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. The federal government had to do something… and actually did!

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.

Examples of drone footage from around the country, some of it taken prior to the No Flying Over Humans Rule! Life was so much simpler then...

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

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

  • Fly at or below 400 feet

  • Fly during daylight or civil twilight

  • 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. 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.

There are waivers granted for both of these, but while airspace considerations are increasingly dealt with in a practical manner, taking less than the ninety days that was usual until recently, flying directly over people is not something you’re ever likely to be able to do – the company or companies who have managed such permission have spent lots of money and lots of time doing so.

States and municipalities have also weighed in on all of this, and over the past year-and-a-half there have been court cases galore, and issues of jurisdiction are still being resolved. Some cities have completely banned the commercial use of drones altogether, although if you think about it, it is unlikely in the extreme that such laws will stand: can you imagine telling Jeff Bezos that he can’t deliver those hand-made chocolate truffles to your house in Minneapolis using a UAV just because Minneapolis thinks it’s a bad idea? Please…

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, that jumping through the several hoops just mentioned can be small price to pay.


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