Philadelphia's Fairmount Park Matt Satell

An amateur photographer uses his commercial drone to capture aerial views of Philadelphia.

Matt Satell is surrounded by some of Philadelphia’s most iconic landmarks—and yet, he’s staring down at his phone.

From where Satell stands on the banks of the Delaware River, the Ben Franklin suspension bridge appears to the south, connecting Philadelphia to Camden, New Jersey. At the north end of the park, a statuesque former power plant, Delaware Station, has attracted many avid photographers of urban decay.

But even as he is focused on his screen, Satell isn’t missing any of these sights. His smartphone displays the view from the small drone flying under his guidance almost out of sight, hundreds of feet above the ground.  

“I’ve always found it fascinating the kinds of viewpoints you can get flying the drone,” he explains. “That's really what interested me from the get-go, these really cool perspectives that really there's no other way to get unless you're in a helicopter.”

Satell has a day job in marketing but has kept a tech enthusiast’s eye on drone technology as it has gotten smaller and cheaper. A few months ago, he bought a DJI Phantom 2 Vision Quadcopter. It’s made by a Chinese company and retails for under $1,000 online. It arrived virtually fully assembled and ready for flight, with an internal camera and controls that sync directly to Satell’s phone. He can take photos and video from the drone and download them remotely.

The increasing accessibility of drone technology has opened doors to amateur photographers and other hobbyists like Satell. He has never met another in person, but participates in a growing online community of drone enthusiasts that even includes minor celebrities like National Geographic's Kike Calvo.

The FAA heavily regulates the commercial use of drones. However, recreationalists can still fly freely under the guidelines for model planes—below 400 feet and well away from airports.

Piloting the drone and absorbing its views of the city from above affects Satell's perspective as he later conducts his daily life on the ground.

“You really can't see the scope of the city and the vastness of it without being a couple hundred feet up. So as you're walking on the ground after flying it at that altitude, it does change your perception about where you are in relation to the city.”

A few weeks after showing friends and family the photos and videos he'd been taking, Satell built a website called Philly by Air to share them with a wider audience.

A bird’s-eye view of busy downtown streets is the hardest to get among all the buildings. Satell feels safest flying the drone above open spaces like parks. In his first shots, the city skyline appears at a distance, emerging from the horizon. He’s been slowly working his way around the city’s periphery, which also allows him to collect different views of the city skyline.

He's flown his drone over his neighborhood and found his own home harder to pick out than he’d imagined. He's flown over Philly's sports stadiums—though not on game days. On one of his favorite outings, he took the drone up and over the Philadelphia Museum of Art and its iconic Rocky steps.

“It's almost like something out of a movie, the kind of perspectives that you can see,” he says.

Satell usually draws a crowd of his own when he flies the drone. Kids especially, he says, are fascinated by it. He's also ready and eager to display others’ photos on his website. And he believes that, if they don’t exist already, other drone photographers will soon turn up in Philadelphia. The technology, he says, is primed to “explode.”

Drexel Hill: “This was the first time I was flying the drone so I took it to the closest park I could find to my house, which was Drexel Hill and just kind of played around with it and was trying to figure out the basics. I took it up took up to about 200 feet and got a shot of the skyline. The way the clouds were that day made a really cool image.”

The Philadelphia Navy Yard: “I came in through that main road you see in bottom right-hand corner. There's a security checkpoint they don't let you through so I pulled into the parking lot on the right-hand side and didn't have any problems.”

“It was pretty cool how the light refracted off the water to make that shot of the Navy Yard and all the different ships there.

PPL Park, in Chester home of the Philadelphia Union major league soccer team: “I got a few different angles of the stadium and this was a cool one. Obviously no one was there so I was able to drive up and have free range. It was a little, I don't know if you'd call it eerie but unusual pulling up to this big parking lot with no one else there. You can see my car is the only one in the parking lot on the right side, the white car there.”

Above Penn Park: “It can sometimes be a little tricky in terms of finding spots to fly drone in city because obviously it is so dense. I try to find parks and areas where it's not as crowded. It’s trickier right downtown because of all the buildings there, so usually I try to get out a little bit and get more buildings, a wider angle, a wider view.”

The Philadelphia Museum of Art: “I got some really cool images of the art museum one time: [It flew] straight over the top and came out the back side of it, looking out onto the Ben Franklin Parkway and the city skyline in the back. I think [the photos] just show such a cool perspective when you fly up and it looks like you're going to the art museum—and then [you] pull up at the last second to really unveil everything that's behind there.”

“It was my third time flying, first time in the city.”

Fairmount Waterworks: “I think I might have been flying over the art museum when this shot was taken. I had come to take photos of the art museum, but ended up turning it around over the Waterworks. You can see Boathouse Row in the background.”


About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Transportation

    A Horrifying Glimpse Into Your Dystopian Future Transit Commute

    A comic artist’s take on what the future of transportation might really feel like.

  2. A photo of a police officer in El Paso, Texas.

    What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

    Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

  3. A cyclist rides on the bike lane in the Mid Market neighborhood during Bike to Work Day in San Francisco,

    Why Asking for Bike Lanes Isn't Smart

    In the 1930s big auto dreamed up freeways and demanded massive car infrastructure. Micromobility needs its own Futurama—one where cars are marginalized.

  4. Two men look over city plans at a desk in an office.

    The Doomed 1970s Plan to Desegregate New York’s Suburbs

    Ed Logue was a powerful agent of urban renewal in New Haven, Boston, and New York City. But his plan to build low-income housing in suburbia came to nought.

  5. Uber Eats worker

    The Millennial Urban Lifestyle Is About to Get More Expensive

    As WeWork crashes and Uber bleeds cash, the consumer-tech gold rush may be coming to an end.