Before you Drone, Consider This …

For a number of years, I augmented my still photography and video work with schools throughout North America with aerial shots using a “drone,” more officially termed an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. Until 2015, flying a drone to take pictures of schools, real estate, sporting events, et cetera was a pretty simple business: almost anybody could do it without much fear of reprisals. If there were federal, state or municipal laws, nobody ever thought much about enforcing them. Then some nut case flew one into the White House, lots of people flew them too close to airports, and the inherent danger of this relatively new technology became apparent.

Without going into the remarkably complicated legal twists and turns since the F.A.A created its rules governing the use of UAVs, by both hobbyists and commercial flyers, know that there are now laws in place that severely restrict the operation of drones in the United States and Canada.

Becoming a “Pilot in Command”

I spent several months last year getting my FAA Remote Pilot Certificate, which involves taking an Airmen’s Knowledge Exam (yes, leave it to the federal government to maintain the gender-specific wording - hah!), and registering the UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) one intends to use. Here’s a link with some general info as to how that process is completed:

But here’s what’s important: no person, staffer, student, freelance photographer, friend of the head-of-school, or distant relative of the governor may fly a drone for any commercial purpose without such a Certificate! And any image or video footage that can be construed as “benefiting” the institution is regarded by the FAA as commercial. 

Even real estate agents who just want to shoot a property from the air for their MLS listing have been found to be WAY subject to this rule. So administrator beware: Make sure the person you hire to shoot aerial photographs or video of your school can produce both the required Remote Pilot Certificate, and the FAA registration for the UAV he or she intends to use. 

What Else You Can’t Do ….

Under Part 107, which is the section of the FAA regulations that limits what is allowed under the new rules, there are some pretty firm guidelines you don’t want to run afoul of: Unmanned aircraft must…

  • Weigh less than 55 pounds, including payload, at takeoff

  • Fly in Class G airspace, unless you have an LAANC waiver (

  • Stay within visual line-of-sight of the pilot

  • Fly at or below 400 feet

  • Fly during daylight or civil twilight without special lighting on the craf-

  • Fly at or under 100 mph

  • Yield right of way to manned aircraft

  • Must not fly directly over people

  • Must not fly from a moving vehicle, unless in a sparsely populated area

Now, many of these are “common sense” considerations, but there are two that you need to be especially aware of: Do not fly directly over people, and Fly in Class G airspace. One can obtain good views of a school, with students visible during a class change, say, by using a flight path that does not cause the aircraft to fly over said students, but the point is, you have to be aware of that requirement, and use such an approach.

The Class G airspace is trickier. Class G is what’s called “Uncontrolled Airspace,” and while its actual definition can be tricky, the central idea is you can’t fly within five miles of an airport, any airport, unless you have obtained a Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability waiver for other types of airspace. That includes some tiny runway hidden behind a barnyard you never knew was there. In my experience, there are very few city or suburban schools that are not within five miles of some kind of airport.

Fortunately, the FAA has set up this authorization system for certified pilots so that in most cases flight authorization, especially for missions below 100 feet, can be given almost instantly. Per-flight insurance coverage is now available on the spot as well in most of the fifty US States.

So No Droning…?  

While all of the above may seem like reason enough not to shoot pictures from the sky, such images are, or surely can be, worth the trouble. There is something so evocative, so satisfying, about seeing that world of yours from a distance, in just the right light, full of energy and potential. Jumping through a few hoops can be a small price to pay. And zooming out is often the best way to zoom in…..