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Legal Mistakes Could Kill Your Aerial Drone Photography Business

Legal Mistakes Could Kill Your Aerial Drone Photography Business

Did you read the story about Rapheal Pirker? He’d flown his drone commercially at the University of Virginia to display an aerial ad … and was fined $1,000 (a sentence that was reduced from $10,000). While many people are learning how to create their own well-paid jobs through aerial drone photography in sectors such as

Did you read the story about Rapheal Pirker? He’d flown his drone commercially at the University of Virginia to display an aerial ad … and was fined $1,000 (a sentence that was reduced from $10,000). While many people are learning how to create their own well-paid jobs through aerial drone photography in sectors such as real estate, construction, oil and gas, and agriculture, there are some pitfalls that could cost you a bundle if you’re not careful. If you fail to follow proper FAA regulations or violate someone’s privacy in the process, you could get caught paying hefty fees.

Is Aerial Drone Photography Legal According to the FAA?

We’re all aware that there are no-fly zones you should avoid as a drone pilot (if you haven’t already, explore this map to see where these zones are). But what about regulations for who can fly these aircraft? As of now, small aerial drone businesses are called “operators,” which means they must abide by the regulations in the Overview of Small UAS rules from the FAA. The gist is that operators of small UAS (weighing less than 55lbs) need to, “Pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center.” If your craft is smaller and/or your commercial enterprise relatively tiny (such as if you’re selling aerial footage on YouTube or Shutterstock), the test may not be required, but you will nonetheless be required to avoid flying in restricted airspace.

My advice: don’t risk it. Do the test and follow regulations if you are making any significant money by freelancing. And keep in mind: the FAA regulations may change over time, so you’ll always need to be up to date! And here’s a pro-tip: The FAA does not have jurisdiction outside the US.

Can Your Aerial Drone Photography Violate Privacy Laws?

The FAA isn’t the only legal threat you should consider. Take, for instance, the man who is filing a lawsuit against the Hartford police after they detained him for flying over a crime scene. He is seeking compensation as he feels he did not violate any laws.

Like him, if you’re not careful, you may violate the privacy laws in your home town. To give you an idea of some of the privacy laws that are already out there, check out these examples:

  • Texas: Has enacted the Texas Privacy Act stating under what circumstances you are allowed to capture images if you are certified by certain institutions or for purposes of scholarly research. Please read the list to what institutions this applies to specifically.
  • Wisconsin: It is a misdemeanor to take pictures of any place or person where the person has reasonable expectation of privacy.

The moral of the story: Please check your state for the aerial drone photography privacy laws that may impact you.

But aside from formal legalities, here are some general rules of thumb for being courteous with your drone by knowing where not to fly it:

  • Ask permission. This one is pretty obvious, but should be stated. It’s much easier to ask someone’s permission to take their picture or capture them on video before you do so rather than afterward. It signals that you’re sensitive to their needs for privacy and that you respect their wishes.
  • Avoid taking pictures of areas in which people expect privacy (such as their backyards). You don’t want someone feeling as though they’re being watched without them knowing.
  • Think twice or three times before flying your drone in noise-sensitive areas such as near schools or hospitals or churches, or in national or state parks. Be courteous of others’ enjoyment or use of these areas.
  • Only fly over a crowd when you’re confident that your UAV has been flight tested and that you have the skills to do so safely.
  • Always operate your drone safely when flying near strangers and never act negligently or recklessly when others are around. Always think about whether they will feel safe.

Even if you’re someone who believes that such stringent privacy laws are a violation of your first amendment rights, I think we can all agree that no one wants to be captured on camera without knowing it. Following these courtesy guidelines for flying your drone should help protect you against any privacy law mishaps and fines.

Criticisms about the FAA Restricting Aerial Drone Photography

While the role of the FAA is to regulate airspace, many entrepreneurs, freelancers, and hobbyists have criticized the FAA for being too strict. Even scholars – such as those in Washington – have battled the FAA for hindering their archeological surveys. My belief is that the FAA has been too stringent, especially with people like Rapheal Pirker. Thankfully, there is hope that the FAA is starting to give commercial pilots some more leeway with their recent updated regulations.

What do you think? Are FAA regulations too strict? Maybe not strict enough? Are privacy laws crippling our use of drones to capture amazing images?

[So disclaimer time. I am not an attorney and I do not intend for this to be legal advice. Please consult with your own council if you have questions about how to operate within regulations and common courtesies related to drone photography and videography.]

Image via Flickr: Jurgen Telkmann

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