Washington Archdiocese takes to the heavens, with a drone

The procession had an ancient vibe: Dozens of priests in white robes, leading hundreds more Catholics in a solemn procession through Northeast Washington. People chanted and sang prayers from the 3rd century, asking saints through Christianity’s history for help.

Hovering over it all was a drone.

The Archdiocese of Washington debuted its new, hubcap-sized flying device on Mother’s Day, using it to videotape crowds participating in a procession marking the canonizations of popes John Paul II and John the 23rd (now called St. John Paul II and St. John the 23rd). The video images captured by the drone-mounted camera were used in a YouTube mashup the archdiocese made, mixing soaring classical music and scenes from an earlier indoor Mass.

The purchase of a drone — which a spokeswoman said was less than $1,000 – by a key religious organization for evangelization purposes just underscores how common drones are becoming for social media use.

My colleague Mike Rosenwald wrote last year about the proliferation of drones for nonmilitary, nongovernmental use, including by hobbyists, farmers mapping their crops and parent-coaches looking for another angle to study athletes. Rosenwald’s story cited a Frederick pastor who uses a drone to get aerial footage of his church’s parking lot to figure out more efficient parking strategies.

According to several people who were at the May 11 procession, which went between the Basilica of the National Shrine and the newly renamed St. John Paul II National Shrine, the drone was at a distance and unobtrusive, especially amid the crowds and noise.

The archdiocese’s drone was also used for a short video of the Shrine’s property, which is also set to moving music and will be used for promotional material.

“It’s like a movie trailer,” said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for the John Paul II Shrine. The video was shot from its roof, but he noted that, so far, the archdiocese doesn’t have “glasses” that can come as an additional feature so that the person flying the drone — using a joystick-like device on the ground — can see what the drone is seeing. “Right now they’re flying blind.”

The archdiocese is plunging more deeply into social media. According to spokeswoman Chieko Noguchi, the archdiocese has 7,400 likes, the largest of any Catholic diocese in the country, and its office uses Instagram, posts YouTube videos and tweets.

It’s part of the Catholic Church’s effort to work harder at evangelizing, which Pope Benedict named a top priority a couple years ago. He picked Washington’s archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, as one of the campaign’s leaders.

“Like art, music and architecture have been used through history to share themes, we are using video and photo to create images of the message being communicated,” said Noguchi.

However the archdiocese, like other nongovernmental drone users, may run into some challenges.

While the archdiocese’s drone operators made sure only to shoot on private properties — not the roads between — the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Safety Administration has forbidden all unmanned aircraft to operate within a 15-mile radius around Reagan National Airport, said FAA spokesman Les Dorr. The procession area is inside that zone.

The FAA also requires commercial users to seek permission for drone use, and approvals are on a case-by-case basis. These limitations are being hotly contested in court, said Timothy Reuter, head of the D.C. Area Drone User Group, the largest group of drone hobbyists in the country.

The archdiocese drone sounded like “an unusual situation. They’re not really a commercial entity per se, but neither are they a private entity,” Dorr said.

Noguchi said in an e-mail that they used extra caution and would check to make sure they were in compliance before using it again.

If we get more on that we will update.

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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