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Let's Go Fly a Drone: The Best Vacation Pics Come From Above

The footage you can capture with one of these remote-controlled aerial vehicles will blow any other vacation slide show away. Personal Tech Columnist Geoffrey Fowler shows you three unique shots you can only get with your own flying photo drone.

HERE'S A VERY 2014 question: What could the technology behind unmanned missile strikes and auto-piloted  deliveries do for my vacation photos?

This spring break, I swapped out my regular camera for flying photo drones. These remote-control aerial vehicles are floating tripods that let you take pictures and videos from overhead. For as little as $300, you can buy a device, no larger than a Panama hat, that hovers and swoops through the air at the flick of a finger. I took mine on trips to Joshua Tree and California wine country, and deployed them for group photos at the beach.

Flying a drone isn't just exhilarating; it also fundamentally changed how I think about photography. It is hard to get excited about vintage filters on Instagram after shooting a drone selfie (call it a "dronie") or panning hillside Napa vineyards at sunrise. A drone allows you to move a camera in ways that might otherwise require a helicopter and a Michael Bay budget. In the harsh desert landscape of Joshua Tree, we climbed atop towering boulders and then had the drone shoot a video that panned up from the ground. The footage made it look as though we had scaled a Martian mountain—and it put ordinary vacation movies to shame. Eat your heart out, National Geographic.

And yet, drones also give me new-tech vertigo. Every time I launched one of these flying lawn mowers, I was a bit terrified that I might get in trouble, hurt someone or hit something expensive. The navigation technology built into the two popular models that I used, the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 ($300) and DJI Phantom Vision+ ($1,300), is idiot-resistant, but not idiot-proof. Although no animals (or humans) were harmed in the making of this article, I did manage to lose a drone. I think it's stuck in a palm tree.

Personal drones are the latest technology to arrive before we've worked out all the relevant rules, both legal and ethical. A recent Pew survey found 63% of Americans aren't keen on the idea of personal and commercial drones buzzing around above them. The Federal Aviation Administration is enmeshed in court battles over whether it has the authority to regulate small drones, and the U.S. National Park Service recently said they are not allowed. (This was after I flew mine in Joshua Tree.)

Like Google GOOGL -0.15% Glass and GPS trackers, drones have become symbols of tech invading our privacy: In Texas, you can be fined for using drones to photograph without permission, and one Colorado town proposed making it legal to shoot them out of the sky. (Voters shot down the law instead.)

I, too, am concerned about cameras fluttering outside my bedroom window. But we shouldn't dismiss a technology that has the potential to empower us—safely—to record footage once available only to big-budget Hollywood productions and news choppers. Drones have even been used to record protests in Ukraine, Turkey and other areas. In reality, these consumer drones tend to make terrible spy machines, because most have cameras with wide-angle lenses and their propellers sound like swarm of angry bees. Still, people will think you're a jerk if you fly one too close.

How to record a 'Dronie,' a 'Birdie' and other amazing video footage with a drone

Do's and Dron'ts for new pilots

Kelsey Heinrichs
  • Drones are susceptible to wind and rain, mechanical failure and pilot error. So ask yourself: What's the worst thing that could happen if I lost control of my drone? Then plan for that.
  • Hitting tree branches or power lines will send your drone crashing to the ground. Stick to flying in wide-open fields until you earn your stripes.
  • Always maintain visual contact with your drone. If you can't see it, you can't steer it.
  • If your drone runs out of battery (the Phantom's lasts 25 minutes), the aircraft could literally fall out of the sky. Make sure you have enough juice to land safely.
  • In potentially dangerous situations, it's often better to fly up (clear of branches, buildings and bystanders) rather than down.
  • Don't fly your drone over people or private property without permission.
  • While the wide-angle lenses on many consumer drones could be used for peeping, they are better suited for landscape photography. Moreover, you shouldn't spy.
  • A hovering drone sounds like a swarm of bees and creates enough wind to blow the toupee off someone's head. Steer clear of large gatherings, especially weddings. Nothing should distract from the bride!
  • The FAA forbids flying a drone above 400 feet or near an airport without its approval.
  • Some states and cities have drone-specific ordinances, and national parks recently banned them. Please Google before you go.
It is a different story when you hover a drone close to you and your family or fly in wide-open spaces where you aren't violating someone's expectation of privacy. My dream is to have one follow me around all day like the Khaleesi's dragons trained to snap photos.

The Phantom I flew does use GPS satellites to lock on a spot and stay there, and many drones can fly preprogrammed routes. Both the Phantom 2 Vision+ and Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 give you a bird's-eye view of what the drone is seeing right on your phone. The FAA mandates you shouldn't take a drone more than 400 feet up.

On my vacation, high-altitude flight wasn't really a concern. I found the most interesting shots were well below 150 feet, close enough to the ground to see detail of people, plants and buildings. The bigger challenges were short battery life (less than half an hour of flying time) and maintaining eye contact with the drone to navigate it safely, like when I wanted it to dart between yucca palms at Joshua Tree.

And then there was my disastrous pre-vacation test flight with the AR.Drone. Without removing its safety bumpers, an accessory for indoor use that prevents the blades from hitting anything, I launched the drone on my back deck. Big mistake. In the wind, the bumpers create significant drag, making the drone hard to control.

