Drone over Hunterdon is photographer’s eye in the sky


By Rick Epstein | Hunterdon County Democrat 

Bill Zarbock of Union Township is an old hand at photography, but he’s a beginner at flying his new photo drone. On Thursday he experienced his first “flyaway.”

He brought his equipment to Frenchtown to take some aerial views of the downtown area near the river bridge. He takes the drone (model: DJI Phantom 2) to a patch of lawn near the bridge, turns on the camera that’s mounted on its underside, and sets it on the ground. Even before the drone takes off, the camera is taking a continuous video as well as snapping a still photo every five seconds.

As the mosquito-whining craft rises, Zarbock flies it with a control console upon which is mounted a small, hooded viewing screen that shows what the drone is seeing. That equipment is partially supported by a strap that goes around the back of his neck. He bought the drone in January, and while winter weather prevailed, he schooled himself with “lots of reading and watching instructional videos on YouTube.” Now without much hands-on experience, he has remarkable control over the flying machine.

He sends it out over the river, keeping it below 200 feet. The device can go 1,000 feet up, but Zarbock doesn’t want to endanger any aircraft or get into trouble. Even so, the drone is regarded with some suspicion. A man working on the nearby River Mill housing development asks him what he’s “spying on.” The man isn’t hostile, but he’s suspicious.

It’s easier to believe that a grown man with a drone is up to something, than to believe he is just playing. And to be sure, Zarbock is not content to just fly the thing around. He had put in 27 years with AT&T and now co-owns a company that builds complex computer applications for large financial services and insurance companies. He is a purposeful man. “I decided that the interest in drones could be extended if I transformed from being a drone pilot to an aerial photographer,” he says.

Zarbock has been taking pictures for more than 40 years, starting in high school shooting for the yearbook. Using the drone’s GoPro camera, the “challenges of interesting scenes, proper lighting, good angles, framing, etc., still exist, but with the challenge of not crashing the drone while trying to get the perfect shot.”

For additional purposefulness, he settled on “the theme of taking pictures of Hunterdon County landmarks and landscapes showing the beauty of the county we live in,” and his early efforts in Clinton show he’s bringing more than technology and altitude to the project.

Zarbock originally bought the drone to see what is in the farm fields behind his house. He would also like to photograph wild animals, perhaps “trying to take pictures from within a herd of deer.” Human gatherings are appealing, too. Zarbock thinks Clinton’s May 30 150th anniversary celebration might look interesting from the air, as might his daughter’s wedding in September (although he’ll need to find a substitute pilot).

Within 20 minutes of starting the Frenchtown flight, besides being accused of spying, Zarbock is asked by someone if he’s working for the town and by someone else if he’d like to work for some real estate agents. The realty query distracts Zarbock for a minute, and he loses the drone, last seen headed southwest toward the river — his first flyaway.

Where is it?! There’s a $2,000 toy somewhere up there. Zarbock’s wife, Nancy, is supportive of his new hobby, but such a loss would have to be a talking point in any home for a long time. The viewing screen could help Zarbock figure out where it is, but with battery running low, the drone decides to take itself back to the GPS coordinates of its takeoff site beside the bridge. Happily no trees or wires intervened and it landed safely.

“Drones have a negative connotation,” he says, “but if used safely and without infringing on the personal rights of others, there are some interesting benefits.” And one of those benefits is providing a 63-year-old man with a pastime that weaves several of his interests into something very much like fun.