This image of Jonathan Gabriel and writer Annie Kinnett Nichols was captured by the drone she was learning to fly in Piedmont Park.

My first glimpse of aerial drone footage was from @atlantadroneguy on Instagram. He makes epic videos of the Atlanta skyline. I was so blown away by what I saw, I immediately wanted to know more. And to learn how to fly one.

Drone footage and light shows are now ubiquitous on social media – from amateurs to major events. They were utilized in Queen Elizabeth’s 70th Jubilee Celebration in the U.K. and in Fourth of July celebrations here. Drones are becoming an alternative to fireworks, which are festive but can cause injury, set fires, create noise disturbances (dogs especially hate them) and environmental pollution.

Droning has become a big money maker as well: it’s currently a $12 billion dollar industry in the US and a long list of jobs have become available for pilots. Aerial photography for films, music videos, and weddings; disaster management; agriculture services; real estate inspections; and even drone deliveries. Amazon is hiring drone pilots at salaries ranging from $32,000 to $93,000 per year!

Locally, the Atlanta Police Department use drones to respond to SWAT situations, crowd control, traffic accidents, and search and rescue. Brookhaven drones arrive before the police to assess 911 situations.

Annie captured this video of Piedmont Park and Midtown while learning to fly a drone.

It takes about two weeks of studying if you want to learn to fly a drone. A basic rule to know is that the maximum allowable altitude for a drone is 400 feet above the ground, and higher if your drone remains within 400 feet of a structure.

Be sure to avoid the no-fly zones around airports, and secured or restricted air space or you’ll wind up with a fine and lose your license. The drone control unit will show you restricted areas when you turn it on so you can see everything clearly before operating it. There are many FAA rules when it comes to piloting a drone, so make sure to look up your local rules before flying.

Currently, there are no rules against flying on private property or public parks, but it’s a no-no to fly over national parks and rivers.

In 2023, all commercial and professional drones will be required to have remote ID technology in U.S. territories. This will allow the FAA and law enforcement to track your drone’s speed and altitude. An FFA certificate is necessary for flying drones commercially.

When it comes to price, you can get a drone at Walmart for $150. However, Jonathan Gabriel, who taught me how to drone in Piedmont Park and goes by @arrhythmiafilms on IG, spent about $5,000 on the drone we used. 

Jonathan is the CEO of Arrhythmia films and has been droning since 2016. He told me when it comes to price in professional droning, what you’re paying for image quality, flying experience from your operator, and the drone itself. The more expensive cameras can stay up for 45 minutes as opposed to 5 – 10 minutes from a basic model.

At press time, Skyfront Drones has the record for the longest flight, with a gas/electric hybrid airborne for 13 hours, 3 minutes, and 57 seconds over 200 miles.

Annie piloting the drone in Piedmont Park.

Jonathan works in the film and advertising industry, so his projects are almost always enhanced with drone photography. He loves droning because the possibilities are endless with so many angles and perspectives available. He’s shot all over the world including the Great Wall of China and in the Swiss Alps.

“Safety, safety, safety” is Jonathan’s motto and he takes time before flying his drone to check out the no-fly zones, wires, trees and humans in the area. The drone is run by what looks like a game controller with joy sticks and can stop itself in midair if it senses people or objects. Also good to know: the higher you fly the less you can direct the drone because as the air gets thinner it doesn’t have the density to push against. The drone tells the controller when it needs to return home because of battery power or the distance it will take. 

The drone in fight over Piedmont Park.

The drone I learned to fly is super light and sounds like a bunch of friendly bees when it’s in flight. While it was easy to fly I was worried about losing sight of the drone, but Jonathan said that goes away with practice and knowing where your drone is with the map on your controller.

The controller also shows what the camera is seeing while it’s recording and can shoot in slow motion to regular speed and zoom in or out. The photos and videos are immediately available after shooting.

A favorite time for many droners to fly is “golden hour” – the hour before sunset. This is also a very popular time to take wedding photos because the special light makes everyone look beautiful. The “blue hour” – the hour following a sunset – is also a great time to film.

The whole experience of commanding the drone was quite electrifying and thrilling. I am excited to fly again and watch as droning becomes even more popular.

Annie Kinnett Nichols

Annie Kinnett Nichols is a writer based in Atlanta.