Photographer’s passion takes off

A $1,200 drone with a high-definition camera, both remote-operated by Tim Pantle, hovers over a park in Fair Oaks in early November. The real estate agent posts drone-taken videos on his blog.
A $1,200 drone with a high-definition camera, both remote-operated by Tim Pantle, hovers over a park in Fair Oaks in early November. The real estate agent posts drone-taken videos on his blog.

Tim Pantle has always enjoyed photography and for years has been quick to delve into the latest and greatest technology. So when drones became mainstream and affordable, he soon plunked down $1,200 and began flying – and hovering – his eye-catching new toy in the friendly skies of Greater Sacramento.

Now Pantle has an avid and growing following with his drone-inspired blog, With a Phantom 2 Vision Quadcopter hovering from on high and buzzing like a colony of bees, he records videos of many of his favorite places and plenty of new ones, from the historic Fair Oaks bridge and bustling new Roseville food truck event to a vineyard he happened upon one day when he was out driving in the country.

He’s part of the first wave of drone aficionados using the powerful technology, but these new easy-to-use flying machines and their potential for both good and evil have lawmakers and regulators scrambling to play catch-up with new limits that could wipe out a new industry or create a new batch of renegade hobbyists.

A real estate agent with Coldwell Banker, the 46-year-old Fair Oaks resident said he initially considered using his new drone to photograph properties from on high. But the Federal Aviation Administration soon put the word out nationwide that drones could not be used for such business practices. Pantle took stock and switched gears. With a high-powered video camera sending signals from his drone to the display on his cellphone, he started creating an online catalog of sites and events seen in a whole new way.

When he shot his first in the spring, he said, “I was amazed, honestly. I was amazed at how clear it was. I can see what my camera sees on my cellphone while I’m recording, but the quality isn’t that great. But once you get it on the computer, it’s high-def.

“The first time I posted a video on Facebook, I knew from the reaction. People like this. People want to see this stuff.”

To the uninitiated, watching Pantle operate his drone for the first time can be mesmerizing. With four propellers and a lightweight battery to power the motor, it takes off with ease, buzzing gently, and it can fly off at a rapid clip or hover for minutes on end without the operator even paying attention. Pantle attached his phone to the remote control, which he holds in front of him so he can see what the camera is looking at as the drone flies.

“This thing syncs up to GPS satellites. Once it syncs up and it lifts off, I can let go of the controls and it will just hover,” he said. “If I lose connection with the remote, the drone knows where it started and it will come home and land.”

Indeed, with just a little practice and patience, Pantle is shooting videos that only a decade ago might have required a film crew, a camera crane and a six-figure budget to pull off. The images are so clear and the camera work so steady that the videos have a professional polish to them that has left Pantle and other new drone enthusiasts excited about the future.

But the FAA, some law enforcement agencies and a variety of privacy advocates have plenty of concerns. Among them: What about those who push the limits and fly well beyond the current 400-foot height restriction and create mayhem in the skies? What about voyeurs? And, yes, what is the risk for domestic terrorism?

The FAA has its sights on those who fly their drones into rescue scenes, forest fires and police standoffs, creating havoc and jeopardizing safety by flying too high, too far and into places they shouldn’t.

It has suggested that it may soon require at least some users of drones – unmanned aircraft systems or UAS in FAA parlance – to be fully licensed pilots in order to operate them. That could require months of study, flying lessons in a manned aircraft and a $10,000 investment.

If future requirements were broadly applied, would that spell the end of his new hobby? Pantle is aghast at that thought.

“The FAA is killing me,” he said. “I think a lot of people are just going to ignore the law and just take their chances. To require a pilot’s license is ridiculous.”

Pantle says he accepts the current FAA guidelines regarding recreational operation of his drone. He even favors requiring a license to operate the drone, but not a full pilot’s license.

“I’m fearful,” he said. “I hope cooler heads prevail.”

On his blog, Pantle explained that while the FAA limits him to 400 feet, the manual says the drone is equipped to climb as high as 300 meters (984 feet). He noted he has heard stories of folks flying their drones up to 2,000 feet.

To demonstrate what he can do with his drone, Pantle flew it over Folsom Lake and with ease and precision stopped it and had it hover at 100, 200 and 300 feet before elevating to the 400-foot ceiling

Until a decision is hammered out by the FAA, Pantle has continued adding content to his blog, such as his seasonal additions of ice skating in Folsom’s Historic District and the Global Winter Wonderland at Cal Expo.

His two most popular videos to date are of San Juan Unified School District high schools – Bella Vista and Del Campo.

“Kids and alumni all look at them,” he said.

Since April, Pantle has made videos of all kinds of Sacramento landmarks. He has flown the drone above Lake Natoma to see the water and the adjoining aquatic center from a bird’s vantage point. He flew the drone around Fair Oaks Village, getting footage of the tree-lined streets, old houses and, yes, the roaming band of famed feral chickens.

“It’s a blast. Now I literally want to keep my drone with me at all times,” he said. “I drive all over Sacramento and get ideas. Now people are suggesting places for me to shoot, and I am getting requests to film events.”

Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.