Many pilots aren’t familiar with FAA drone regulations, so flying over people is common. However, commercial and recreational drone pilots are prohibited from flying their drones over other people.
That said, the Commercial Part 107 rules could soon be amended to allow licensed drone pilots some flexibility.
Although it may seem like a good idea to take aerial photos of your friends or shoot aerial video of a baseball game, this is one of the most dangerous uses of your drone if done incorrectly.
A drone hitting a bystander can have a devastating effect, and as any pilots who have tried to hand-land their drone but failed know, the propellors (otherwise known as blades) can cut right through the skin.
Not only that, but a drone going full speed can easily cause moderate to severe damage just by blunt force impact.
In this article, we will cover how a pilot can fly over people thanks to new developments in regulations and what circumstances allow drone flights over people.
To help, we’ve identified and reviewed the best drone courses for beginners and professionals.
What do the Part 107 rules have to say about drone flights over people?
The FAA is very clear about its current stance on flying drones over people:
“No one may fly a small unmanned plane over a person unless that person is: Participating directly in the operation of small unmanned aircraft or the person is under a covered structure, or inside a stationary vehicle that provides reasonable protection against a small unmanned aircraft falling.”FAA
Although the rule seems very straightforward, there are some words we must understand to appreciate how extensive this restriction is.
What does participating mean?
Sometimes regulations are kept vague to give more freedom to pilots since it’s left open for interpretation. Other times, that’s not the case.
The FAA is very specific about what constitutes a participant. Participating in drone operations includes either the remote pilot-in-command or a member of the operations crew.
This could include a visual observer, the person manipulating the controls, a backup Pilot-In-Command, or the main Pilot-in-Command. This immediately excludes large crowds, like sporting events, big parties, or even a large group of friends.
The FAA also states that commercial drone pilots cannot fly drones over people who are not participating, even if they have consented.
This is a new rule in Part 107. There was a Section 333 exemption that allowed people to give written or verbal consent to drone operations.
Although there were some mitigating factors in the exemption, it allowed drone pilots to fly above non-participating persons.
The FAA’s reasoning for this new ruling is that people who don’t have direct experience with drone operations won’t be able to show the same level of situational awareness.
This is similar to the government’s view of minors not being able to consent to different activities because they do have the capacity to fully understand situations.
People in vehicles
Item 2 of Section 107.39 says that drone flights over vehicles are allowed but only if the vehicles are stationary. This is because a drone-related collision with a moving vehicle could cause much more damage and injury to people and property.
Further, the FAA defines a “stationary vehicle” as a vehicle not in active use. It does not include vehicles with running engines, or vehicles stopped at red lights.
If a drone crashes onto a car suddenly, the driver’s knee-jerk reaction can lead to a more serious vehicular accident.
Flying “over a person”
According to the FAA, flying “over a person” must be avoided to prevent a drone from crashing into someone.
The drone pilot must ensure that the drone does not fly directly over people, regardless of wind speed or direction. This is an important distinction because the wording says directly over people.
That means that you should be able to fly adjacent to and above people, so it gives the illusion of flying over them
While the intention behind this clarification is clear, it may prove difficult to comply. It is nearly impossible to predict the course of a drone crash, given how quickly wind can shift.
Drone pilots can follow this rule in two ways: avoid flying in unpredictable weather and refrain from flying aggressively.
Indoor flights above people
Many drone pilots have wondered whether the rules for flying over people also apply indoors. There are many indoor events now that include drones for entertainment and documentation.
The problem with indoor spaces is that they are not under the control of the FAA. National airspace does not refer to any airspace that is enclosed by any structure. Indoor flying is exempted from all FAA regulations.
The short answer is yes; you can fly your drone indoors over people without violating any laws.
It is important to warn you about indoor flying, however. Indoor flight is one of the most difficult tasks for drone pilots, and we recommend that only experienced pilots attempt it.
Even indoor hovering is difficult without GPS guidance. You will need to keep your eyes on your drone. If you want your drone to be able to navigate in an extremely difficult environment, you will need to disable any obstacle avoidance system.
However dangerous it may be, it is refreshing to have a drone flight that isn’t regulated by the FAA. Just be careful.
Getting an FAA waiver for flights over people
Just as commercial drone pilots can fly in restricted areas with FAA permission, one of the waivers that the FAA can grant is the restriction against drone flights over people.
Any licensed drone pilot can apply for a waiver through the FAA DroneZone website. They must provide details about the planned operations, the risks they anticipate, and the mitigation measures they intend to take.
The FAA has granted waivers for this purpose. It is worth noting, however, that most of these waivers were granted to corporations and organizations such as media outlets or construction companies.
What could happen to make the FAA more flexible in granting waivers for flights over people? Let’s take a look at some recently granted waivers to see the details.
Fox Television Stations, LLC received a waiver on August 26, 2019. It included the following elements:
- A Safety Management System (SMS)
- A pilot who can perform emergency and evasive maneuvers
- A record-keeping system for operations and status
- An installed parachutist system
ParaZero Safe Air is the parachute system that was used to waive the operation. It’s an installed system on a DJI Phantom 4 drone.
Alaska Aerial Media also received a waiver on November 13, 2019, allowing for the use of a parachutist system. However, this one was equipped with an Indemnus Nexus i2 system that is mounted on a DJI Inspire 2.
Although the recordkeeping requirements were identical, Alaska Aerial had to prepare an operations manual.
While conditions can vary between waivers, the current regulatory environment is much more accepting due to the introduction of new safety products and more technologically advanced drones.
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What about hobbyist pilots?
Since recreational drone pilots are not covered by the Part 107 rules, they have a separate set of rules under the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018. The law has many rules that overlap with Part 107.
For example, the prohibition against flying in controlled airspace without authorization and the requirement to fly below 400 feet, which is the same airspace cap for commercial pilots.
The law prohibits drone flights over public places or groups of people. Because the law does not define these groups but does say public places, it is more restricted in its language. The law prohibits recreational drone pilots from flying around people.
The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, however, isn’t excessively restrictive. It calls for the development of technologies and policies that will allow commercial drone services to be expanded.
Read on to learn about laws that will soon come into place that will affect the current regulations on flying over people.
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Drone flight can prove dangerous if it is done by inexperienced or irresponsible pilots. Drone crashes happen very often and can cause severe injury or property damage, despite their often small size.
The FAA’s job is trying to prevent such accidents by banning drone flights over large groups of people where the chances of impact in the case of a drone crash are high.
Recent developments show that the FAA is more open to lifting this restriction. It is possible that commercial drone pilots will soon be able to fly their drones above people, as there have been a lot more waivers approved in recent years.
The FAA is strict, but they understand that, especially in cities, people are everywhere, and these days, so are drones.