Droning in the city

By Steven Blumenthal

On a brisk November night in a New Jersey suburb 10 miles out of Manhattan, Ari Levine is taking his drone hundreds of feet in the air to capture an incredible view of New York at dusk.

The drone flies several hundred feet into the night sky, passing under planes until it is out of sight. Levine is still in control however, monitoring the flight through the camera and GPS on his smartphone remote control. After 20 minutes the drone reappears as Levine brings it in to swap out the battery.

Over the past eight months Levine, a 26-year old dental student and recent graduate of Queens College, has flown his drone all around New York and New Jersey, including in and around New York City.

Ari Levine, 26, with his DJI Phantom 3 drone. (Photo by Steven Blumenthal)
Ari Levine, 26, with his DJI Phantom 3 drone. (Photo by Steven Blumenthal)

Levine acquired the drone, a DJI Phantom 3, in April after a successful weekend in Atlantic City. “I won a whole bunch of money in Atlantic City and what’s the best way to blow a few thousand bucks,” said Levine when asked about what got him into flying the expensive tiny aircraft.

As the holiday shopping season gets under way one of the most popular gifts bound to be found underneath trees are drones. In a September interview with Air Transport World FAA assistant of administrator-policy, international affairs and environment Rich Swayze said that its possible that one million consumer drones will be sold during this period.

These type of drones range in price from under $100 to well over $1,000. Similar to robotic cars and RC vehicles of the past, flying these robots is an exciting, almost futuristic, idea to many consumers. Most are controlled by an app on a smartphone, can travel several hundred feet in the air and feature cameras to record the footage for their land-based pilots below.

The category is expected to continue to grow beyond the holiday season, ballooning from a $609 million market in 2014 to one worth $4.8 billion worldwide by 2021, according to research firm Radiant Insights. Beyond people purchasing drones for recreational use, major tech companies such as Amazon and Google and others have announced plans to use them for delivering packages and other items. The military of course, has been using the technology for years for surveillance and counter-terrorism operations overseas.

On a consumer level there are an increasing number of hobbyists fascinated by taking these drones into the air, a number of which, like Levine, use the drone as a photography tool.

As a budding photographer, Levine said he loves the perspective flying gives him, allowing him to view the world from an angle not normally attainable even when using the tallest ladders.

“If you have the drone there you are almost like a painter,” said Levine. “You can compose the image any which way you want… because you can fly it. You can position the drone in a way that you could control the composition of the image which you can’t do as a photographer standing on the ground.”

“You can bring a ladder,” he said, “but its only going to get you a few extra feet.”
Some of his best shots, Levine added, have come when flying the drone around the city.

A drone's view of New York City (Credit: Ari Levine)
A drone’s view of New York City (Credit: Ari Levine)

Not everyone enamored with drones is a photographer or willing to spend thousands of dollars for a sophisticated variant. Some, like Carmi Muskin, are in it for the fun.

Muskin, a 23-year marketing major from Cleveland attending New York’s Yeshiva University in Washington Heights, only recently started flying his drone. Unlike Levine, he’s pursuing it solely from an entertainment perspective.

Carmi Muskin, 23, flying his drone inside his apartment in New York. (Photo: Steven Blumenthal)
Carmi Muskin, 23, flying his drone inside his apartment in New York. (Photo: Steven Blumenthal)

“I’ve had friends that have had them, I’ve seen YouTube videos” said Muskin at his apartment in upper Manhattan. “They just seemed like a cool toy and it was on sale so I picked myself up one.”

While Muskin has only been flying his drone for a few days, he is already getting the hang of it. Unlike Levine’s, the drone Muskin is flying is much smaller and cheaper, running under $200. Called the Parrot Minidrone, it is small enough to safely fly indoors. On this Thursday night Muskin was demonstrating flying it over his roommates’ heads while they watched television, much to their dismay.

“Just having fun with it,” said Muskin. “Its pretty easy to get the hang of.”

While Muskin, Levine and millions of other play with their new drones this holiday season, there is some controversy that may spoil the fun. Not everyone is as enthused with the idea of millions of tiny unmanned aerial vehicles invading the sky.

New York City, in particular, has been one of the most vocal opponents to flying the aircraft in its city’s airspace. Late last year New York City Council members Dan Garodnick and Paul Vallone announced plans to introduce legislation limiting drones in the city.

Garodnick’s plan would limit the use of any drones above New York City while Vallone’s bill would regulate in what areas drones can be used, allowing for a safe space for those who fly the aircrafts as a hobby to operate. Those who violate Vallone’s bill would face fines and possible time in jail.

When asked about his thoughts as a new buyer Muskin can see the point of the councilmen, citing privacy as his big concern.

“I can see how that’s important. People are very strict about their own privacy and drones with cameras can intrude on their own privacy,” Muskin said. “I do think its important that people should have the rights to their privacy… so yeah I do think that’s a good law.”

Levine agreed, though his concern is rooted in the lack of experience new pilots receiving these as gifts will have. “If more and more idiots are getting these things, I cannot imagine what is going to happen on December 26. Everyone’s going to go out… I cannot imagine how many people are going to get hurt, how many security problems are going to arise.”

“I am trying to get done with this thing, use it till I’m bored, so that I’m not even going to want to use it anymore because I’m not going to be able to use it in a month. I know it.”