Beijing From Above, aka The Story of How I Was Detained by the Police for flying my DJI Quadcopter

The video – Beijing from Above

Before I tell you the story of being detained by the Chinese (and, like Taborlin the Great, I similarly did not have key, coin, or candle), I’ll share the video I made! I would have gotten even more footage had the quadcopter not been, ahem, confiscated… BTW, I recommend running the video in HD mode with earphones!

This was made with a really awesome quadcopter — the New DJI Phantom 2 with Zenmuse H3-3d 3-axis Gimbal and Gopro Hero 3+ Black Edition. All the footage was shot with that GoPro. I did a mixture of wide angle and narrow shots. I also had it in a mode that automatically took a photo every 5 seconds, and I put some of my favorite photos at the bottom of this blog post!

That music is by the great Jon Hopkins. The name of the track, fittingly, is “A Drifting Up.” Thanks to Chris Craker for the introduction.

The Detention Facility and Quadcopter Confiscation

So, I went into this not knowing what was legal and what was not legal. Okay, I had a sinking feeling that flying a quadcopter over the Forbidden City might be more black than grey, but my intentions were pure and artistic, so I figured that gave me some sort of leeway. At least, this is how I justified everything in my head beforehand. You’re starting to see how I make bad decisions.

Note to self: don’t mess with these guys. Another note to self: don’t goof around with drones the 25th Anniversary of It-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named. This was taken with the Sony A7r the Alpha 28-300mm lens. See my Sony A7r Review for more.

Let me set the stage here. Beijing is the seat of all Chinese government power. So, deciding to fly a drone over China is kind of like Luke Skywalker deciding to ride his landspeeder on the Death Star.

There are multiple “rings” that encircle Beijing. The first ring is the Forbidden City. The second ring has many monuments and other houses of government. It’s kind of like Washington D.C., except with less communists.

I had flown the DJI Quadcopter for about five days with no problem. I was there with my friend Tom Anderson who also had the same DJI Quadcopter setup as I did. We were both having a great time and getting some really cool shots. I am so excited to take photos and experiment with this thing! We had even flown it several times around police in various places. They never said anything. The police were probably generally confused; their lack of interference only emboldened us.

Note to future self: Do not fly quadcopter over the Chinese NSA Intelligence Buildings

So here comes the juicy bit. Well, it could have been worse. But I was certainly at fault!

I was at Beihai Park. Now, some of you may already be rolling your eyes, because you know what I did not know. That behind those trees there are all their government buildings, where they would rather not have things flown above.

My DJI remote control was low on batteries, and I have this rather sane fear of the controller going dead while quadcopter is off having a party somewhere without me. So I set the quadcopter on the ground beside my assistant. My assistant is this 28-year-old female who was kind of cute and quite bubbly named Ady. I say this because it comes into play later in the story. One other thing I can tell you about her is that she was absolutely zero help in warning me that I was about to fly the quadcopter over the Chinese NSA and FBI buildings. That’s one of those things I would have liked to know… My plan was to take an aerial shot of the White Dagoba on Qionghua Island (which you can see from the ground level here).

Anyway, I went out to get my batteries and walked back. I saw Ady still standing by my quadcopter with a rather surly-looking female police officer. I was getting a bad vibe. As I approached, the surliness seemed to increase, and it was really harshin’ my mellow.

Beijing From Above

Here’s a view from over the Northeast Tower. This is the most popular area to take photos in Beijing… so I was happy to see what it looks like from a thousand feet up with the sweet DJI. I had this set to take a photo every 5 seconds while recording HD video!

Off to the lockdown

I approached and planned on using my charm offensive. It’s the only strategy I have, so I hoped it would work. One unforeseen fault in my plan is that this policewoman did not speak English.

But Ady spoke both languages, so we began a brief frenzy of back-and-forth, all of which went nowhere fast. We were then escorted to the nearby police area. My friend Tom was standing nearby. But not that near. Actually, he was off in the bushes by the lake, peering at us from afar through multiple tiers of shrubbery.

We were escorted inside a series of secure doors, and the last of which made that CLA-CHUNK-CLINK sound effect that you hear in movies and TV shows. It really made that sound. I thought….oh shit.

