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Drone Photography and the Law

With all of the recent product announcements and the holiday season right around the corner, we wanted to take a few moments to reiterate the importance of operating your drone legally. You have more freedom to photograph than you probably think, but there is a regulatory framework in place to protect commercial aviation that you MUST be aware of. Read on for some helpful resources and pointers on how to safely and legally enjoy your passion!

DJI Inspire 1

Photographers and videographers are always looking for a new angle to shoot. “Unmanned aircraft systems” (“UAS”)—also known as drones— provide an exciting new view of the world.

But before you fly, make sure you understand the drone photography laws. Here’s all you need to know.

The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), an agency of the United States Department of Transportation, has authority to regulate and oversee the safety of civil aviation. Significant to the issue of flying drones, which are considered to be aircraft, the FAA allocates the use of airspace. Accordingly, the FAA may seek civil penalties from UAS operators who violate FAA regulations.

Recreational uses of drones

Fortunately, a photographer who uses a drone only for hobby or recreational purposes doesn’t need FAA approval, as long as:

  1. you operate the UAS within a community-based set of safety guidelines,
  2. your UAS is less than 55 pounds,
  3. you operate the UAS in a way to not interfere with any manned aircraft
  4. you give an airport operator prior notice if you plan to fly the UAS within 5 miles of an airport, and
  5. you fly the UAS within your line of sight.

Therefore, you can use a UAS to take photographs for your personal use without obtaining specific permission from the FAA.

Commercial uses of drones

Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 grants the United States Secretary of Transportation the authority to determine whether a certificate is required to operate a UAS. Currently, if you’re using your UAS for commercial purposes, then you first need approval from the FAA to avoid civil penalties. The FAA considers “commercial use” of UAS flights as those in connection with a business, including:

  • selling photos or videos taken from a UAS,
  • using a UAS to provide contract services, such as for industrial equipment or factory inspection, and
  • using a UAS to provide professional services, such as for security or telecommunications purposes.

Therefore, to use a UAS for commercial purposes, you either need to obtain an exemption from section 333 or obtain an FAA airworthiness certificate and operate the UAS within FAA rules. Most photographers and videographers who want to fly their UAS for commercial purposes are requesting a section 333 exemption.

How to file a petition for exemption

The instructions on how to file an exemption from section 333 are available online. The FAA also provides guidelines for submitting a petition for exemption.

Your petition for exemption must include:

  • your name and mailing address
  • the specific section from which you seek an exemption
  • the extent of relief you seek and the reason you seek the relief
  • how your request would benefit the public as a whole
  • reasons why the exemption would not adversely affect safety, or how the exemption would provide a level of safety at least equal to the existing rule
  • a summary that can be published in the Federal Register stating:
    • the rule from which you seek the exemption
    • a brief description of the exemption you seek
  • any additional information, views, or arguments available to support your request.

You must file the petition at least 120 days before you plan to fly.

You can view some of the current requests for section 333 exemption from individuals and companies to get a sense of what others are doing. The FAA also shares the section 333 exemption requests that it has granted; as of April 30, 2015, the FAA had granted 246 petitions.

Certificate of Authorization

In addition to the section 333 exemption, you need an FAA Certificate of Authorization (“COA”) to fly a UAS for commercial purposes.

As of March 23, 2015, the FAA granted a “blanket” COA for flights at or below 200 feet to any UAS operator with a section 333 exemption, provided that the UAS weighs less than 55 pounds, you fly the UAS during the day and within your line of sight, and you stay certain distances away from airports or heliports. Photographers who want to fly their UAS beyond these restrictions must apply for a separate COA through the UAS Civil COA Portal.

Changing rules?

On February 15, 2015, the FAA issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, a proposal to amend its regulations that will allow for the commercial use of small drones in certain circumstances, without having to obtain a section 333 exemption. Here’s an overview of the proposed amendments.

In general, the new rules would limit UAS flights to daytime, within the operator’s or an assistant’s line of sight, and within certain heights, and with operator certification, aircraft registration and marking, and other operational limits. The proposed rules also include the possibility of more flexible restrictions for “micro” UAS, which are under 4.4 pounds.

Until any new drone photography laws are passed, follow the current rules to fully enjoy your new way of capturing images.

Good resources for learning more about the law for photographers on this issue include:

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