6 min



Drones and the risky business of flying one over the Pope

11 May 2018 Christopher Hall

Pope Francis touched down in Santiago in the early evening after a 16-hour flight from Rome. He must have felt some ambivalence about his first visit to Chile since becoming Pope in 2013. The 81-year-old pontiff was back on South American soil for the first time since he became the titular head of the Roman Catholic Church, and he had chosen to visit Chile and Peru and would not have time to return to his homeland of Argentina.

Pope in his car

Matias Delacroix had spent days thinking about the logistics of his photographic coverage for the national newspaper, El Mercurio. He had limited information about the Papal schedule, and small odds of securing a vantage point. The historic occasion was being carefully managed by Michelle Bachelet’s government who had failed to carry through on promised inclusive policies at the outset of her presidency; giving way instead to political pressure to maintain elite consensus. Delacroix had already observed a modest enthusiasm among Chile’s poorer classes in their effort to line the streets and wait for a glimpse of “del Papa”. They remained on the Maipu side of Santiago, but even in that working class area the turnout would be less than expected.

It was an unlikely conundrum­­—a visiting Pope hopeful of a good crowd and a photographer equally keen on a swell in numbers as the clock ticked on.

“My assignment was to get the picture of the Pope on his way from the airport to the apostolic nunciature when he arrived in Santiago, to cover the big outdoor mass in O’Higgins Park, and the Santuario Templo Votivo de Maipu event. I had my camera and I had a drone. It was going to be risky using the drone, but I also had competition from the world’s media who were in town, and they were in highly organised teams with accreditation and special access to the podiums.”

The Pope's tour organisers said it was illegal to fly a drone near people attending mass.

“They warned that any drone flying over the Pope was going down immediately with a short signal gunshot. Working with the drone near the O'Higgins Park mass was quite complicated I had to do it at least six blocks away where there was no police control. I saw two helicopters flying over the park and felt a real fear that pistol shots could bring down the drone. It would mean losing all of the material collected from this historic coverage in Chile.”

Delacroix had covered large public events before using his drone, but now the technology was fast developing for a range of other uses. Drone technology was improving efforts in archaeology, agricultural and scientific research, mining, and construction. Experts were developing and attaching camera sensors to drones for innovative solutions across various sectors, even exploring methane sensors that could be flown over landfill dumps to monitor gas emissions and return data for environmental research.

In some South American countries there is a significant impact of drone technology underway, to save lives and support humanitarian and rescue missions. NGOs and governments are coming to rely more on drone use in the aftermath of natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis, and Chile was recovering from both. In 2015, a million people were evacuated after a magnitude 8.3 earthquake struck off the coast. Devastated coastal cities were flooded to the extent that President Bachelet declared many of them catastrophe zones.

On the day of the Pope’s visit to Santiago, Delacroix noticed that all of the photographers covering the Pope’s visit had been assigned specific locations along different points of the Papal route and all of those had required accreditation. But none of the media he saw were equipped with a drone to capture the overall numbers of worshippers coming out to attend the public mass in the park.

“Even though the open-air mass began at 10 am, photographers had to be in position many hours ahead of time for security reasons. I was on the street and I had more freedom to be able to find a location for using my drone.”

Monitoring the competitive media and his subject, Delacroix determined to get up close and personal at one event closed to all photographers except for a few who were accompanying the Pope from Italy. His Holiness was to spend time with inmates at San Joaquin's Women's Penitentiary Centre in Santiago.

“The Penitentiary was a private stop. Only the press who were travelling from Rome with the Pope had access to activities inside where he would meet with female prisoners. Days before his arrival, I made contact with a family who lived on the 26th floor in one of the buildings near the women's prison. With their help, I was able to take the pictures.”

On the morning of the 16th January in 2018, the world’s first Latin American pope began his Homily at the Mass for Peace and Justice at Santiago’s central park in Chile’s capital.

“When Jesus saw the crowds…” (Mt 5:1). In these first words of today’s Gospel we discover how Jesus wants to encounter us, the way that God always surprises his people (cf. Ex 3:7),”

“The first thing Jesus does is to look out and see the faces of his people. Those faces awaken God’s visceral love.”

During the address and prayers, riot police shot tear gas and arrested dozens of protesters who tried to sabotage the service, and Delacroix flew his drone without hindrance and captured a majestic, bird’s eye view image of the faithful in what was the highlight of Pope Francisco’s South American visit.

His Holiness likened the South American trip to a “fairy tale,” and remarked “I didn’t expect so many people to go out to the streets to welcome me…”

Tens of thousands of people chanting “Viva Papa Francisco” had lined the streets of his route from the airport, and an estimated 500,000 attended the public mass.


Why drone use is taking off

Drones are increasingly used for capturing aerial photographs, but they are also proving to add significant value in crowd surveillance and monitoring during search and rescue efforts. They are used in disaster response to earthquakes and cyclones, in firefighting, and by engineers to carry out geographical mapping and conduct land evaluations. Applications will adopt more sophisticated data collection technology with opportunities for their use taking on a rapid upswing, not only by professional photographers but by people in a number of different industries. Drones are used in assessing property damage, after bushfires and storms or floods, and provide data to more accurately assess the validity and value of a claim. When severe thunderstorms caused widespread damage on the New South Wales north coast in 2017, drones captured detailed visuals of the impact to buildings, livestock, and crops.

WeRobotics is an Australian company that develops robotics for drone use in humanitarian crises, and has pioneered the use of "crisis maps" showing live or real time maps of humanitarian disasters. The technology uses crowd-sourced data and satellite imagery, and would prove a critical advantage in the aftermath of an earthquake. In collaboration with the Australian Defence Force the company has created drones to help victims during humanitarian crises, and their academic researchers have developed a way to measure a person's breathing and heart rate from 60 metres in the air.  Professor Javaan Chahl from the University of South Australia said in an interview with ABC that the information would provide an assessment of human casualty, which means critical time advantage for responders.

"Basically in a disaster, unfortunately you have to prioritise who's living, who's dead and perhaps who's dying, and this might allow a drone to map a scene and establish the general condition of people," he said.

In Australia, drone safety rules vary depending on whether they are used commercially or recreationally. There are also local council and national park laws prohibiting drone flights in certain areas.  Licensed and certified drone users are usually commercial flyers with a deeper understanding about the safety risks to the public and to property when flying them. They follow standard operating conditions for drones of varying weight, and Civil Aviation Safety Regulations. Check with https://www.casa.gov.au/aircraft/landing-page/flying-drones-australia

For major public events in Australia, temporary airspace restrictions apply on certain days and at certain times. When the restriction is active, people must not operate a drone anywhere or at any height within the restricted area. These rules apply to drones of all sizes and weights, including drones considered small toys by their owners. Such regulations were made applicable for the Commonwealth Games for drone flyers, from 25 March to 18 April in 2018.


Christopher Hall

An integral member of CCI’s Risk Support team, Chris is a Risk Consultant with nearly 15 years of service at CCI. He supports Catholic Schools and education offices across the country, helping to reduce risk profiles and incidents of injury or property. He provides technical risk and compliance advice, and applies his skills across different areas of the business in ways that support, meet challenges, and offer tactical and strategic solutions for the Parish, Education and Social Welfare/Community Care sectors of the Church.

See all articles by Christopher

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