Quadcopter drones are one of the hottest consumer gadgets right now, and one of the most innovative technologies to come to filmmaking and photography in years. However, they’re also a very contentious technology; by now most of us have heard a story about a near miss with a drone and an airplane, or about a neighbor shooting a drone out of the sky. Furthermore, the guidance provided by the FAA is not clear at best and downright contradictory at other times. In this guide, we’ll try to make sense of all of it and provide clear and easy to follow recommendations.
Disclaimer: we are not responsible if you read this guide and then do something dumb with your drone, like crash it into the Empire State Building.
Basics of Flight Safety
When you learn gun safety, one of the first rules you learn is: “do not point the gun [loaded or unloaded] at anything you’re not prepared to destroy.” This protects you from your worse case scenario. There’s a similar school of thought in drone flight: “do not fly over anything that would be harmed by the drone falling out of the sky”. It’s a very simple rule-of-thumb that will protect you from unsafe flight. But before you decide to fly, there are a couple simple precautions to take.
- Think of your VLOS – visual line of flight. Keep the drone in your field of vision; don’t rely on a spotter, don’t rely on a screen to know where your drone is at. Having it in your sight helps you keep it out of trees, out of the way of an incoming manned aircraft, and helps to ensure you aren’t getting it too high or too far away that would cause loss of control.
- Insurance – Check to make sure you have insurance. Homeowner and renters policies often do, but not always and they don’t cover commercial operations. If something bad were to happen you want liability insurance to protect yourself but also to make right with the person who was impacted by your drone operations.
Before you fly, we recommend downloading the app Hover. This app has refined and accurate no-fly zones, a flight log, real-time weather, legal fly zones, and a flight indicator. Note that restricted air space isn’t a permanent no-fly zone, you just need contact flight control towers, and this is where it can get a little tricky. The FAA, airports, and ATCs do not grant permission to fly. The FAA specifically instructs ATCs not to grant permission, only to acknowledge notification. Why? Because there is legal weight in granting permission and thus if they were authorizing and something happened, then the FAA and ATC would bear some of the responsibility.
Fliers should also become familiar with AC 91-57a, which is an advisory circular that provides guidance to persons operating unmanned aircraft. And whenever inside of 5 nautical miles (which is larger than just 5 statutory miles) you need to call the airport operator and air traffic controller and give notice of your flight. Just be polite and tell them your name, that you are flying a drone, where and how long you will be flying, and the maximum height you intend to fly (e.g. Hi, my name is ____, I’m planning to fly a drone at ______ and will stay under ___ feet between [this time] and [that time]). And before flying check to see if there are any TFRs (temporary flight restrictions), NOTAMS (Notice to Airmen), or local restrictions.
One understandably common misconception is you cannot fly over major sports stadiums, above any private property, military bases or government buildings. You can fly over all of them provided no TFR is in place. (Example, a TFR is only in effect for sports stadiums during a short window from 3 hours before to 1 hour after a game). You can be considerate of private property by not flying low, hovering over, or frequently overflying someone’s property, but it is not illegal to do so and will be quite commonplace with Amazon deliveries and Google WiFi drones.
*National Parks, National Forests, and National Recreation Areas are all restricted areas.
Where to Fly
Just because you’re legally allowed to fly somewhere doesn’t mean you should. Often, the public reacts very negatively to drones and if you do make an effort to be an ambassador for the hobby, invite the spectator to watch what you are doing, show them your screen, answer questions, and explain your operation. You’ll likely win them over. But, even if you’re flying safely and legally, if someone “asks you” to stop flying your drone do give them some consideration. Comply if it’s law enforcement, but ask them questions as to why they demanded such after you land your aircraft. Stay polite and have a printed copy of AC 91-57a in your gear bag to share with them. That said, here are our top recommendations:
- large backyards (at low altitude)
- private property in rural areas – look to get the owner’s permission whenever possible
- uncrowded public parks (early morning and sunset is good)
- inside a warehouse (if you have an indoor drone)
- over water (if you have enough battery!)
I also want to call out that law enforcement in different parts of the country have varying attitudes towards drones. If you encounter a police officer while flying, it’s best to comply with their requests even if you feel you’re operating in the right. An officer can arrest you for many things. Commonly it might be disturbing the peace or criminal mischief (Peeping Tom laws). The best bet is to comply but look to find out their point of view and educate them on drone flight too. Ask them what they perceive as being problematic in your flight and where they suggest might be better suited for your operations. Again, carry a copy of AC 91-57a in your gear bag and share it with them to show them you are flying according to the FAA’s guidelines. Ask what local ordinances are in place for drones such that you know where and when not to fly for that city.
Every drone you fly must be registered with the FAA. It costs $5/drone/year.
If you’re making any money off of your drone footage or pictures, it’s considered commercial use and you’ll need
a 333 exemption. If you upload your video to YouTube and have monetization turned on, your videos become
commercial and the FAA can go after you.
FAA News and Updates (search for ‘UAS’)
Registration for hobby / commercial
Drone law is becoming like tax law: too complicated to understand. We’ve done our best to enumerate all the
edge cases, but good judgment is king. If the drone falls out of the sky, will it hurt anyone or land on private
property? If the answer is yes, you shouldn’t fly. And BSure to check B4UFLY before you fly!