To the right here, you can see an example of the sorts of bad decisions I make in China… this is my “spa” day with Tom.

There were more enforcement officers inside. I figured I had a lot of ‘splainin to do. And I did!

I had a feeling that I was in a rather sensitive area that I did not know about. So I was sure I had indeed done something wrong, but I just didn’t know what. Thank mao I wasn’t actually flying the thing and it was sitting inert on the ground when security descended. This helped.

Now, this small little detention facility did not have a lot of lights. It was dimly lit, flickering in a sickly yellowish light, and I could not quite see everything inside. I did see the rather burly gentleman officer that was right there with me, leading the questioning. Ady translated. Although I wasn’t so sure of her translation capabilities because earlier in the day we had gone to KFC and she had ordered me a chicken neck.

Luckily, she was very smiley and cute, which probably did not hurt. She seemed very positive and happily began translating for me. The senior policeman seemed to enjoy her bubbly nature.

He was holding the quadcopter and turning it around, examining the camera, the blades, the everything. He was a curious cat. He asked many questions while a female officer held something that looked like an old CB radio but actually had a camera and was recording me. So I’m somewhere in some Chinese video database, making some amazing arguments.

I basically explained that I was a photographer, and I like getting unique angles. I simply like taking photos and making Beijing look beautiful. I noticed they liked to hear this and were a bit surprised. I saw an opening.

I whipped out my Samsung Nexus Android (S4) phone. I pulled open my photo portfolio and asked Ady to translate. I started sliding through the photos, then I handed the phone to the alpha male. He started swiping and asking questions. She translated and I answered. Oh, that is in Japan. That one is in New Zealand, my home! That one is in Indonesia. This one is in Death Valley where the rocks move on their own! Very mysterious! By now, the guy was smiling and inviting the other officers over to see. They were all crowding around, smiling and laughing, pointing. Now Ady was laughing and having fun and explaining. I was telling stories about the photos… etc etc. It was a suddenly a fun party in jail!

Okay, so this little photo party went on for about ten more minutes… this was an exciting day for them! I think they saw that I was an artist and I really had no interest in taking photos of sensitive things. Those of you that have been coming to the blog for the past 8 years also know this… but, well, these guys were not regular readers so I had to fast-track them! In fact, the alpha male there asked for my blog website here so he could come see new photos. He’s probably reading this now. Hello Nice Chinese Military Police Man! I forgot your name, but thanks for not doing bad stuff to me and stuff.

After the little photo partay, he gave me back the quadcopter and said, “Okay, here you go, but please don’t fly it inside the first or second ring of the city.” I said, okay, cool. And then we made our hasty egress.

Apparently, the news kind of spread around to another group with which I was working in Beijing. They showed up at my hotel the next morning to confiscate the quadcopter, obviously not trusting me not to fly it any more. They agreed to bring it to the airport before I left Beijing. I doubted I would ever see the thing again, but, sure enough, they showed up! I threw the sweet beast in my bag then jumped on my flight back home to New Zealand. Shwew!

Other Photos from the Quadcopter

Here’s some of my other favorite photos that I took with my little toy :)

Metal Underpants

Here’s an arial shot from the CBD area. This building is really cool, isn’t it? The locals call it the “Metal Underpants”


Quadcopter Perspective

The perspective from up above is truly amazing. I find myself trying to picture what it looks like from above then launching the quad to confirm. It really makes you think about 3D space in a different way.


World Park

Here’s one from their little World Park where they have all the world’s monuments in semi-miniature. It’s a strange place, truly. I treated this one with the new Analog Efex Pro 2 from the Nik Collection


Trees on Roof

I didn’t even notice there were trees growing on top until I got the quadcopter up there!


World Wonders

Here’s another from that strange world park. You can see four World Wonders right there below!


Drum Tower

Looking down near the drum tower.


Ming Tombs

I like how they lay out the towers for the Ming Tombs in this pattern. I bet the original designers would have enjoyed seeing this perspective.



Getting up high in the 798 area gave a nice perspective on the industrial detritus.



