Tech + Health

03.13.14

Bad to the Drone: Amateur Flyer Appears at Harlem Wreckage

While safety crews were still searching for survivors, a man launched his drone to get a better look, drawing congratulations from some, and criticism for his recklessness from others.

Brian Wilson, a 45-year-old from New Jersey, was just leaving his apartment in New York City for work when his roommate informed him that two buildings at the northwest corner of 116th and Park Avenue in Harlem had collapsed.

“[He] said ‘Hey, you should go there with your drone,’” Wilson tells The Daily Beast. “So I grabbed it and ran.”

A systems specialist at GAGE Strategies, Wilson spends most of his days developing systems to “help young entrepreneurs” who want to start a drone business. On his LinkedIn profile, he calls his 15 years in the business a “pleasure” and states his love of volunteering.

When he arrived on the scene, police were still unsure what was happening. “It was so smoky, so I launched [the drone] from a block away because I didn’t know what the scenario was,” he says. “But once I got closer, I was actually watching the buildings collapse.”

Wilson, who spoke to The Daily Beast from a cab on his way back up to Harlem, is curt and cold in conversation. He criticizes inexperienced drone flyers (“knuckleheads”) and boasts how he’s used his DJI Phantom (one of the most common drones on the market) to take pictures for a friend who works as paparazzi.

For a man who just filmed a close up of a real-life horror film, he seems virtually emotionless. His demeanor, in fact, strangely mimics that of his aircraft: robotic. Drone in hand, he’s returning to the scene to capture the pile of rubble where as many as fourteen people could be trapped.

When asked if it was eerie to be flying over such a scene, he’s virtually indifferent. “No, not really. It was just rubble I was looking at, it was too smoky,” he says calmly. “It wasn’t like I was gonna fly straight down into the middle—although I could have,” he says. Weaving in and out of fire ladders, Wilson says he tried, for the most part, to stay on the edge of the scene. Images of his drone mere feet away from law enforcement paint a different picture.

“More people were interested in watching me fly the drone than the actual buildings.”

When asked about the mood of onlookers in Harlem, he gives an answer that appears to be as shocking to him as it is to his audience. “More people were interested in watching me fly the drone than the actual buildings,” he says, seeming more fascinated by his own sudden fame than the tragedy from which it was born. “You should have seen how many reporters we’re stopping to talk to me. Police, too,” he says. “In one of my videos you can see the firefighters turning while on the ladders to look at my drone.”

Wilson says he’s seen “tons” of articles that reference him and his drone, but confesses he isn’t at all worried about the implications of selling his drone images and video for profit. Thanks to a lawsuit in Connecticut last month, which prohibits cops from penalizing personal drone use, he probably doesn’t have to be.

But while some were gazing at Wilson’s drone show in awe, leaders in the drone journalism community watched in horror. Matthew Schroyer, founder of The Professional Society of Drone Journalism calls the decision to fly over an active rescue mission “irresponsible” and “reckless.”

“There’s little to no legitimate news value added there,” he tells The Daily Beast. “As a journalist, your job is to observe, not interfere.” While many things about the situation alarm Schroyer it’s Wilson’s blatant disregard for safety that he finds the most appalling. The drone Wilson was using, while a popular one for photographers, is far from perfect. Just five months ago, a 34-year-old man in New York City was arrested on charges of “reckless endangerment” after a drone he was flying fell from the sky in midtown Manhattan. It was the same model Wilson used.

Schroyer points to the combination of smart phones, smoke, and fire as a potential recipe for disaster. “That would make for an incredibly dense area, in terms of radio interference.” In other words: Wilson’s drone escapade could have easily turned into another disaster. “It’s difficult to lock onto GPS signals in urban environments, especially one in which there are multiple sources of radio interference,” he says.

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A New York City police officer tells Brian Wilson (R) to land the drone that he was flying over the scene where two buildings were destroyed in an explosion, in the East Harlem section in New York City, March 12, 2014. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

If Wilson had lost control, or the drone malfunctioned, it could have quickly morphed into a weapon of its own. “It’s a four pound object falling from hundreds of feet in the air,” say Schroyer. “It could have killed someone. Definitely.”

In Wilson’s eyes, the flight was a roaring success. Underneath a picture of the wreckage he posted on his Instagram, friends are chiming in to congratulate his feat. “Nice work with your safe flight!!” says one. “Thanks @hotwingshot always a safe flyer thanks to a lot of training and practice,” Wilson responds.

The debate about drone safety, while important, is rendered obsolete by the current legal environment shaped by the Federal Aviation Administration. In the absence of specific regulations on small-unmanned aircraft, which the FAA promised would be out months ago, flying a drone over wreckage is as legal as drinking a beer.

It’s a fact Schroyer and others in the Drones for Good community know too well—one that’s deeply apparent in situations like this one. “It’s damaging. None of us wanted to be in a situation where there is no regulation. This shows what happens when there isn’t; it opens up the opportunity for incidents like this.”

In one last comment on his Instagram account, Wilson thanks his congratulators and promises that “ton more” wreckage photos are coming. One step forward for drones, two steps back for drone journalists.