Why you should care
Because high-quality drone footage is amazing.
Last October, I set off for Karachi, Pakistan, on a monthlong reporting trip. Like many foreign reporters, I was underprepared. I did not speak the language. I had never traveled to South Asia, and I had what could only charitably be called a “shallow understanding” of the country’s history and politics. In other words, I was what most Pakistanis expect when they come across an American journalist.
Perhaps because of my blissful ignorance or because I am fortunate enough to own a blue passport, I decided to bring along my drone, a DJI Phantom 4. I’ll acknowledge here that a drone is unnecessary for journalism. But I think we can all agree that the footage looks pretty cool, and, more often than not, it provides us with a very different perspective — one that often makes a story more appealing.
“As a videographer, I need this drone to tell the story better,” I explained to my Pakistani reporting partner Amal upon arriving at the airport in Karachi.“We’re going to get great shots.”
Amal was the first of many Pakistanis to tell me I was crazy. By the end of the trip, after a string of unfortunate crashes (but also some really great shots), Amal and her countrymen routinely referred to me as a “suicidal idiot.” In retrospect, I will own being an “idiot,” but “suicidal” implies intent, and that would be too generous.
Pakistan is understandably suspicious of American drones. They have, after all, been responsible for over 3,000 deaths in the country’s north. That said, applying the word “drone” to both a Phantom and a Predator is misleading. While my three-pound quadcopter shares the same pronoun as the infamous thousand-pound Predator, they are fundamentally different machines. A Predator drone is a remotely controlled plane with a lot of bombs strapped underneath its carriage. My Phantom 4 is also remotely controlled but can only carry a tiny 4k camera slightly smaller than a GoPro.
My drone and its ilk are the Tamagotchis or Walkmen of today. That is to say, they are the hot gadget of our time. Unless you never look into the sky, you have probably noticed that my kind of drone is having its 15 minutes of fame. Nearly 1 million consumer drones were sold in the last holiday season, and you can purchase one almost everywhere on the planet … even in Pakistan.
With that in mind, I’m fairly certain that I won’t be the last American to drone in Karachi. As such, I feel obliged to share what little I’ve learned. What follows are a few factoids I gleaned from my time flying the city’s skies. If for whatever dumb reason you decide to drone in Karachi, I hope you’ll read this first.
1. DON’T DO IT
Seriously, do not drone in Karachi, or pretty much anywhere in Pakistan for that matter. It’s a bad idea and will almost certainly lead to trouble for yourself and those close to you. If you’re American, they’ll probably think you’re a spy capturing surveillance footage. You may suddenly find your phone tapped and have an uncomfortable hunch you’re being followed around town. If I haven’t scared you off yet, below is some advice for harm reduction.
2. BRING A LOCAL WITH YOU
If you can’t resist the urge to drone in Karachi, be sure to bring a local with you who can help talk you out of a run-in with the police or Pakistani Intelligence Services (known as ISI). If you are foolhardy enough to do this, you need someone to mind you.
3. FLY A SMALL DRONE
You’re going to want to take off and land quickly to avoid attracting the attention of authorities. That’s hard to do with a large drone like the DJI Inspire or Matrice. A Phantom 4 or Mavic Pro are your best bets.
4. GET ON TOP OF A ROOF
If you take off from the ground, you are much more visible to people and easier to find. Take off from a roof, and you’ll hopefully avoid getting spotted by authorities or CCTV cameras.
5. NO STRAIGHT-DOWN DESCENTS
When landing, fly the drone low and then horizontally toward you. Try not to descend straight down above where you are flying from. If you throttle down, there’s a constant buzz in one area. That may attract attention to your location.
6. FLY ABOVE 120 METERS IN THE AIR
Of course, you want to make sure that the landing (and takeoff) process is as quick and discreet as possible, but once your drone is up, there’s a sweet spot that will keep you safe. For me, that’s always been 100 to 120 meters. At that height, it will be hard for anyone on the ground to hear the whirring sound of the drone. Flying any lower than 120 meters will increase the risk of your drone being heard.
7. USE A POLARIZER AND ND FILTER
You should bring these to any shoot, but in Karachi they’re essential. The city is dusty, and the sun is powerful.
8. DRESS FOR SUCCESS
Wear traditional dress to help you blend into the local culture. Men should wear the kurta. Also, Movember is every month. Having a beard is key. Women — well, you probably shouldn’t drone because women are … prohibited from doing a lot in Pakistan. If you insist on droning anyway, at least cover your head with a scarf.
9. BRING $$$
If you’re caught droning, a bribe may be the only thing between you and prison.
10. DON’T BE AMERICAN, ISRAELI OR INDIAN
These nations and Pakistan have … history.
In conclusion: Droning in Karachi anywhere, at any time, is also illegal and ill-advised, so see tip No. 1 and happy flying.