Drones or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) are not plug-and-play devices. There are many things you need to do before you can take off. Drone photography safety is key, and by ignoring or not following the rules explicitly, you could land in hot water. Fines or worse, someone could be injured and lives put at risk.
When drones or UAS devices came into our photographic world, there were no regulations or rules. Now, the US and other authorities have finally caught up.
This article goes through all of the key elements you need to know to keep your drone activity and other people safe.
Drones are easy to purchase. They aren’t like other dangerous items that need waiting periods, specific qualifications or certifications in operating identified devices.
Just pop on to Amazon, and you can have it on your doorstep within days.
In the US, like many other countries, there are strict regulations that drone owners must abide by at all times. Ignorance is never an excuse in the eyes of the law.
Failure to comply with these rules has grave consequences.
There are different regulations for different operators. Here, we have:
- Recreational Operators
- Business Operators
- Public Operators
Here, we will concentrate on the on the recreational and business operators. Public operators such as law enforcement, governmental agencies and emergency services are already up to speed with the latest rules and regulations.
If you are a public operator, you can fly under the business rules and regulations if necessary.
Before You Fly
In the US, there are two main organisations that are involved in the safety aspect of Unmanned Aircraft Systems. These are AUVSI (Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International) and AMA (Academy Model Aeronautics).
These two organisations came together to form a public awareness program, alongside the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration). This simple educational campaign is known as Know Before You Fly.
The campaign is straightforward. To educate the drone operators and prospective owners on the safe, responsible flying of UAS or drones.
What Every Operator Needs to Know
There are six rules that are paramount in operating a drone:
- Never fly close to any type of manned aircraft;
- Request special permission to fly drones within five miles of an airport;
- Maximum flying altitude for UAS is 400 ft. above ground level (AGL);
- Your drone must always be within your eyesights;
- All unauthorized UAS must stay clear of fires;
- Operators must follow flight restrictions around racetracks and stadiums.
A recreational drone operator is one that does so for video, photography or just for leisure. As members of the public, there are serious consequences for those who ignore or break these rules.
The drones used for recreational use are classified by the authorities as model aircraft. This means they follow the model aircraft rules, regulations and safety guidelines.
Any owner of a model aircraft has to register with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
You need to do this before you take to the skies. On top of this, you have to agree that the operator is:
- Over 13 years of age;
- A U.S. citizen, a legal permanent resident, or legal visitor;
- Going to label the drone with its own unique registration number;
- Pledging to have read and understood all the safety guidelines.
There are exceptions to this rule. A small unmanned aircraft is between 0.55lbs and 55lbs. This means, any drone under 0.55lbs does not need to be registered, and drones over 55lbs aren’t generally allowed.
Even though you don’t need to register the drone, you still need to comply with the FAA flight rules.
When you register your UAS, you will be given a unique identification number. This needs to be attached to your aircraft, in a clearly visible or easily accessible place.
There are three ways you can attach it; engraving, permanent label or permanent marker.
Failing to register your drone, like we mentioned before, will end in serious consequences. Civil penalties can reach up to $27,500.
Under 18 U.S.C. 3571, there are even harsher consequences for criminal penalties. These can include fines up to $250,000 and/or jail time up to three years.
The current drone safety guidelines as per the ‘Special Rule for Model Aircraft’ law are:
- Fly your drone at or below 400 ft;
- Never lose sight of your UAS;
- Do not fly your UAS near other aircraft;
- Never fly drones close to airports (5-mile restriction) without prior permission;
- Do not fly drones over unprotected crowds or groups of people;
- Never fly over moving vehicles;
- Keep your drone away from stadiums and sporting events;
- Never fly near emergency incidents like fires or natural disasters;
- Never fly UAS while under the influence of any beverage or substance;
- Be mindful of airspace requirements.
Other than recreational activities, there are those who operate a drone or UAS for business possibilities. Again, these drones need to weigh under 55lbs.
Flying drones for commercial use typically includes operations such as:
- Aerial surveillance
- Aerial photographic services
- Real estate photography
- Building inspections, i.e. damaged roofs, chimneys, etc
Operating UAS for commercial purposes has a different set of rules and regulations than recreational flying. In the US we refer to this as flying under “the small UAS rule” (14 CFR part 107).
Here’s a rundown of pilot requirements for business drone operators:
- The operator must be 16 years old or older (13 for recreational pilots)
- You must pass a formal aeronautical knowledge test
- The Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) vets all applicants
As these rules are continually being rewritten, updated and scrutinised, you need to keep checking with the official bodies for the most correct information.
