Just got a drone for the holidays, and wondering how to safely (and legally) fly it as a hobbyist? Considering taking some drone pictures or videos for your event planning, photography or real estate business?
Before you take to the air, take a moment to educate yourself about drone safety, license requirements, and laws in the United States. They’re complex, and violating them to lead to hefty fines (sometimes exceeding $100,000) and even jailtime.
Luckily, legal expert Amanda Perrot from Adobe researched drone laws in the United States and Europe, and shared a comprehensive overview at the 2020 annual meeting of the Digital Media Licensing Association. You can watch a clip of her presentation free on Youtube (remember that this is a general overview and not specific legal advice — always consult your lawyer for legal advice about your specific needs and situation.)
As Amanda shares in her presentation, drone laws in the United States are complex. Different laws apply to hobbyists versus anyone using a drone for a commercial purpose, so it’s important to be certain whether you’re flying a drone just for fun, or flying it for anything which could be considered commercial.
Importantly, you don’t need to sell your drone photos to be considered a commercial operator. If you’re flying a drone to take real estate pictures or wedding photos for example, or to report on a news event, you’re likely a commercial operator, and more stringent requirements apply to your drone operations.
A drone is defined as a remote-controlled pilotless aircraft or small flying device. Drones may also be referred to as “UAS”. If you’re flying a drone for commercial purposes in the United States, there are three things you need to keep in mind.
Rules derive from the FAA’s UAS Rule, called Part 107, and mainly deal with safety. They include laws about drone operation.
For example, drones must usually be flown within sight of the operator (though this is changing), within 400 feet of the ground, and generally may not be flown above people. There are a variety of rules that drone operators must learn before they fly. Operators must also yield to other aircraft, and not operate a drone under the influence of drugs, alcohol, etc.
Operators also need a license, or Remote Pilot Certification. This requires a difficult exam, and is more akin to getting an airline pilot’s license than a driver’s license. The certification is only valid for 2 years.
Operators must also register their drones. This is a low-cost process available online via the FAA. Your drone must display an FAA registration number.
Failing to comply with these requirements can result in up to three years of jailtime.
Operators should also be aware of state and local laws. All states in the US either have drone laws in effect, or are working to enact them. These cover privacy, aerial photography, weapons, and more. Texas has some of the most restrictive drone laws. Flying drones is also restricted in National Parks, and near airports.
These National Park restrictions exist to avoid nuisances, injuries to visitors, and destruction of property. One drone operator attempted to land on Mount Rushmore, which helped to prompt the laws. Violating them holds a maximum penalty of six months in jail.
Special airspace is also restricted, like the airspace around Washington, DC.
Organizations like the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) have enacted codes of ethics around drone use. The NPPA code stresses safety as the first concern, and requires operators not to improperly alter images or interrupt events. Operators also should not add extra sound to their shots, unless it was captured at the same time that the drone was flown. Privacy is also important and should be respected. If an operator wouldn’t take a photo without a drone, they shouldn’t take the photo with a drone.
Europe has enacted new UAS regulations as of May 2019, which will begin to apply in 2022.
For photo agencies, it’s important to remember that not all content which appears to be taken with a drone necessarily was. Aerial photos could have been taken from a traditional aircraft, from atop a tall building, in a tree, etc. Photo agencies’ contracts should specify that contributors must have a proper license to operate a drone if they plan to submit drone imagery.
Take takeaway? Given the number of ways that improperly flying a drone could lead to jailtime or major fines, it’s important to become familiar with all national/local laws and license requirements before you fly — especially if you’re flying for any commercial or work-related purpose.