Originally aerial videography and photography was quite expensive, required a lot of flight training, and was the domain of very few specialists using high end equipment. Back then, before the widely publicized use of unmanned military drones in Afghanistan and Iraq, the FAA here in the United States didn’t pay much attention to commercial drones for media production. There wasn’t much to pay attention to.
Today technology has evolved enough that most videographers and photographers can get in the air relatively inexpensively and easily. Domestic law enforcement and civil emergency services are seeing great benefit to using drones. But there are legal issues now that didn’t exist before. In this article I’d like to address some of these issues, since my own production company has been doing aerial video, and we suddenly find ourselves walking a thin line between legal and illegal operations.
For clarification, I will refer to these remote controlled units by the FAA’s classification of UAS (unmanned aerial system). This covers anything that does not have a human pilot directly onboard. I’ll explain more about the different types of UASs later in the legalities section of this article. I will also focus on the lower end UAS units that most of us videographers and photographers would be most inclined to start learning with.
For this specialized type of work, small cameras like the Contor HD or the more popular the GoPro Hero3 are good options. Not only are these cameras affordable, they have fixed lenses and no moving parts that can be adversely effected by the vibrations of a propeller powered aircraft. One note about the GoPro’s WiFi capability is that it can interfere with the radio control operations of some UASs. So be sure to always turn that function off before flying. And always fly with your camera in an underwater housing!
There are several quad-copter and hexi-copters on the market today that will accommodate these small cameras. Units such as the XP2, Parrot AR Drone, and the latest and most popular DJI Phantom. These options start in the $1200.00 (USD) range and go up. If you want to do this for a living, get serious and learn to build your own. You’ll be taking it apart often for repairs and upgrades. Yes, even the most experienced pilots crash on occasion. Even a unit that is as easy to fly right out of the box like the Phantom still takes hours of practice flying time in order to develop the skill level required for controlled, surgically precision flying. Something professional grade aerial video requires.
Please start with one of the cheaper models before you commit. Most folks don’t follow through and give up once they see how much work and expense this requires in the long run (remember what I said about repairs, they ain’t cheap folks). When you are ready to graduate to more professional rigs, be prepared to spend a good bit of money. GPS systems, sophisticated controllers, gimbals, and FPV systems (“First Person View” shows the operator/pilot in real time remotely what the camera is seeing) cost a lot and require decent knowledge of electronics to implement. Personally, I’m using a super beefed up, very modified Phantom and plan to move into a more sophisticated, expensive, professional level system by the year’s end. I also have put in, and continue putting in many, many hours upon hours of practice flights in a wide variety of environments.
Vibrations from the aircraft are a serious issue. There are several steps you can take to minimize, if not eliminate them altogether. Vibration absorbing material such as Sorbothane can be mounted between the aircraft body and the camera mount to absorb most of the vibrations. Higher quality carbon fiber rotors can help somewhat as they are not as flexible. Balancing the rotors are the biggest help. A rotor balancer holds a rotor on a balancing rod to see if one end is heavier than the other. Then with fine sandpaper or a knife, remove some material until it balances perfectly. Tilting of the aircraft, as well as some minimal vibration reduction is taken care of with a gimbal. This two axis tilting unit wires in to the UAS’s control board, so it compensates for tilt when the unit moves. You can see this tilt and the “jello” caused by vibration in the sample video at the very end of this article.
Start with a new unit by simply taking off and landing. That’s it. Baby steps are the key to success. If you go flying quickly across the back yard your first flight, I can guarantee you will crash and need to spend money on new parts right away. In fact, I’ve gone through more than a couple of UAS units in my time as an RC pilot. Then start to move forward and backwards a little bit. Left and right a little bit. Get totally used to that first. Then move further away from yourself and back. Turning will throw you for a loop for sure. It takes time and practice to get your brain to think about the direction the UAS is pointing, the direction it is moving, and which way to push your control sticks. Yes, you read that correctly, the direction the UAS is pointing, and the direction it is moving are not the same thing! Baby steps, hours of practice, and most of all be safe. In time you’ll learn to fly complex patterns with little effort.
