Removing The Camera Drone from the Scene of the NYC Gas Explosion Was the Right Thing to Do

A screen grab from Brian Wilson's Instagram.

On Wednesday, Harlem’s community suffered tremendously when a gas leak explosion brought down two apartment buildings, killing 8 people and leaving over 70 injured. The NYPD was again faced with the task of digging through rubble to find any signs of survivors in a demolished area, bringing back memories to many people of what happened back on 9/11. A bizarre incident, however, did manage to make an appearance in the midst of everything when one photographer, Brian Wilson, caught some attention for his camera’s setup; it was on a flying drone.

The flying drone, a DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter, managed to take a (pretty well done, might I add) aerial shot of the debris from the explosion that morning, and the photo was posted to the photographer’s Instagram account. It wasn’t, however, until the drone caught the attention of the NYPD that things got slightly controversial. I take that back; it already started turning heads of other people before it got noticed by the police, and even the people themselves got worried.

The DJI Phantom 2

Brian Wilson was then ordered by the police to bring down the drone, with which he complied (with some disappointment). Considering there aren’t really laws set in place in New York that tie restrictions down yet on drones being manned by the public, his actions were seen as forgivable enough.

Did the police act wrongly in the situation? Were they infringing on the rights of this man like many other police have been caught doing when forcing people outside perimeters to turn their cameras off? Let’s look at the context of the story, which unfortunately tends to get lost in sensationalism. Before you go on, keep in mind that the photographer did talk to a few officers before launching his drone, and was compliant with bringing it down when requested. The following is an argument in response to those who think the police acted wrongly here.

At the time the drone was noticed, there weren’t 8 people known dead from the explosion. That meant that time was quickly running out for emergency services as they searched for signs of anyone trapped in the damage; they had to act fast. A drone in the air is out of the way when it comes to photography, but what could have happened had it lost power? With authorities already having a full plate in their hands, they don’t need distraction from falling objects in the sky, which could prove to be interfering with the tasks they were trying to achieve.

Oh, yeah. By the way, the NYPD had a full plate on their hands already. Two buildings exploded, were brought down, people were trapped inside, eight died, and half the population on Twitter and the streets of Harlem were immediately injected with the fear of a terrorist attack like 9/11 happening all over again. That is absolutely not the perfect time to send a drone flying in the air at all. When you put people into even more of a panic than they’re already in, you cause more panic for the police, and their job gets harder. They don’t need to be worrying about the fear of a potential attacker spying through a drone camera when they have people they need to help get out of harm’s way.

Photography is not, and shouldn’t be a crime. It’s essential for any free state that each person be allowed to practice photography as freely as they practice their speech. But like all other rights and privileges, we have to remember that there’s still a time and place for everything. If you’re going to take a picture in the midst of a disaster, and use a device that got people worried even before it reached the attention of most police officers, you’re not helping make anyone’s situation better. In the situation here, Brian Wilson did talk to police before he set his drone off, and kept it in the air until many people and police officers began getting worried by it. Things could have been worse, and in this case the police acted with as much reason as they possibly could with Brian. But not everyone is going to be as reasonable or as compliant as both Brian and the NYPD were on Wednesday, and we have to keep that in mind.

In other news, the DJI Phantom 2 just launched an insanely ambitious marketing campaign.

  • Joe Adams

    I can understand the concerns of the police and others gathered around over using a drone at a scene such as this. Drones are pretty new to a lot of people, many of which aren’t aware they can be used for good things as opposed to NSA spying, military use, or what have you. Its truly a shame how drones get put in negative light so often because they can be such useful and powerful tools. I think that Brian handled it professionally by making the decisions of speaking with police prior to take off and cooperating when they asked him to land the drone shortly after. I am curious to see if the FAA hops in this case with a lawsuit considering this wasn’t a job that was being compensated.

  • joe_average

    yes, this was a great case of fair-use with respect for the situation. but on a side note…if the police or fire department had a drone equipped with a near-infrared camera, they would be able to see through the smoke and make better assessments of the situation. in fact one could argue that it is actually irresponsible of any police/fire department to not have these tools (ir cameras, drones, new-technology-in-general…) ready for emergencies. we, as a whole society, must continue to push technology into good use with rational, public discourse on what is “good use.”


    The NYPD and FDNY should already have some of these. Imagine the value in assessing a situation like this.

  • Vladimir V. Bott

    Photo drones should not be viewed by public as UFOs. The only valid argument I see in the article is that it could have lost power and fallen down. The photographer was taking photos as a photojournalist imho, He did not break any laws, so police overreacted a little (to be fair, in the best interest of the general public, that is uninformed and freaks out every time something is happening out of the ordinary). I am happy that there were no incident and the photographer did not get in trouble and the police did not have to distract their efforts from saving people.

    • Ian Hecht

      Pretty sure that DJI equips the Phantoms with a return-to-base protocol on low battery, or signal loss from the controller. The drone falling out of the sky is not very likely…

    • Lisa

      Ian is correct. The DJI Phantoms do have a return to home device in the event they lose signal from the radio or the battery gets low. It is one of the reasons they are so popular. It feels odd calling it a drone because the enthusiasts in the RC world still refer to them as a quad copter. Calling it a drone makes it sound sinister. Which one could argue that they could be in the wrong hands. In this situation it was handled responsibly. We don’t know how close Brian was flying at times and if it was making the crowd nervous, then it’s not helping the situation.

  • Paganator

    Would your opinion change if it had been the New York Times flying the drone? If so, why?

  • Peter Sachs

    It appears that the author’s sole argument against this drone flight was that it could have fallen out of the sky. Yet he fails to mention that the same holds true for the full-size helicopters that were on scene.

    Mr. Wilson did nothing wrong, legally or ethically. This article, from a photography publication no less, which argues against the right to photograph anything in plain view from a public place, for fear of a “flying tripod” plunging from the sky, is comical.

    The author also states that Mr. Wilson was “ordered” and later states he was “requested” to land. Why the two different assertions? The fact is he was requested, not ordered.

    I realize this is an opinion piece, and the author is entitled to his opinion no matter how ll-informed. But at least write a article that follows logic.

    If the author is going to argue that a 3-pound plastic model aircraft might fall from the sky and presumably risk lives, he ought to at least acknowledge that the same holds true with a 1500-pound JetRanger, which would present a far greater risk if it fell.

    • DumbPeopleArgueOnTheInterWebs

      A licensed pilot with hundreds of hours of training in a helicopter versus an “off the shelves” flight of the drone is hardly the same thing.

      • Peter Sachs

        To classify *all* drone pilots as unskilled is both unfair and untrue. There are both skilled and unskilled full-size and drone pilots, as there is in any profession. The unskilled pilot of either variety has no business flying.

        I am both a licensed full sized-sized commercial helicopter pilot and a drone pilot. I have seen plenty of unskilled full-sized aircraft pilots (and have watched some of them die due to their lack of skill). I have also seen plenty of very highly-skilled drone pilots.

        Mr. Wilson seemed to fly his Phantom in a skillful manner. Can you point to any evidence that he is not?

      • Peter Sachs

        The very tragic events in WA today should make it clear (even to you) that “hundreds of hours of training in a helicopter” do not necessarily prevent horrible accidents from happening.

        The fact is anything that flies can suddenly “stop flying” for any of a number of reasons, and that gravity always works regardless of one’s piloting skills.

        The only true difference is that when a fuel-filled, 1500-lb JetRanger becomes controlled solely by gravity, the results, in terms of loss of life, injury and property damage, are vastly different than when the same occurs with a battery-powered 3-lb model aircraft.