Traffic on both sides of a park in the CBD (Central Business District)


Ming Tombs From Above

One of the Ming Tombs from above. This is honestly the straightest shot I’ve ever taken! I didn’t even have to rotate it 1% in Photoshop… and I was 1000 feet up in the air!


Drum Tower Axis

The amazing drum tower sits right in the middle, along the central axis.


Willow Path

A beautiful path of willows bends into the distance.


The Forbidden City From Above

And last, The Forbidden City from above.


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  • William Beem

    I’m going to try to bring a drone to Epcot China and see if the Disney cops come after me again.

  • Charles Buckley

    Great pictures and videos. But not needed at your expense.

  • Francois Nadeau

    Thats great Trey!! I even saw myself in the video in the shots of 798!!!

  • susan ratcliff

    Wonderful video and photos – you are lucky! Your bday is not 7-7 for nothing! :)

  • Anthony Vipond

    I imagine if you flew around the NSA and FBI buildings in the US they are not nearly as nice as the Chinese police.

  • treyratcliff

    Thanks – yes everything turned out okay! :)

  • treyratcliff

    Haha cool – yes there you were! :)

  • treyratcliff

    Yeah, for real!

  • Anthony Vipond

    I live in Shanghai, been here for many years. I’ve been detained by the police here before and so have my friends. Our experiences with them were very similar to your own :)

  • Chris Newham

    Super video what great different angles you get with the copter I especially like the shots looking straight down such wonderful patterns in the buildings and streets.

  • treyratcliff

    Thanks @Chris Newham:disqus !

  • Michael Pettingill

    Epic video and pictures Trey. Its tough going to places with our rigs, not knowing the reception we’re going to get. I’m with you; I’m there to capture beauty and life through the lens of my GoPro. I’ve been in some weird situations with people and law enforcement in some places, because of a misconception about what I was doing. Some were cool after showing them, others…not so much. I’m glad it worked out in your favor.

  • Chuck Crawford

    Monstrous! Thank you Trey!

  • Met

    You are an idiot. Don’t go to another country and expect to be treated differently.

  • Binayak Dasgupta

    If you had read his post properly, not once did he say he was expecting to be treated differently. In fact, he admits that it is his own fault, and that he didn’t know that he would be flying over sensitive areas.

  • Nomadog

    Nice footage. Glad you were able to keep it. I worked in a maximum security prison and we took peeps cameras. You’re lucky Trey and good thing you didn’t stick around long enough to meet Bubba. I will definitely do some research before flying mine. People: ignorance is not an accepted excuse in many countries. So go beyond your best behavior. Here’s another guy who got locked up and deported for tweeting Trey, you’re still a rockstar!

  • Dave

    Great video footage – How was the blood letting and barnacle feet cleaning fish at the day spa?

  • RoninjapanTV

    I will be very cautions on doing stuff in china,..i live in Japan and here too you can get in trouble easy.great video ..and great already known your photos are amazing.

  • Steven Teo

    Trey, I have to say WOW! Amazingly POV. Good that you did not know of those security issues otherwise we would not have seen these shots.

  • Kimberly A Edwards

    Wow it right. I love reading and listening to you tell stories Trey. Thank you.

  • PatrickInBeijing

    Dude, awesome pictures! But you are a first class idiot. If you did this in Washington DC, you would probably be shot down as a terrorist. A car full of people drove into the crowds at Tienanmen Square last year. The Chinese Police are amazing for not shooting you down or locking your up for a year or two. You definitely owe them thanks! I do like the pictures.

  • treyratcliff

    Yes, well, I did not fly it in Tian’anman Square… I thought it was just a temple in the trees… I didn’t know what was back there.

  • treyratcliff

    Thanks Ronin! Cool name btw!

  • treyratcliff

    Yeah – they tickle!

  • treyratcliff

    hehe lucky this time… :)

  • treyratcliff

    hehe thx @binayakdasgupta:disqus :)

  • treyratcliff

    hehe yes, I think it helps that I am trying to make pretty things and not trying to cause trouble!

