We all know that small, remotely-operated, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s, or drones) equipped with still and video cameras have exploded on the scene in the past 2-4 years. They are inexpensive, popular, and relatively easy to fly right out of the box. They give the feeling of playing a video game while capturing images unavailable to most photographers. However, the commercial use of drones, for photography or any other use, is still against FAA regulations except for very specific, and very rare, exceptions and therefore a violation of federal law. And again, even where permitted, commercial drone operators must be licensed pilots and flying previously certified aircraft.
While I know that drones are already in wide use “below the radar” so to speak, that doesn’t make it right, or safe, or legal. As both an aerial photographer and a licensed private pilot, I’m excited for their potential but have mixed feelings on their general use. Most photographers don’t realize that their commercial use is not yet legal, nor do they realize why. While regulations will likely be relaxed in the future, until then there are very good reasons why untrained and inexperienced pilots shouldn’t launch a million more objects into already crowded airspace, including the possibilities to clip power lines, get blown in to a crowd or a building, or cause a collision with a manned aircraft. The this-is-so-easy-anyone-can-do-it aspect of drone photography only encourages folks to go out and buy them and I think that we should all be very aware of not only their usefulness, but also their legality and their dangers.
Significantly, last September’s announcement (9/25/14) by the FAA that they had granted some test exemptions to this policy applied only to six specific movie and t.v. production companies in Southern California, and only then if the drones were flown by licensed pilots and restricted to previously established “sterile areas” above the production set.
Finally, a Las Vegas Review-Journal story from Sept., 2014 highlights the potentially devastating results of inexperienced drone pilots as does this story involving three separate incidents in the summer of 2014 in Northern California near Sacramento, in Bend, Oregon, and in eastern Washington state. That story begins, “Hobbyist drones have been involved in three wildfires, including an incident in Northern California that almost grounded aerial firefighting efforts. . . “
Drones are lightweight, but high-speed flying lawnmowers. They shouldn’t be flown around people or property without proper training and experience, and they should never be flown in any area where manned aircraft are also flying — near airports, news events, power generating or transmission stations/lines, or other restricted areas like military bases. Be informed and don’t represent yourself as a drone photographer if you’re not prepared to obey all the FAA regulations — don’t expose yourself or your clients to that liability. But most importantly, keep the skies safe for everyone.