Safety can not be stressed enough. These UAS units, as small as the starter models may be, are dangerous. Those plastic blades are spinning so fast they can tear through flesh very easily. A demo I do for beginners, and for actors I work with, is to fly my UAS next to a tree, and very carefully trim some leaves and branches off of it. Yes, it is like a set of four lawn mower blades! Some units can accommodate blade guards, which I highly recommend. You want to not only fly safely to protect your UAS rig, but to protect people: your actors, crew and spectators. Hit the wrong person the wrong way and you’ll have medical bills and a liability suit on your hands faster than you can pronounce your own initials. And there are a small few professional videographers flying irresponsibly at the moment, posting disasters on YouTube. In the next section I’ll address how they are seriously endangering all of our flying futures.
Here is where the meat and potatoes of this article lie. I can not make it any more clear that simply flying even the most low end UAS, with any type of audio and/or video recording device, IS HIGHLY ILLEGAL! Is there a legal way to do this? Yes, but it is a tricky area to deal with. I have researched and am only familiar with the laws in the United States, which I will discuss. Be advised that the laws are in flux all over the globe now, and it is your responsibility as a UAS operator to verify your local and national laws before operating your aircraft. The moment you put a camera on an RC aircraft, you enter a whole new universe of legalities! Let me quote from my phone conversation with a local FAA investigator; “All UAS recording photography, video, or audio fall under the same regulations, regardless of who is operating it, how large or small it is, or what the purpose is, and must have FAA approval before doing so.”
The difference between a “drone” and a hobby RC aircraft, at one time, was simply wing span, weight, and usage. Today the lines have blurred. The FAA, as previously stated, considers everything to be a UAS that has no human pilot directly onboard. The more sophisticated, military type units now have autonomous flight capabilities. Meaning they don’t even need a pilot with a remote control. The large military and civil type drones that do require a pilot controlling it remotely still demand the pilot have an actual pilots license. The lower end units the rest of us use, or want to use for aerial videography range from hobby RC type units, to what are technically drones.
The hobby RC aircraft type UAS units have the restrictions that they must stay in the line of sight of the operator, not fly over 400 feet in altitude, not fly within 3 miles of an airport, can not fly over people, and is only used for recreational purposes. This basically covers most of the lower end quad-copter and hexi-copter units most of us would be using. That is until you attached a camera to it.
The minute you attach a camera, you’re in a whole new universe of operations. You are now considered commercial audio/video recording use and that is flat out illegal. To do this, you would have to apply for and be awarded a “Certificate Of Authorization” from the FAA. And they are not handing very many of these out to folks recording audio and video at present. Officially the FAA states there is a temporary, across the board ban on this type of UAS at the moment. The FAA does in fact have an investigation going on as of this writing to determine how to properly regulate UAS units like the Phantom and the Parrot, with cameras attached. In Canada I believe you must obtain a “Special Flights Operation Certificate”, and from what I’ve been able to find, very few of those are being handed out, also.
To be honest, lots of small time videographers and photographers are flying these small consumer and prosumer UASs and no one is chasing us down, yet. If too many of us fly irresponsibly, that could very quickly and drastically change. To charge for this type of service without a Certificate Of Authority is absolutely 100% illegal, period! Again, to fly irresponsibly will only be putting our future rights to this type of media production in jeopardy.
If you do fly in public and/or with a camera mounted, you have been warned it is illegal, and you fly at your own risk!
If you are serious about pursuing aerial videogarphy and/or photography, I recommend joining the AMA, or at least following their Aircraft Safety Code.
If you want to explore aerial videography and photography, it is a wondrous experience. But please be responsible, start with a low end unit, take baby steps learning to fly, and spend LOTS of time learning to fly well with precision control. Most of all, operate your UAS responsibly! If you follow these guidelines, you can achieve some very breath taking media. But always keep in mind that UAS laws are in their infancy, are in flux, and there are people who will not want that camera flying around their home or place of business. Fly with safety and responsibility first and foremost in mind! And if you do, please contact me and share your experiences. I’d love to hear what others are doing. I’ll leave you with a short video of a recent practice flight I made on my farm. Fly safe!