Why I Will Not Fly a Drone for Work…Yet

As the client demand for aerial footage increases, I take a look into how I can provide this service safely and legally. Is the juice worth the squeeze? The short answer: it really isn’t.

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Update, July 10, 2017: as of today I will now fly a drone for work.

Update: DOT and FAA Small UAS Part 107 ruling allows an individual to earn a special drone pilot license for commercial applications. More info here.

I tend to do a lot of research before I invest into anything. As a professional filmmaker I have experienced a rising interest from clients who wish to have aerial footage for their videos. Last year, I demanded an aerial shot to begin my short film Immobile. The demand is there, and as I began to look into purchasing my own unmanned aerial camera platform, I decided to take a look at the law. You know? For giggles. As it turns out, there is quite a bit of rigamarole to work through.

To put it simply: the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) governs the sky above the United States of America. They demand all Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) where the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV or “drone”) weighs more than half a pound but less than fifty-five pounds, be registered before taking off into the nation’s sky. This has quite a lot of benefits, requires only a few weeks of waiting and a fee of $5 to be repeated once every three years. Not a problem. I can still pick up a DJI Phantom 4 and fly it around in my living room for practice until the paperwork arrives at my doorstep.

Affordable, professional 4K aerial footage is definitely a service I wish to offer my clients.

As far as the FAA is concerned, any UAV in operation is as important as a big 747 carrying three-hundred passengers, so a mandatory registration makes sense. If you want to fly your little drone around safely in a public park away from pedestrians and people’s private property and you keep your eyes on it at all times and always use common sense in its operation, then you’ve done all you need to legally do.

But what if you’ve been hired to take your drone up and snap some shots of someone’s business? This is where things gets silly.

Affordable, professional 4K aerial footage is definitely a service I wish to offer my clients. However, for commercial purposes the FAA demands that all light aircraft – including your UAV – be flown by a licensed and certified pilot. This means either hiring a pilot with sUAS experience to man your drone, or you spend several months and tens of thousands of dollars to become a licensed pilot with the certifications necessary to fly commercial aircraft. Because I’m not a pilot, nor do I know any with mad sUAS skills, that basically means that my UAV can not legally be used as a professional video or photography tool. Getting caught means an extremely steep fine and a few years in prison.

Until the FAA makes allowances for a simple ground certification for commercial sUAS use (like getting a drivers license) I don’t see how I can legally offer unmanned aerial footage services to my clients at this point in time. Considering the pressure professional videographers and photographers like myself are placing on the FAA to make things right, this will all hopefully change soon.

For more information on the legality of commercial drone usage, I suggest you take a look at Jeff Foster’s article “New FAA Drone Registration Made Easy”, as well as Mike Fortin’s article “FAA 333 Approved, But are you Complying?”, both at Drone Coalition. Mister Foster also has a lengthy essay on the developments of sUAS law at Pro Video Coalition titled “Keep Calm: The FAA and sUAVs/Drone Rules”. Timothy McDougal has written an informative article for B&H’s Explora titled “Drones and the Law: The Sky’s Not the Limit”. You may also peruse the FAA’s Section 333 itself by visiting this link.

By Jason R. Johnston

Jason is an award-winning cinematographer, and director of commercials, branding films, native content, music videos, documentaries, and narrative films. As a full-time freelancer, he can be hired to DP or direct almost any project you have in mind. He is based in Sparta, Tennessee, and ready to travel for any gig.

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