Dane Christensen, a 25-year-old documentary filmmaker, is accustomed to onlookers being unfamiliar with his drone. He has traveled with it across North America from Hawaii to Mexico to film weddings, documentaries, short films and more, and most don’t know what to make of the flying robot. But until last month, he'd never imagined his “Phantom” would get confiscated.
But then, not many filmmakers have tried to film with a drone in Cuba. As Christensen learned the hard way, the Communist island's growing embrace of technology apparently doesn't yet include foreigners hoping to film with flying robots.
Earlier this month, after a trip to Mexico, Christensen, who lives in Utah and holds a Danish passport, traveled to Havana with a friend from Miami. In addition to traveling across the island, they were there to film surf culture, exploring the pastime as a way to transcend boundaries and bond with Cubans. They brought in gear including five tripods and a number of cameras. The drone camera, they envisioned, would both literally and metaphorically capture a new perspective of the geography and culture for viewers. But they never got the chance.
After waiting in a two hour line, a “nineteen-year-old” agent manning an X-ray machine sifted through Christensen’s bag and then, after another two hour examination process, confiscated his 7 kilo drone. Frustrated, he asked her why it was prohibited. The agent "said she didn’t know why — that it just is.”
“Knowing that Cuba is technologically behind, I was wondering if I could fool them by saying my drone was something I use to stabilize my camera,” Christensen says. “But they knew exactly what it was, including the brand and model, as if they’d seen it before. That was shocking.”
Cuba’s not alone in its confusion about what to do with drones. Because the technology is still so new across the world, the vast majority of countries do not have regulations in place. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration is still crafting rules for the use of commercial drones, leaving it largely up to states to define the rules. Last week, a Florida bill identifying specific legal uses for unmanned drones stalled in a Senate committee as members said they were concerned about “unintended consequences.”
Christensen was told he’d be able to pick up his drone on the way out of the country — after he paid a fee (1 percent of its value per day). He and his friend still managed to shoot some good-looking non-drone footage of Havana’s streets, and he says the surfing documentary is currently in production.
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But after the fact, Christensen says he’s partly relieved he didn’t get through customs with his drone.
“If I would have flown the drone, worse things could have happened,” he says. “I probably would have been put in jail for a night.”
His advice to drone-lovers traveling to Cuba: “Don’t try it. It’s not worth it.”