  • Mariamichelle117

    You got some amazing photos with your quadcopter and I’m glad you got it back. I’m not taking a quadcopter to China in August, but I need to do my best to leave my attitude at home. My luggage frequently gets searched extensively because of all my passport stamps (I guess). I’ve always been polite until they searched me in Vancouver. My father born in Canada and I grew up less than an hour from there so I mistakenly didn’t expect any problems. I have all sorts of stories, but yours takes the cake. Glad everything turned out alright and that’s awesome that you were able to remain friendly through it all

  • Peter Stewart

    Really enjoyed reading this. Getting into trouble as a photographer is all part of the job, sometimes you have to bend the rules to get the shots you want. The GoPro video is sweet Trey! It’s almost getting there for still photos use, maybe go pro 4 or 5 will improve it upto compact camera image standards.
    I never got into trouble in Beijing, but you can definitely sense the military presence there compared to other Chinese cities.

  • Jerry

    Actually, China SHOULD allow this. Love the photos. Thank you for taking the risk. Face it, some of their laws need to be broken, my Chinese better half insists. This past week they have forced eighty churches to remove their crosses. These were the legal (registered) ones already under communist control. They are really uptight about anything they do not control.

  • Tim & Nat ✈

    We were just talking about the possibilities of creating great footage with a drone. Great video and photos!

  • Binayak Dasgupta

    no problemo, got you back. Your work is really an inspiration. I am an aspiring photograper from SIngapore, do check out some of my work if you have the time and the inclination:
    If you are planning a walkabout in Singapore some time in the future, I will gladly join!

  • Jean-François

    Too many wide angle shots makes this look like a video game… All sense of reality is being lost !

  • Keith Barrett

    I’ve had that hot jar treatment once… just once! No idea why people think it’s helpful.

  • Keith Barrett

    They will. Disney security is tighter

  • Bill Dodd

    I recently thought better of flying my Drone over the Magic Kingdom from our room at the Polynesian. Considering it may have been a bad decision or lead to premature termination of a family holiday. I was really more worried about the wrath of my wife than that of the Disney Police.

    The fact that you flew it in China, over Beijing no less, is so next-level AW-SOME! (I love the results) and thank you for my new favorite quote of all time: “It’s kind of like Washington D.C., except with less communists.” :)

  • JuneGoose

    Cool video! I loved the people’s reactions to the quadcopter flying overhead.

  • Pavel |

    Little world park is in Shenzhen isn’t it? Next time if you need translations contact me I am interpreter/tour guide living in China and also amateur photographer and a big fan of yours :)

  • Johninchinar

    ron in Japan

  • Chang He

    You are fortunate to have been let go. What is unfortunate is the blissfully unaware narcissism that allows you to say you were “locked up” when actually you were just questioned, and which allows you to write 1500 words on the topic and not mention the hundreds of thousands of Chinese political prisoners who don’t get a “slap on the wrist” but who suffer and die for justice and truth. If you want to “make a difference” how about caring less about dime-a-dozen aerial photography shots, and caring more about real issues involving real people, which your experience gave you the tiniest taste of.

  • SigridEkman

    I love China. I once saw a man get really angry at airport security when he wasn’t allowed to bring a huge bottle of liquor through. He was shouting and pushing, and I kept on thinking that if this was Europe you would have been on the ground in handcuffs within a split second. At Beijing airport they just tried to calm him down and explain to him why he couldn’t bring it along. It’s a weird polarized nature, as long as they believe you are not really intending to destabilize the country and get involved in politics they will be pretty patient and reasonable with you.

  • treyratcliff

    yeah – I’ve seen strange stuff like that too.

  • treyratcliff

    Yeah, you don’t want to mess with those Disney police @BillDodd:disqus ! :)

  • treyratcliff

    Thanks @Mariamichelle117:disqus ! :)

  • treyratcliff

    hehe thanks @kimberlyaedwards:disqus

  • ken

    Can you imagine you doing this in US capital hill…lol

    China Police are actually very friendly compared to many other country as long as you not doing things for politics. I fly Drone in China dated back to 2008 and never have any issues . Below is few pictures and video I fly in China

  • Chang He

    Don’t be anymore clueless than you can help. The United States does not run concentration camps. The Chinese police do. While the headlines would have you believe the FBI and NSA are somehow evil, they do not hold a candle to their Chinese counterparts in terms of pure cruelty.