Commercial drone requirements are the same as recreational drones but with the addition of one point:
- Aircraft must undergo pre-flight checks to ensure it is in good condition for safe flying.
Commercial drone operating rules include:
- Class G airspace;
- Aircraft must be in visual line-of-sight at all times;
- Maximum altitude 400 feet;
- Daytime flying only;
- Maximum flying speed cannot exceed 100 mph;
- The operator must give right of way to manned aircraft;
- Must NOT fly over groups or crowds of people;
- Must NOT fly over moving vehicles.
Sky Is the Limit
Flying your drone can be exhilarating, but that will quickly go, making you fly your drone to its limitations. Even if your drone can go higher than 400 ft, recreational drones cannot do this legally.
This 400ft is above ground level, not surface level. This means you can not climb to the top of the Sears Tower, and then fly from there.
If you are unsure of how high 400ft is, the FAA suggests that if you lose sight of your drone, then you are probably breaching that limitation.
One case of breaking this height limitation and therefore the rules and regulations was one particular individual in The Netherlands.
He took his DJI Mavic Pro to 11,000 ft. Although nothing happened to him as of yet, because of his recklessness, the rules are becoming stricter.
This drone could have hit an aircraft, or due to running out of battery, falling over a civilian area. The consequences aren’t even imaginable.
Safe Places to Fly
Public safety comes above all other things. If you can see your drone above the 400ft limitation doesn’t mean it is safe to fly that high. How do you know where is safe to fly?
You may be always on the lookout for new places to fly. This is especially true for those who travel a fair bit. Lucky for you, the FAA has developed a special mobile app called B4UFLY.
This app informs UAS operators of local conditions and any special restrictions. This app is free for both Android and iOS systems. It is simple to use and informative, and you really don’t want to be without it.
Some of the features include a “clear status” indicator, info on what drives the apps status indicator and a Pilot Planner mode.
It also gives you clear interactive maps complete with filter options and direct links to FAA UAS resources and any updated regulatory information.
Sometimes you may want to capture images within five miles of an airport. It is possible to fly within these zones, but not without prior permission first.
The airport withholds the rights to deny you permission to operate within their borders. They will only do so if they think you and your UAS possess a potential hazard.
In the USA, almost 70% of the population lives within a 20-mile radius of one of the countries 30 major airports.
In total, the USA has around 13,000 airports of various sizes. There is a good chance that you will live or work in areas, just a few miles from one of these places.
This is just one of the reasons you need to know where you are flying at all times.
Contacting the airport can be easy. The information is also publicly available. Before you contact anyone, make sure you can answer these questions:
- Exactly where do you intend to fly your drone (latitude/longitude or an address)?
- What altitudes do you plan to fly at (remember, has to be below 400 feet AGL)?
- What kind of flying activity are you planning?
- How many UAS are you using?
- What is the description of the UAS?
- What day, date, and time will you be flying and for how long exactly?
- Your name and contact detail, including radio frequency if applicable.
Dos and Don’ts
Follow and don’ts for the best possible usage of your drone or UAS.
Fly in good weather. Watch out for strong winds on a cloudless sky.
Observe Line of Sight. Keep your drone in your eyesight at all times
Steer Clear of Airports. Keep a five-mile radius around each and every airport, regardless of size
Watch Out for Interference. Interference could mess with your drones onboard navigation system, damaging your drone and making it a potential threat.
Fly Over People. Drones falling rapidly, loaded with a camera is a potential danger of hurting or killing someone.
Fly Over Other People’s Houses. Unless you are the Red Baron of flying and have permission, respect people’s privacy, and eliminate any possible injury or damage.
Ascend Over 400ft. Just don’t, no matter how tempting.
Fly Over Roads. the last thing you want is to be responsible for causing a pile-up on a highway or busy intersection.
Fly Above Military Bases. They will shoot it down, and/or look to prosecute you. It’s not worth it. Even for Area 51. You’ll just give the conspiracy theorists something else to talk about.
And that’s it. A hefty article on drone flying laws and safety aspects. Follow these rules and guidelines, and no one will get hurt, and no damage will happen by your hands.
Enjoy your time out there and make sure you get the free app. We have a great post on best drone photography apps to check out too.
For more great aerial photography tips, check out our post on awesome landscape drone photography or how about our airshow photography advice.