By SHAWNE K. WICKHAM
New Hampshire Sunday News
PORTSMOUTH -The buzz spread through the crowd as some pointed cellphones and cameras skyward: “Drone!”
Midway through Iris DeMent’s performance at Prescott Park Arts Festival last Wednesday, a “quad-copter” with an attached camera hovered over the Piscataqua River and the park for several minutes.
The drone’s appearance at a public gathering may have been a first for New Hampshire. But it certainly won’t be the last.
And after the defeat of a drone-related bill in the last Legislature, New Hampshire has no rules governing how they can be used here. (See related story)
New Castle photographer David J. Murray has taken photos of Prescott Park performances at ground level in the past and wanted to experiment with his new “flying camera,” he told the Sunday News. So he brought it to last week’s concert.
“I was particularly interested in trying to get a wide-angle view of the crowd and the river and the recognizable Portsmouth steeple in the background and the sunset – all at once,” said Murray, who has a ham radio operator’s license and has flown remote-controlled aircraft for years. But he said he didn’t realize the watcher would become the watched.
With everyone’s attention clearly shifting from the stage to the skies, DeMent asked the crowd whether UFOs were landing. Someone called out, “Drone!”
“Drone? It’s a new world,” DeMent commented before starting her next song.
Realized the impact
Murray, who was flying his device from the edge of the park, said he “felt bad” about what happened.
“As soon as I became aware of the crowd reaction, I landed,” he said. “I did not intend it to be as disruptive as it was.”
Murray purposely doesn’t call his device a “drone” because “the primary association that most people have with drones is highly negative because of the military connection.”
“What I’m doing is, from an emotional perspective, sort of a 180-degree opposite from what most people think of with drones,” he said. “I’m just trying to take nice pictures from a different perspective.”Jessica Bellantone of Greenland was at the Prescott Park show and said she felt “really violated and uncomfortable” when the drone focused on the crowd.
She knew what it was at once because she already had concerns about such devices.
“Our technology has so surpassed our ability to make sense of how to ethically use it that I feel we really need to be cognizant and aware of how our actions are affecting other people,” she said.
Bellantone said while plenty of people seemed “excited” by the drone’s appearance, some looked “dismayed.”
But she noticed one thing: “When you know you’re being watched, but don’t know how or why, it’s impossible to become unaware of that fact.”
Murray said he “apologized profusely” to Ben Anderson, executive director of Prescott Park Arts Festival.
He also apologized on the festival’s Facebook page, where one of the photos he took was posted and many concertgoers left positive comments.
Distractions are often “part of the event” for any outdoor venue, Anderson said. Prescott Park audiences in the past have seen large tankers pass by on the river. And last summer, when the first vehicles went over the newly reopened Memorial Bridge during a Judy Collins concert, many stood up to watch.
Still, he said, having a visit from a drone was “definitely a first” for the festival and may have been a first for any New Hampshire venue.
Anderson said he’d talked previously with Murray about his new “flying camera,” but he didn’t know Murray was going to bring it to the DeMent concert.
“Had I known, I would have announced it from the stage and just given everyone a heads up so people wouldn’t be wondering what this thing was flying around,” he said.
He’ll do so in the future, Anderson said, and he expects that will “turn any concern to interest because people will know what it is.”
Murray, too, said next time he’ll make sure the audience knows what he’s doing and only fly the drone for a limited time. “Maybe have people smile and wave,” he said.
Bellantone said she was impressed with Murray’s apology on Facebook and his polite response to her own posted comments. She said the photograph he took was beautiful.
Still has concerns
But she still feels a flying camera is far more intrusive than a photographer taking pictures on the ground. “It’s visual data and we don’t know who’s gathering it or for what purposes,” she said. “We can’t see where it’s aimed.”
She thinks there should be some sort of registration for drone operators so the public knows who and where they are.
“If we don’t have these discussions and shape laws around appropriate usage, I imagine that in five or 10 years … there won’t be the ability to go outdoors and feel free and private,” she said.
Murray points out it is a long-established law that those in public gathering places have no reasonable expectation of privacy. And he said individuals with cellphones or cameras with telephoto lenses can take far more detailed, close-up photos without the subjects even being aware.
“I think we have to be very respectful of people’s privacy,” he said. “And the kind of flying camera that I’m using, and most people that I know are using, are very poor tools for invading privacy, compared to these other tools.”
There are also safety concerns about drones accidentally hitting someone or something.
Anderson said while he trusts that Murray is a professional and knows what he’s doing, he does have concerns about such devices proliferating among less experienced operators. “My only concern would be, safety-wise, the wrong person behind the controls.”
Murray said there should be some rules to prevent amateurs from flying drones over crowds, and he recommends people start with smaller devices that can be flown indoors before trying the more expensive models.
Still, similar safety concerns were raised when automobiles first arrived on the scene, he said. “And what happened was we put appropriate regulations and licensing in place.”
He expects the same will occur with drones.
Bellantone, who is 31, said it’s not too late to try to protect privacy in today’s high-tech world.
“I’m of the generation that both grew up with technology and grew up with lack of privacy because of it, and I’m acutely aware of what I want to leave to future generations,” she said.
“And I do believe that we can find ways to use new technology in an appropriate manner that benefits everyone. The trick to making that work is respectful, civil dialogue, being open to other people’s points of view and not being defensive.
“It’s not that I want to live in a nanny state,” she said. “It’s more that I want people’s voices to be heard.”