So when a breeze kicked up, the AR.Drone flew over my deck and into a neighboring yard. I tried using the controller app on my iPhone to bring it back, but in my panic, I confused the drone further by not holding my phone flat—a critical navigational error, since tilting your phone tells the drone which direction you want it to fly. My drone kept sailing to the left. "Come back!" I hollered, as friends I had been trying to impress cackled. Moments later, the quadcopter was out of sight.

Mortified, I slipped notecards in mailboxes that read, "Hello neighbor, I was flying my toy helicopter in my backyard, and I think it might have landed in your backyard. If so, I'm sorry!" (Tip: If you accidentally crash your drone on someone else's property, call it a "toy helicopter.")

My very patient neighbors helped me hunt through backyards on our block for days. Eventually, I gave up and settled on the palm-tree hypothesis.

Parrot CEO Henri Seydoux chided me for flying it outside with the indoor bumpers on. He said Parrot's upcoming drone, the Bebop, announced this week, will have a GPS-tracking capability that could tell me exactly which palm tree is holding it captive. (It comes out later this year and will probably cost more than the current model.)

As for the safety of these flying machines, Parrot's drones are intended for those age 14 and up. "It isn't more dangerous than riding a bike," Mr. Seydoux said, "but you can hurt yourself with a bike."
For less experienced fliers, the AR.Drone seems safer to me than the Phantom because it is less powerful. Stick your finger in the AR.Drone's blades, and it might sting, but you won't lose a digit. Do the same with the much more powerful Phantom, and it will hurt a lot more. (DJI's Director of Aerial Imaging Eric Cheng told me he survived such an incident with only a blister.)

I didn't learn to ride a bike on my own, so why should I assume I can learn to fly a drone that way? After losing the AR.Drone, I decided to enroll in flying school.

This week, the popular camera site PhotoJojo is launching a one-hour drone-training class, initially available in San Francisco, that costs $50. I signed up for a session with PhotoJojo's co-founder Amit Gupta, an experienced pilot who popularized the term "dronie." We met midafternoon in San Francisco's Dolores Park, a mecca for techies and drone photographers.

We started with a preflight ritual that involved checking for inclement weather, loose screws or propellers, and a full battery. Once turned on, the Phantom emitted ascending tones that made it sound like it was arming missiles. "What is that thing? Is it going to fly?" asked one young park-goer. "Righteous!"

Stay away from objects and go slow, counseled Mr. Gupta on our first flight. Obvious enough. But his other advice was less intuitive: If you ever get in trouble, just let go of the controls; the Phantom's auto-hover mode—which uses its GPS-lock to stay in one spot, even in a brisk wind—will kick in. "And go up if you are scared," he said, "because up is away from the object you might crash into."

We practiced drawing imaginary squares in the sky with the drone, and then flying circles in the air, which was a challenge. But practice built my confidence and made me realize that you don't need "Top Gun" skills to take some cool shots.

I was fortunate to have access to PhotoJojo's classes, but all around the world there are communities of drone geeks who could show you the ropes.

Once you're comfortable piloting a drone, recording memorable footage requires planning. You need to figure out if it's safe and legal to fly in the area, and seek permission from people around you. Also decide what kind of shot you hope to achieve (a few suggestions are below). Recording soaring panoramas can get old, believe it or not. Some of the most impressive footage incorporates people, both for drama and for scale. The "dronie," for example, is a video that starts up close and then quickly pans out and up.

Oh, and you also need to strategize a place to land. After the Phantom's battery level slips below 30%, the app starts emitting a loud booonk-booonk-booonk alarm. Hopefully you'll have figured out a better spot than a palm tree.

DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Anne Cardenas
DJI Phantom 2 Vision+

A favorite among video buffs, this quadcopter has a full-HD 1080p resolution camera mounted on a gimbal to produce smooth-as-butter shots, even when the drone turns or gets caught in the wind. A free app for Android or iOS gives you a live view of what the camera sees up in the air and allows you to adjust the camera angle. (DJI also makes a model compatible with GoPro cameras.) The drone's dual-paddle controller—similar to the kind used for model airplanes—is easy to understand and provides precise control, but takes practice to master. Just be aware that the rotors on this 2.6-pound aircraft are powerful enough to cause damage. Have a more experienced pilot show you the ropes before you take this to the skies. $1,300,

Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Anne Cardenas
Parrot AR.Drone 2.0

This smartphone- or tablet-controlled drone is technically a toy, and a great starting point for people just learning to fly. You control the drone with a free app for Android or iOS; to steer, move the app's touch-screen joysticks or angle your phone in the direction you want the drone to fly. An optional plug-in GPS ($130) unlocks all sorts of neat tricks, like being able to preprogram a flight path or having the drone automatically fly back to its launch site. The camera's resolution is similar to what you'd find from an older smartphone. Weighing under a pound, the AR.Drone is safe for indoor use with the included propeller guards, but the smartphone controller takes some getting used to. Parrot just announced a new drone called the Bebop with a better camera and built-in GPS; it will ship in the fall. $300,

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