Flying Drones at Burning Man: An Interview with Drone Pilot Matt Emmi
BY Zacc Dukowitz21 December 2017
If you’ve never heard of Burning Man, it’s a little hard to describe. It’s part music festival, part art show on steroids, and part experimental living scenario where all goods can be procured only through barter.
And it’s huge—over 60,000 people attended the week-long event this year.
Burning Man is a community. A temporary city. A global cultural movement . . .
– The Burning Man website
Burning Man takes place out in the Black Rock Desert, 120 miles north of Reno, Nevada, and includes wild costumes, live music, and huge, mind bending art installations with some of the strangest, most beautiful creations we’ve ever seen.
All of which makes for incredible material if you’re a drone pilot.
Matt Emmi received permission to film there this year, and he created the impressive video below with some of the footage he shot.
Watch the video, and then read on to learn more about how he got permission to shoot there, and what it was like to fly at this incredibly unique event.
How did you get permission to fly at Burning Man?
To get permission to fly there you have to apply to the Burning Man Organization for a media pass, as well as applying for a drone application.
I went through the application process, and ultimately I was one of about a dozen pilots granted permission to fly. It was a pretty small group of us relative to the size of the event.
Were there any special considerations around flying there?
One of the principles of Burning Man is a focus on being present. This means that there’s always a little bit of contention in the relationships with people who are filming or taking photographs, because those are activities that can take you out of that state of presence.
Being photographed can take you out of the present. And of course if you’re the one doing the photographing, it takes you out of your own experience. So I wanted to be very mindful of this underlying tension while I was flying.
I really appreciate that they’re very careful at Burning Man about how many people are allowed to fly there, because I think it does help preserve the special situation they’re trying to create.
Shooting at Burning Man is pretty overwhelming—just trying to capture the sheer size, scale, and scope of this world that’s been created in the span of a month can leave you at a loss.
I remember bringing my camera up to my face the first time I attended Burning Man and then dropping it immediately back down to my side. My friend looked at me and said, “You can’t capture this.” I just shook my head and said, “Uh-uh.” And I didn’t take another picture the whole rest of that time.
So having been completely defeated trying to capture what Burning Man is and what it means the first time I went, and then going back two years later with my drone and being able to capture a couple of glimpses in this video that look truly magical and truly fantastic—that was pretty amazing.
What drones did you bring to Burning Man?
The Inspire 2 and a Mavic that I had customized just for the event.
I was really excited about the Mavic—I’d strapped two 360° cameras to the top and the bottom, and created a custom 3D-printed rig to try and capture a kind of 720° sphere of the whole event.
But I realized very quickly after arriving that there was a significant flaw in my plan. In order for me to get optimal coverage with the 360° cameras I needed to fly just around chest height—but at chest height the Mavic kicked up so much dust from the ground that you couldn’t see anything. And by the time I got the drone above the dust range, at maybe 7 or 8 feet in the air, it wasn’t capturing the image that I wanted to capture.
So that plan was totally foiled, but it didn’t end up mattering because the Inspire was so great and I was able to get a ton of great footage with it.
Matt’s customized Mavic
Tell us about flying there. What were some of the challenges you faced?
There were definitely some unique challenges.
The primary challenge that everybody faces while they’re there is the dust. It is insane how much of it there is, and how it gets on everything.
Even now there is dust on all of the things that I took there, from my clothes to the plastics of my Inspire 2. No matter how many times I clean it, that dust is not going away.
Going into it, I knew the dust would be an issue, and I had no idea how the Inspire would respond—whether it would choke up the motors, or mess up the camera, or create some other problem.
But in the end I really didn’t have any mechanical issues. I used a big landing pad to help keep the dust exposure down, and I would hand launch and hand catch my Inspire to keep it from kicking up too much dust off the ground.
I also used this really spectacular Lowepro DroneGuard backpack, which was a life saver.
Since you’re always on a bike while you’re there, carrying a stock case around would have been really hard. Being able to just pull the drone out of my backpack, set it up, and know that the core mechanicals of the bird and the motors were fairly well protected, that was super helpful.
How many of your shots were planned, and how many were spontaneous?
It was a mixture—some of the shots were planned, and some were just spontaneous and captured through luck.
One of the shots I really wanted was the Aqueous installation, both during the day and at night.
I also wanted to shoot the Mayan Warrior art piece, which was the big art car, and get some shots of it alongside the Aqueous installation.
There was another planned shot that I got for a Norwegian film crew that was filming a documentary for Burning Man. They had put in a request to the Burning Man organization to get shots of the 747 and the playa [the word used to refer to the beach / open desert at the event], and that request was passed on to me since I was one of the approved drone pilots.
And then there were some spontaneous, magical shots that were totally unplanned.
My favorite shot like that is of the marionette—the giant doll that was walking through the desert. I was just flying around shooting the playa at sunset, and my friend that was spotting for me came running over to me saying, “The doll, the doll!”
I looked up and saw her almost immediately. What you see in that clip is the first thing I was seeing. So I started rotating around the marionette and got that shot of her walking next to the giant dragon, Abraxas.
In the video you’re flying at night and over people. Did you obtain waivers for those shots, or how did you navigate that?
What I was told was that Burning Man has its own set of regulations because it’s a private event, and since I was flying recreationally I was covered by those rules. That being said, their rules very closely echo those of the FAA—they include things like don’t fly at night, don’t fly over people or over the city section of the event.
To get permission to fly at night and over people I worked with the folks who were running Burning Man, and got them to sign off on it. When I was flying at night and near or over people (I shot with a longer lens and tried to stay as far away as possible) I had to have someone from the Burning Man organization with me, monitoring the flight to make sure everything was safe.
Want to see more of Matt’s work? Check out this video he shot at the Gullfoss Waterfall in Iceland a little while back: