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Artists Want to Fly Drones, But First They Need to Learn How

“Artists are using drones to see the world differently."

Jordan Pearson

Jordan Pearson

Image: Flickr/Walter

When you think of drone photography, majestic bird's-eye views of pastoral landscapes probably come to mind. Some of those landscapes may or may not contain people having sex.

Artists want to get more unique perspectives out of their drones, however—say, a bug's eye view of the world.

"Artists are using drones to see the world differently," said Laura Millard, a visual artist and professor whose drone photography is on display at Canada's first all-drone art exhibition in Toronto. On Saturday, Millard helped to lead a drone flight workshop for artists who want to explore integrating drones into their practice.

"Most people use the flight for epic aerial shots, but you can use them as an insect, or a person walking down a road and who has a sense of uncertainty about the world, looking side to side," Millard continued. "It can embody a character."

Sounds great! But here's a question: Would you trust an artist with a drone? I mean, we could be asking the same thing about the many dads who received them as gifts (and then crashed them) over the holidays, but artists are Cool and do things like drink and do drugs with abandon. Without the right training, doing some advanced acrobatics with a drone can be potentially dangerous.

"It wasn't a gash, but I flew it into my knee and it made a couple chops"

Drones are great tools for getting insane shots on the relative cheap for working artists, but they do pose some risks, after all. In the case of flying drones way up high to get the perfect landscape shot, regulators worry about pilots becoming distracted in flight or worse, a drone actually hitting a plane.

When the idea is to fly drones tight to the ground, or flitting among the trees, the risks become less lofty, but perhaps even more immediate than some imagined drone-plan collision.

That's why Millard believes that workshops just for artists are necessary—when she was starting out by herself, she flew her drone right into her leg and drew blood. "It wasn't a gash, but I flew it into my knee and it made a couple chops," Millard said.

At the drone flight workshop on Saturday, some of the participants who weren't totally new to drones recounted their own horror stories. One man described his brand-new drone flying out of sight and into a tree line, never to be found again, as being "beautiful, like ET, except it was never returning home."

Image: Author

Ryan Rizzo, an instructor at the workshop, advised the artists that drone professionals never use the term "crash"—they prefer "emergency landing." This was just one of the many pearls of wisdom he imparted to the small crowd while wading through a litany of safety checks and regulatory thistles. For example, he said, all of downtown Toronto is off-limits to drone hobbyists due to its proximity to the city's airport. Most urban artists will have to find somewhere else to take artsy selfies with their drones.

"It's important to start with these," said Rizzo, as he played with one of the miniature toy drones that the artists at the workshop had been given to practice their flight chops on before they got to use the real thing. "One thing you want to take into consideration while flying is not to get hyper-excited. The smallest of movements makes a difference."

Workshops that teach artists how to use drones are helpful, said Millard, because they allow non-technical artists (at least in terms of unmanned aerial vehicle tech) to learn the basics of drone flight before they hurt themselves or someone else, or run afoul of the law. The next step, she said, is for artists to use their drones "curiously," and with an eye for the uncommon perspective.

So, would I trust an artist with a drone? Absolutely. Well, as long as they've had a crash course or two first, pun absolutely intended.