in national parks. They don’t belong there. On the other hand a drone makes more disturbance. Just search on “birds attacking RC planes” .
    And your suggestion about 55 lb max take off weight: That’s the weight of a check in luggage on a commercial flight. Just to put it in scale.

    Since these toys are made to take video/photo, people will use them where things are happening. Not in remote places like they used to do with RC planes without cameras.

    • Matt Wollam

      That “suggestion about 55 lb max take off weight” is not his suggestion, nor anyone else’s suggestion. Its part of the voluntary AMA flight rules that you automatically consent to when flying any unmanned aerial vehicle controlled by radio. And any breakage of those rules can land you in trouble with the federal government and you can possible end up in federal prison. Just sayin, you might want to check out your sources and the authors sources before you make a comment.

  • Carol L

    RC Airplane $200+/-
    US Gov Drone $12.5M
    Priceless (unless you’re picking up tab aka the taxpayer)

    BTW … great article!

    • David

      Well, actually, $200 is about the bare minimum to get in the air. The club I used to belong to out west included aircraft that cost several thousand. When you’re getting into real RC Jets (not ducted fans), the engines alone can be about $7,500.

  • Wes Gibson

    Great article. I find the use of the word Drone as nothing more than a sales gimmick. It sounds cool.

    I’ve been flying radio control sailplanes and helicopters for 25 years. Now all of a sudden, they are drones and everybody is concerned that I’m going to violate their privacy or violate National Security.

    I am a retired US Navy Combat Photographer. To me, a drone is either a weapon or a target to test a weapon. We never strapped a camera onto a drone. I have strapped a camera onto my radio control aircraft though.

    I truly appreciate your comment, “Don’t be an idiot.” I believe one big problem is that the radio control vehicles today have such sophisticated electronics that no skill is required to fly them. They don’t require the years of building and flight training to fly them safely.

    Also, since the new RC vehicles are so easy to fly, a lot of people don’t seek out organizations like the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA). Members of the AMA have to follow a code of conduct and carry $2.5 million in liability insurance.

    Anyway, I agree…stop calling them drones. If we just call them radio control airplanes or radio control helicopters, people will stop freaking out.

    • echomrg

      it’s weird that a retired US Navy Combat Photographer is saying he never strapped a camera onto a drone, considering that the Predator was conceived for reconnaissance and forward observation roles.

      they flew for many years (and in some cases they still do) without weapons.
      some countries still don’t allow weaponized UAVs.

      • Wes Gibson

        I think the Predator is an Air Force bird. I’ve never seen one in person. They don’t use them on the Aircraft Carriers. At least, they didn’t in my days (1980-2000)

        I don’t think they even use photographers for the digital camera systems in combat drones. Something like that would be handled by avionics types. They haven’t needed photogs since they got rid of film reconnaissance.

        I actually wish that I would have had my DJI Phantom quadcopter with the GoPro in my Navy days. It would have come in handy when documenting hull damage and other things. Would have been a lot cheaper than manning up a full size helicopter or taking out one of the ship’s utility boats.

  • Arthur_P_Dent

    You cannot use motorized vehicles in a designated wilderness area.

  • Joey Waves

    do you even drone bro?

    • Tony27nine

      Good grief! Now you’re even using the word as a verb!!! Is there no end to the torture some of you will inflict on the English language?

  • Olympus1974

    We call them drones because, well, we’re all drones. Note that the Terminator was a cyborg, not a robot. 😉

  • Michael

    “we can’t blame the camera tools, just the tool doing the piloting” – Joe A.

    LOL. Most people who are really into flying, aren’t peeping toms. They’re people that really do want to have fun, enjoy their hobby and meet others who share the same passion.

    I would submit that those who fly drones for more devious and sinister purposes should not be considered hobbyists, and give those of us who truly love the past time a bad rap.

  • Zimba

    I personally don’t like the term “drone” because practically every time there is a bad occurrence with a quadcopter the media calls it a drone plus I have noticed that in any comment section about the news article most the people say owners use them for spying and they are going to shoot them down if one is flying around their house or property.
    I think during the war in the Middle East when drones were being used by the military, psychologically that is what people associate the word drone with and it makes it tough on us people who enjoy flying their quadcopters.
    I have heard they are called drones because they are an unmanned aerial vehicle and can be set on a pre-course to fly.
    RC planes and helicopters are unmanned aerial vehicles and besides when I bought my quadcopter that is what it was called when I ordered it, that is what it said on the box when I received it and when I set a pre-course for it to fly it is called waypoints. It doesn’t say “putting it in drone mode.”

  • Not a Drone

    The government will get involved anytime they feel they can make money or control the population.
    I agree it’s a RC helicopter. The term DRONE is used by media like the term “ASSAULT RIFLE” as just a BUZZ WORD to strike fear into readers.
    It’s STUPID, and UNFAIR.

  • Tony27nine

    Brilliant! In the U.S. You can’t fly a hi-Res camera over someone if there’s a chance you might impinge on their privacy but you can own a gun. Yeee, haaaa!
    What a country!!!

    • Bee man

      FYI , a “drone” bee is male and does not make honey, or do any other work around the hive. They are are just for mating with and then I believe they get kicked out(well mostbof them die on the queen chase mating ritual, she mates with they last one still alive after the others die from exhaustion from the chase)

  • JackMarker

    Hahaha, I roared with laughter truly hard when I looked down to the bumble bee photograph.

    Charming article. Like it or not, I think the name “automaton” has stuck in mainstream culture and is presumably digging in for the long haul, at any rate for some time.

  • Foam pilot

    I’m a retired and tired guy who likes to fly fixed wing micro planes. All of this worry over privacy is warranted, I guess. It would really be a shame to have a license for a bunch of planes weighing 1 1/2 ounces each! Park flyers!
    I think it boils down to people who hate it when others find a way to relax and have fun.