An unfortunate incident involving the Queen Mother and a German tourist’s unmanned aerial vehicle this week may have ended the free-for-all for drone enthusiasts in Phnom Penh. But it seems unlikely the restrictions will do much to ground the growing number of individuals and organisations in Cambodia finding innovative uses for the flying cameras
For Cambodia’s growing legion of drone enthusiasts – from hobbyists, to documentary makers and NGOs – news of a crackdown this week came as no surprise. After a drone-mounted GoPro camera being flown over the Royal Palace was spotted by the Queen Mother during her daily exercises, the Phnom Penh Municipality decreed that all unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) flights would require prior approval.
“I think in any other country, they’d already have had bans in place. It was just a matter of time,” said Long Chean, a professional videographer and photographer. “I’m just glad I wasn’t the one who brought it about.”
All around the world right now, new and exciting uses are being found for drones: mail-order giant Amazon is trying to persuade the US government to allow them to use UAVs for deliveries; Holland is hosting a “drone circus”; and a team of Swiss engineers are prototyping a “search and rescue” drone.
And, crackdown or no crackdown, UAV usage in the Kingdom is shaping up to be just as innovative.
Next month, a short film made up entirely of aerial footage of Phnom Penh and lush Cambodian monsoon landscapes will be projected at the world’s first drone film festival in New York.
“If drones help bring the story of Cambodia to the rest of the world, then they are an invaluable tool,” said the short film’s director, Roberto Serrini, via email. Like Chean, Serrini believes the government’s decision to move to a permit system is sensible. “It seems this is the natural response to new technology; sometime a bit over controlling, but that will hopefully lessen in time.”
Over the next year, the amount of stunning footage taken from the Cambodian skies looks likely to skyrocket as drone prices go down and understanding of their potential applications spreads.
One of the most impressive projects is being planned by Luc Forsyth, a Phnom Penh-based photojournalist who wants to document the entire length of the Mekong River. In every country he travels to, he’ll be using a dual pilot drone to capture images and video of river landscapes from an altitude of up to 400 metres.
For Forsyth, it’s in the countryside that the real potential of aerial footage lies. “If there was a building, you could just walk up to the top to take a picture,” he said.
Tracy Farrell, senior technical director for Conservation International Cambodia, said that conservation NGOs were also taking the potential of aerial videography seriously. CIC owns a drone, which Farrell said could be used to film treetop primates, and document land clearing in difficult to access areas. Farrell pointed out that the scheme was only possible in the first place thanks to government encouragement. “The idea is that this would be for forestry administrators to use, and we would be coaching [them],” she said.
In Thailand, camera-mounted drones were used in 2013 to monitor protests from above. Matthieu Pellerin, consultant for local human rights organisation Licadho, said that while he was not aware of anyone using drones to monitor crowds in Cambodia, the NGO was interested by the possibility.
Any moves to make such schemes a reality would run up against the new government controls, although what exactly that means remains uncertain. According to Long Dimanche, spokesman for the Phnom Penh municipality, anyone who has a reason to use a drone in the city will be able submit a request to the Phnom Penh authorities and obtain a free permit.
It remains to be seen whether things will prove to be that simple. Filmmaker Christopher Rompré was halfway through filming aerial footage for The Man Who Built Cambodia, a documentary about the legacy of the father of modern Khmer architecture, Vann Molyvann, when the new legislation was announced.
To get the shots he still needs, Rompré has more or less resigned himself to finding conveniently located tall buildings around Phnom Penh. He says he has spent five months and counting waiting for a simple police check, and is doubtful that the “free permit” needed for drone flights will prove any easier to obtain. “I’ll assume I won’t get it, but if I do, that’s great,” he said.
Rompré sees the law as “reactive governance” rushed through off the back of a single unfortunate incident. But ultimately, he seems confident that shotgun legislation is unlikely to stem the tide of creative UAV usage in the Kingdom.
“Drones have totally changed the possibilities for filmmaking,” he said.
“It’s one of the most exciting things about being a cinematographer right now.”
Additional reporting Vandy Muong.