  • Pickle

    Sorry, you sound like a typical spoiled rich kid who is butthurt that you didn’t get treated like loyalty in a country where you were a guest. PS. Your HDR pictures suck.

  • Pickle

    lol yeah, so brave…As brave as Tank man he is.

  • Anthony Vipond

    I like how you edited your comment from the original. You are rude.

  • Chang He

    My initial comment was rude. That’s why I edited it. My comment as it stands is true, and ad hominem attacks do not alter the truth.

  • Chang He

    Exactly my concern. Breathless tales of this kind that purport to “derring-do” trivialize real sacrifices, real horrors, and real heroes. The “tank man” has never been conclusively identified, and for all we know may still be rotting and freezing to death in a Manchurian labor camp.

  • Jeff Peterson

    Wow, that is a crazy story. Personally, I find the pictures far more interesting than the video.

  • Will Lovitt

    Reminds me of the greeting I got when I went to Cuba with WAY too much camera gear.

  • treyratcliff

    They might have one there, but this one is in Beijing.

  • E Galarza

    Amazing video Trey, I’m really impressed what can be done with these drones after watching your video. Hat’s off to you for the awesome videography and photography you made on your trip.

  • gregorylent

    lucky you weren’t chinese, eh?

  • ilikemac

    Yeah, do that drone thing in Tibet and you’ll be out of there in no time. And Xijiang too. Thanks to earlier ‘tourists’ who posted nasty videos on YouTube.

  • ilikemac

    Aha, a ‘politico’ on this photography forum. I should’ve known it. Sooner or later someone with an axe to grind will come along…

  • ilikemac

    I second that…

  • ilikemac

    Leave politics out of this photography forum.

  • ilikemac

    ‘Military presence’? Thanks to separatists and terrorists inspired by you-know-who. And no thanks to those tourists who posted videos on YouTube belittling China like those on Lhasa, Tibet.

  • treyratcliff

    Thanks @egalarza:disqus – glad you think it is pretty too! :)

  • treyratcliff

    Thank you kindly @JeffPeterson82:disqus ! :)

  • ilikemac

    Honestly, I think Trey knew it was kind of dicey at best, to fly drones in Beijing. He went in knowing full well that he could get into hot water. Next time he might not be so lucky. Advice: get approval from the ‘ahn kone’ folks. (In case Ady didn’t translate it for you over there; it’s the police – ‘kone’ is brigade, company, association, group; ‘ann’ is peace.

  • treyratcliff

    Haha… you are a riot. I challenge you to a duel of wits, sir! White glove in the air, in a delicate arc towards your sour physiognomy. :)

  • ilikemac

    …. he will definitely make the evening news…..

  • goodinuf

    Trey as suggestion on your video, I find the transitions you used between shots to be distracting and draw too much attention to themselves, especially during the quicker cuts. A simpler transition like a fade or dissolve might be more effective and not distract as much from your beautiful shots of China.

  • Chang He

    Don’t be foolish. The very real imprisonment, torture, murder, and devastation of millions of people is hardly “politics”. Just because it makes you uncomfortable to think about doesn’t mean it is something you shouldn’t think about. And if this post was just about the beauty of China or photography opportunities in China, I wouldn’t have mentioned what I did. But it isn’t really about photographic opportunities in China. It’s about the Chinese police, and their activities, which are an affront to those who believe in liberty and human rights everywhere.

  • Chang He

    “Belittling China”? As if the hurt feelings of a nation are any hint of retaliation for the invasion and genocide the Chinese have perpetrated on the Tibetan people. Your consistent support of a nation given to oppression, murder, the imprisonment of innocents, the suppression of free speech, and the most egregious environmental assault in the modern world makes you an extremely questionable moralist.

  • Chang He

    He’d be deep in a mine in the desert of Xinjiang if he were.

  • Ray

    As a Chinese myself,simply can’t believe they returned the quadcopter to you,——— so thank Mao you’re not Chinese

  • Sam Dull

    Amazing aerial views and pictures. It sure gives a whole new perspective of Beijing.

  • Carolyn

    I agree with the transitions. Beautiful footage but I get motionsick easily and the transitions were not good for my tummy.

