Attack of the drones: Aerial surf photography takes off
Every time Pipeline breaks they're there, as regular as the Wolf Pak. A thicket of photographers standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the top of the tide mark, staking their sandy claim in surfing's version of the press pack. And with multiple lenses pointed seaward the result is often an unsurprising facsimile of coverage; differences in output are afforded mostly by technique and equipment. Their numbers may be many but the angle remains the same.
The most striking footage of Pipeline this year came, not from someone standing amongst the Pipeline press pack, but from a fellow who sat alone and off to the side, up near the lifeguard tower at Ehukai. Eric Sterman, a young videographer from Hawaii, perched cross-legged on the sand with a remote control in his hands as Kelly Slater paddled into a set during the semi-finals of the Pipe Masters.
The footage, shot from a quadrocopter hovering thirty feet above sea level, shows Slater stroking into a translucent green line of swell, the infamous Pipeline caverns clearly visible beneath the surface. The viewer sees Slater drop in, get barrelled, and subsequently spat out into the channel, all from that unique aerial perspective. To date the single wave video has had over 150,000 views. A subsequent compilation video, also shot from the air and featuring a mixture of Pipeline sessions has had over 380,000 views. Every single surfing publication I know of ran it on their web platform.
Sterman, a North Shore local, has only been shooting aerial footage for six months and admits to being surprised by the reach of his videos. “A lot of people saw the videos. I've had a lot of people contact me from within the surf industry,” Sterman admitted when we recently spoke.
He may be surprised yet it's exactly the reaction Sterman desires. He first saw a quadrocopter – correct term Unmanned Aerial Vehicle*, or UAV – at last year's Oakley Pro Bali and immediately gleaned the possibilities. “I bought my equipment six months ago and set out to be an aerial photographer, be it real estate or surfing. I want this [aerial photography] to be a career.”
Sterman isn't there yet, however, and he'll have to do a bit more background reading if he's to realise his ambition. When I asked him about the requisite regulations for flying a UAV he drew a blank. “I know you can fly them as a hobby. But no, I really don't know the rules at all.”
The UAV industry is currently booming in both Australia and the US. Accurate sales figures are hard to come by but impressive by any measure; approximately 2,000 units were sold in Australia last year and around five times that figure in the US. Some units now sell for as little as $350 and the number of importers and distributors is growing rapidly. A pro-UAV lobby group in the US estimates there will be 30,000 non-commercial UAVs flying in American airspace by 2020. They also believe UAVs sales will reach US $6 billion within a few years and the concomitant industry will create tens of thousands of new jobs.
To keep pace with the thriving industry America's FAA and Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) are working quickly to regulate the operators and keep airspace safe. Although they are tightly restricted in the US, UAVs are increasingly being used by mining, aerospace and agricultural companies for the purposes of monitoring remote assets, surveying, and surveillance work. Last month, in response to pressure from the aforementioned industries, the FAA announced it had established six test sites across the US. The purpose of which was to “conduct critical research into the...operational requirements necessary to safely integrate UAS into the national airspace.”
Once completed the UAV community expects that there'll be a loosening of UAV restrictions in the US. Till then the current rules apply, and there's news for Eric Sterman and other footloose wingmen: Despite his amazing imagery Sterman's epic Pipeline videos are very likely illegal.
In the US hobbyists are allowed to use small radio-controlled craft under specific guidelines, but according to an FAA spokesperson, “if you're using it for any sort of commercial purposes, including journalism, that's not allowed.” And under the FAA interpretation 'journalism' is a very broad term. Even running an amateur blog is considered journalism. It doesn't have to be a commercial venture.
If that sounds a tad ambiguous and a wee bit hazy, well, you're not alone. The FAA is making up rules on the fly - for want of a better term. They're rushing to catch up to the booming UAV technology without even a clear idea of its extent or capability, leave alone the ability to future proof the legislation.
Because of this, and fortunately for Eric Sterman and his like, the FAA is reticent to penalise those who transgress the rules. If they catch the antagonist – a very unlikely event in itself – they'll generally request them to cease their activities, although sanctions are possible for operating a UAV in a reckless manner.
In 2002 Australia became the first country to write legislation for UAVs and it's currently one of the most advanced in integrating civilian UAVs into public airspace. Despite this, CASA last year launched a review of UAVs which, depending upon consultation time, will see an overhaul of regulations by 2015/2016.
Peter Gibson is a spokesperson for CASA and he's well aware of the guessing game the authority is playing trying to catch up with UAV technology. “It's hard to write enforceable legislation when we don't know where the technology will be in a few years.”
As for those who transgress the rules in Australia, Gibson says “we can, and do, hand out infringement notices.” Capture can be difficult, but where evidence exists they have the power to hand out fines up to $8,000. Something Gibson says CASA has already “done a few times.”
The penalties may be stiffer here in Australia but the restrictions to flying are much looser than in the US. A simple electronic approval form is all that's required to fly the smallest UAVs while all 77 commercial UAV operators received certification after forwarding their business plan and completing a standard risk assessment procedure.
So what does all this mean for surfing?
Judging by the response to Eric Sterman's videos and the growing amount of aerial footage on the internet we're about to see a large increase in UAV-captured surf footage. Five years ago GoPro sent shock waves around the surfing world by taking viewers deep within the wave, so too will UAVs feed the internet's insatiable appetite for new images and angles. Except this time it'll be the macro view; imagery that features the overarching scope of line up and landscape.
Plans are already being made at the top. Although Eric Sterman wouldn't say which surf companies have approached him, Dave Prodan at the ASP admitted that they will be using UAV footage this year – possibly as soon as Snapper Rocks. “I've seen Eric's footage. We've had plenty of internal discussion [about UAVs],” said Prodan when in a recent conversation with Swellnet.
“The policy being developed around UAVs is not dissimilar to that regarding water photographers [in ASP competition] and revolves mostly around the safety of the athletes and their ability to compete free from distraction.”
Like the FAA and CASA, the ASP are quickly writing the rules to adopt the new technology. At present UAVs aren't mentioned anywhere in the ASP Rulebook but by the time the 2014 season commences they will be.
Another UAV early adopter is Tasmanian Stu Gibson. In 2006 Gibson won a competition, the Nescafe Big Break, for his cutting edge photographic work. Gibson ploughed the winnings into his photo business and has since kept moving and evolving to stay at the forward edge of his art. Six months ago he bought a UAV.
“I love it. Once you get into it it's a pretty heavy addiction,” says Gibson whose been running many test flights around his Tasmanian home with a mind for filming the next big Shipsterns session – wind and weather permitting.
Yet despite his enthusiasm Gibson already laments the coming onslaught of aerial footage. “It's kind of sad because the rare footage of stills from a helicopter or plane will be boring soon, and it was once such a cool perspective to see.”
Gibson's statement needs to be taken in context; it's in his nature to stay ahead of the pack, and as such he's acutely aware of the direction the technology is heading. So sure, the day may come when the aerial angle is as commonplace as that captued by the Pipeline press pack. It's a while off, however, and till that day comes there'll be plenty of great imagery from surfing's new photographic frontier.
*Also known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or in the media as drones.