Drones and airports are the water and oil of the aviation world. While there’s intense debate over how restrictive emerging drone rules should be, you’d be hard pressed to find someone not in favor of restricting the air space around airports. If a drone flew into a jet engine it might disable it, resulting in a deadly crash.
All of this makes the story behind the audience choice winner at the 2015 New York City Drone Film Festival so unusual, and a reminder of the world’s polarized views on drones’ safety and value. Last weekend, the honors went to “Mex Airport From Above,” which showcased the Mexico City airport.
The video was actually commissioned by the Mexican Aerospace Navigation Service, which is Mexico’s equivalent to the FAA, to show at its anniversary dinner for air traffic controllers. Its director wanted to show a video and air traffic controller Alexandro Ruiz de la Fuente suggested using a drone.
“We wanted to capture something completely different, something that would just break everything,” Ruiz de la Fuente said. “We know that back in the United States it’s not allowed.”
He didn’t expect the idea to be approved, but received permission to fly on two conditions: The affected aircraft pilots must agree to the drones’ presence, and he had to stay in contact with the control tower at all times.
Ruiz de la Fuente stressed that caution was used to ensure the safety of all passengers during the two days last September that drone operator Tarsicio Sanudo was brought in with a DJI F450 to shoot at the airport.
“Our job is to preserve life. We’re not going to do anything to jeopardize the operation,” Ruiz de la Fuente said. “It turned out wonderful. We’ve gotten rave reviews.”
Sanudo became interested in drones a couple years ago after watching YouTube videos. Soon he bought one, taught himself to fly and quit his existing job to start an aerial photography company. Mexico doesn’t have rules prohibiting commercial drone operation, or requiring certain licensing.
Sanudo flew the drone with Ruiz de la Fuente standing next to him and using a cell phone to communicate with the air traffic control tower. Three security guards were also on hand to watch.
Sanudo and Ruiz de la Fuente say that pilots were incredibly welcoming. No one objected to them flying the drone nearby as they landed, took off or taxied. Pilots received warnings such as, “the drone will be on your right on runway 5.” After getting permission from one United pilot, they flew over a jet as it taxied, getting this shot that Sanudo calls his favorite.
When planes taxied, Sanudo flew his drone as close as 65 feet overhead. For takeoffs, he said he was always 330 feet away, and twice as much on landings. He used a zoom lens to make the shots appear closer.
There will be another drone video for next year’s dinner. Ruiz de la Fuente and his co-producer Jose Herrera Vasquez plan to fly at even more airports in Mexico. In a few years, they’d like to have footage from the entire country.