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Are architects overhyping the drone?


Architectural photographer Paul Raftery struck a sceptical note when discussing drones at the AA

Are architects among those guilty of overhyping drones? It’s an interesting question and one that was raised this morning (Tuesday) by renowned architectural photographer Paul Raftery.

Raftery has been in the game for a couple of decades and has witnessed how improving technology and the Internet have revolutionised both the way in which architectural photographers do their job and the (increasingly complicated) way in which they get paid for this work.

At a London Festival of Architecture talk organised by the AA Night School and Archiboo at the Architectural Association at Bedford Square, Raftery showed a drone video of a new educational building in Washington State as an example of how not to do it, arguing that the film was dull and badly-edited. He wasn’t arguing that all drone videos are disappointing, only that the drone itself is simply one answer rather than the answer of how to best capture architecture.

‘Architects say to me, there’s a new panacea: drones,’ Raftery said. ‘But they are not the answer to everything. They are one chapter of the book and the book is describing buildings. They are another part of the wider vocabulary we have with digital imagery.’

Raftery also drew attention to the increasingly difficulty of utilising this new technology as the authorities in the US and UK attempt to regulate the explosion in the use of drones. In this country for example it is actually illegal to fly a drone over a congested area such as a street, town or city and within 50m of a person, a vehicle, a building or a structure. However, the poorly-resourced Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) struggles to enforce the law against the backdrop of drone craze that anyone with a few hundred pounds can take part in.

In a recent example of the dangers this is creating, a drone was flown within 300ft of a jet coming in to land at Leeds-Bradford airport, West Yorkshire, with similar near misses having taking place at airports all over the world in recent months. In the Yorkshire case, as in most cases, the operator was never traced.

Raftery seems to be more taken by the possibilities of other approaches such as timelapse films and certainly he has a point about the difficulties and pitfalls of using drones. But he is surely underplaying their extraordinary potential. Unlike those aerial renders from impossible angles that have beome such an architectural staple, the imagery of the drone shows the reality of buildings in the context of their surroundings, elevating the best architecture and exposing the worst.

As Le Corbusier famously remarked: ‘the airplane indicts the city … The airplane instils, above all, a new conscience, the modern conscience. Cities, with their misery, must be torn down … and fresh cities rebuilt.’

It was the aeroplane’s bird’s eye view which excited Le Corbusier in the 1930s. Today’s architects might not share his zeal but they are right to be excited by the new possibilities opened up by the drone.


Readers' comments (3)

  • Kevan Shaw

    I worry about design buildings for photography in general and Drones add a whole new layer to this issue. Surely buildings are for people and the principle views should relate to where the building is seen by real humans in real time? Much rendering is done from impossible view points and design to these views cannot help provide buildings that are seen from human eye level. Drones do allow the impossible view point and the typical scale model view surely this should not be the aim of design?

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  • Yes of course you're right Kevan that the everyday user should be the primary consideration and drones won't revolutionise what architects do. However, I don't think drones give an 'impossible view'. They give a real view of a building within a city, town or place albeit one we've not been able to look at before and won't be commonly seen through a building's life.

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  • Drones first inspired my imagination as survey tools for sites that cannot otherwise be understood. Sites and buildings, landscapes, paths, planting, and urban areas where a measured survey would be an excessive expense for initial design. City development needs the benefit of aerial views to show urban character, liabilities and materials of roofscapes, the potential for upgrading and repair etc. Height affects visible detail. It improves on google earth too!

    But I agree that use must have permission if accidents are not to occur. This is the start of enhanced personal mobility. Parliament should act constructively for our common responsibilities to be identified, registered and monitored in Law.
    Donald Hankey ( from Yangon )

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