You bought a drone. And you’re probably chomping at the bit to get the battery charged and take it out for the first test flight. But before you do, you need to be aware of the rules and regulations that the Federal Aviation Adminitration (FAA) has put in place for flying drones in the U.S. And you should also be aware of your rights and the rights of those around you.
The FAA refers to drones by the more proper term, Unmanned Aircraft Systems. It outlines its policies for use in the U.S. in detail—you should read the entire document before flying, but pay special attention to the section on Model Aircraft, the category under which drones fall.
The basic rules are:
- Fly below 400 feet and remain clear of surrounding obstacles
- Keep the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times
- Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations
- Don’t fly within 5 miles of an airport unless you contact the airport and control tower before flying
- Don’t fly near people or stadiums
- Don’t fly an aircraft that weighs more than 55 pounds
- Don’t be careless or reckless with your unmanned aircraft; you could be fined for endangering people or other aircraft
A lot of these are simply common sense. And that’s something you need to use when flying. In addition to the FAA rules, remember that National Parks havebanned the use of drones within their confines. It’s a shame, because aerial footage of beautiful locations like Yellowstone and Yosemite is a compelling reason to own a drone, but on the other hand some places should be free of technological distractions. The airspace around Washington D.C. is also restricted.
One thing you should remember is that all of these rules are for noncommercial use. If you’re using a drone as a realtor, wedding videographer, or for similar for-profit purposes you’ll need to apply for an exemption under Section 333.
Dealing With Conflict
If you fly your drone in public there’s a chance that, eventually, you’re going to run into some sort of conflict with another human. Some people think that it’s totally acceptable to shoot a drone out of the air with a gun. So what do you do if someone takes exception to your flying a drone around them?
Well, if they decide to use your quadcopter for target practice, or otherwise damage it, the first order of business it to call the police. But it’s best to diffuse the situation before it gets to that. So, in the immortal words of Patrick Swayze, be nice. Have a conversation about what you’re doing. Maybe even show the person the video feed from the drone camera that’s streaming to your phone or tablet. Some folks are under the impression that a drone flying 100 feet in the air is spying on them—show them just how wide-angle the video is from that altitude
Of course, not everyone you meet is reasonable. In those cases, you should be aware of where you’re standing. As with photography, it has a lot to do with your rights to fly. If you’re on your own property, or public property, you are completely within your rights. But if you’re on private property, the situation isn’t in your favor. A property owner (or representative of one, like a security guard) can ask you to land your drone and leave the premises. If that’s the situation, you should comply. If they demand your memory card or attempt to detain you, however, that’s another ball of wax. Print out and carry a copy of The Photographer’s Right with you—it’s a helpful resource to have whenever you’re capturing images or video.
Don’t Be Stupid
Flying a quadcopter is a lot of fun, and it gives you opportunity to capture images and video that you wouldn’t get from ground level. Following the FAA rules and diffusing conflict with others will go along way to making it a more enjoyable (and legal) experience. Common sense dictates that you should avoid flying your copter over crowded spaces—leave the aerial shots of the US Open and Super Bowl to the Goodyear Blimp people.
Choosing the right time of day to fly can also help to minimize interaction with other people, and to improve the quality of your video footage. If you fly right after sunrise—magic hour—you’ll find that landscapes are bathed in golden light and look much better than would in the harsh light of midday. It requires you to get up early in the morning and get to a location around dawn, but the results will be worth it, and most of the world will still be asleep.
If you know and follow the rules, use a little bit of common sense, and know how to deal with conflict when it arises you’ll certainly get a lot of enjoyment from your drone.
By Jim Fisher