Photojournalist Eric Brinkhorst has no licence to fly. Yet he takes drone photos for the national newspapers Algemeen Dagblad and NRC, and a number of regional media.
In an interview with your flying reporter, he explains his act of civil disobedience. I want to be up in the air swiftly, he says.
It is not about the flying, I don’t even enjoy it, Brinkhorst asserts. ’The only reason I want to use it, is for pictures I otherwise cannot take. The drone is new technology, offering new possibilities, so obviously I want to use that.’ Yet be law he is not allowed. Flying a drone professionally is prohibited in the Netherlands. Brinkhorst could try to get an official exemption. But that would nog only be costing him a fortune (roughly 8000 euros), it would not also be inconvenient, as he then has the duty to report each flight to four different authorities (aviation authority, Ministry of Infrastructure and Enverinment, regional government and local government) starting weeks before the flight date.
So Brinkhorst flies illegally: ‘I dare to take that risk. But I abide by the rules1. I never fly above a crowd, I never fly above an altitude of 120 meters – I don’t even need to go that far up for what I do.”
Reporting fires and local breaking news
Brinkhorst’s hexacopter, is hand tailored to his personal DSLR camera. An investment worthwhile, he says, although he is not even using the drone on a daily basis. He sees is at an extra aid to take shots from special angles. “I also have a six meter long telescopic pole in the trunk of my car, very useful to peek over a blinded police fence. But in some cases I need more. The drone is somewhere in between that pole and an aeroplane. It could be a perfect tool in breaking news situations. If there is a fire, I want to be able to fly and report the story. From a reasonable distance, of course.
Under the present regulations, I would have to ask for an official exemption a few weeks before the fire starts. For breaking news reporting, that is of course impossible. Besides, even if planning a flight suits, you still have to report the exact time you will be flying. In the Netherlands you never know when the clouds give way to the sun, so what the best time is to take off for the best pictures. Once in a while a commercial client calls me asking a quick aerial picture of the town centre, or from a harbour. So then I have to give no for an answer.
‘Well, alright, sometimes I say yes, and take the assignment anyway. For safety reasons I then fly very early in the morning. Of course there is the risk of the police driving by, asking questions. Once they did. I was at an art project in Oldenzaal and the artist had painted a coating on the roof for Google Earth. I had just taken off with my drone, when I heard the voice of the officer. ‘Aerial Police,’ he said. It was a joke. He just wanted to know how the thing worked. I even brought three man personnel that day, so a was completely covered. I just don’t have the right papers.’
A professional drone pilot is obliged to set off with two co-workers. One flies the drone, one operates the camera, and one has to watch the surroundings. According to Brinkhorst three is too much with photography. ‘I do understand why this is for filming purposes. But for making a photo most actions, like adjusting the camera settings, are organised while the drone is still on the ground. Once your drone is flying, you use your screen to determine the angle, and within a minute you have your first picture. Maybe you shoot an extra photo from another angle, but within a minute you are finished.’
Despite the growing popularity of drone pictures on the internet, Brinkhorst does not notice an increase in the demand from media companies. ‘My clients Algemeen Dagblad and NRC don’t even ask specifically for drone pictures. It is my own decision to use the device if the subject needs it. Sometimes the photo editor chooses that picture, sometimes he doesn’t. So apparently it is not yet possible to market drone photos in journalism.’
Flying without the mandatory permit, brings about another complication. He is uninsured. ‘Yes, that is a risk, I admit. I can’t get an insurance without the correct paperwork. But I make sure I only fly at places where the drone will be the only victim, if anything goes wrong. My most important rule is not to fly above a crowd. Technology can fail after all.’
Brinkhorst is not the only news reporter who has problems with the Dutch drone regulation. Media lawyer Otto Volgenant explains in this interview with Dutch News Design why he is building a case against the Dutch government on behalf of drone journalists.
- Brinkhorst refers to the Regeling Modelvliegen, Dutch regulations for hobby drone pilots