  • Fiona Lee

    What an absolutely amazing story – one of which I would’ve been scared to death if a Chinese militant came up to me (Could be because I am Chinese [HK] American). Beautiful pictures & videos, never had a chance to travel to Beijing so these pictures are the closest experience I have! Love it.

  • Kip Hartwell

    I like them myself. Yes, simple transitions are usually best, but these ones really bring out the tempo of the beat. I was actually admiring the editing.

  • foljs

    Nope. They are bad. No sugarcoating it.

  • goodinuf

    It effected my wife the same way.

  • Phyllis Burgess

    you were truly blest..and I thank the Chinese police for your opportunity

  • treyratcliff


  • treyratcliff

    Thank you @disqus_o2QR0dwkXk:disqus :)

  • treyratcliff

    Cool – thank you @Sam

  • treyratcliff

    haha @disqus_Aw0bQdBPyy:disqus – brilliant

  • Elliot deBruyn

    I agree with you in part, but I have to say that the “shady” part of the US institutions in question are simply more hidden. The Chinese have never tried to hide their human rights abuses. In fact, it works as another method of control. However, the US has illegally taken the right to kill anyone and everyone in the entire world using drones. China hasn’t once tried to do anything remotely that frightening.

    Most people on the ground here, and I say this as an American photographer and videographer with a journalism background living in Shanghai for the past few years, don’t give a damn about what the government does. They all just want to make money, like everyone else.

    My point is that if you’re on the short end of the stick, no matter where you are, you’re going to be disappointed with your lack of voice. China isn’t more or less evil than the US, or Syria, or Russia, or Burma. The human rights abuses are just covered up differently in each place.

  • Craig Murphy

    Great video Trey and even better story, glad you got through it all ok mate.

  • Rosewood97

    Ahhhhh, Ming Tombs. I couldn’t figure that one out.

    Great video. Thanks for taking us for a ride.

  • croozn

    Seriously, you should be locked up just to protect you from yourself. What kind of moron would even THINK this was a good idea IN ANY COUNTRY ON EARTH? Go try this over the US capitol, for example, and then enjoy your new life in Cuba.

  • mzungu

    You should try to get some shot of planes landing near the airport next….

  • Best Quadcopter

    Wow Trey thank you for telling your story. Glad to hear that you are ok.


  • Darkthagoras

    This is awesome

  • Peter Johnson


  • markgriffith

    Nice video and write up. I used to live in Beijing. I made a little video while I was there, which was a little nerve wracking :

    And I had a very similar experience being detained by police for shooting video with a GoPro you can read here :

  • ClausRasmussen

    Chinese authorities often try to resolve the situation at the lowest level possible. It is part philosophy (let people resolve their differences themselves) and part laziness (there is a huge amount of paperwork involved in arresting someone). It is also one of the things I love China for.

  • ClausRasmussen

    >> It’s kind of like Washington D.C., except with less communists

    That cracked me up too

  • Zinan Li

    Before you shot the video you should apply for the permit. Beijing has no-fly zone, which is common sense. I have been to Washington DC and symbols of no-camera could be seen around the Pentagon. Thank you for your beautiful images, but I cannot agree with your complain at all.

  • dji man

    shame on you .your action is very danger. dji phantom may hurt this historical building.

  • Bec

    Trey! Love your work! I, also from down under, now live in BJ — wish I’d known you were here — I could have told you NOT to fly a quadcopter over China’s government buildings! But then again, you wouldn’t have had this awesome story to tell. Let us know when you’re here next!!

  • Todd_Hanson

    The gist of the story seems to be that you did something incredibly stupid and were mildly inconvenienced. I’ve had similar experiences, but tend to downplay them. You should, too. My concern is that in the future the inconvenience you experience may prove considerable. If that happens, people familiar with your track record may find it difficult to sympathize with you. Obviously, many commentors here have no sympathy for you now. Take care.

  • Todd

    Transitions were pretty rough actually… editing took away from the quality of the shots

  • TranceMist

    A photographer… great cover story you have… :-p

  • treyratcliff


  • Sen Jiang

    Your blog is blocked in China now lol. See for more detail. And KFC in China does not sell chicken neck at all. Are you sure that place is KFC?

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