Drone photography has been a game-changer for the film and video industry. With beautiful, sweeping overhead shots suddenly available without needing to own or rent a helicopter, the playing field has evened out. However, there are some things to consider before you decide you want to take your camera to the skies.

Do You Need a License for Drone Photography? If you are a private citizen operating a drone for pleasure, you do not need any sort of license. However, if you are a commercial operator or are making money using your drone, the FAA does require you to have one.

There are a few more considerations to make, such as drone etiquette and what category of flyer under which you will fall. Some of these things can vary from place to place, so it is always best to check with your area before taking your drone out for a flight.

Categories of Flyers

The FAA breaks down different kinds of drone operators into four different categories. Knowing which one of these categories you will fit into as a drone operator will help you stay in compliance with regulations and keep you and your drone safe. No matter which category you fall under, though, you will have to register your drone with the FAA and mark the outside with your provided registration number. Proper registration helps keep airspace safe and everything identifiable. The categories of flyers are:

  1. Recreational Flyers – This category encompasses all kinds of drone operators, and a lot of people are going to fit here. It includes pilots who are flying for fun or just taking photographs for their own purposes. This category is also for operators flying under 400 feet. If you are operating a drone for any kind of compensation, you will not fall into this category. It is important to know the difference between the categories to save yourself a big fine from the FAA.
  2. Commercial Operators – This category is for people who are professional photographers or videographers. However, it also includes freelancers and anyone who is operating their drone for money of any kind. If there is a chance that you will receive payment for your drone photography, then it is a good idea to get licensed.
  3. Public Safety and Government Users – This category includes agencies such as law enforcement and search-and-rescue. Most government agencies can operate a drone for the purposes of their department. These drones must be under 55 pounds and fly at under 400 feet.
  4. Educational Users – This category is for institutions such as high schools and colleges that use drones for demonstration or educational purposes. Schools can operate the drones without licenses as long as the operators follow all local regulations.

Recreational Flyers Requirements

Most people who are using drones on any given day are doing so for recreational purposes. So, anyone who is flying for fun or not making any money. As soon as you make money or intend to make money, you will fall into the commercial category. Because of this, you must be clear about whether or not you are getting compensation for any aerial photography work you are doing.

No matter what category you fall under, if you are planning on operating your drone in controlled airspace, you are going to have to get authorization first. This authorization comes through the FAA and any other concerned parties. You can apply for authorization in several ways, but perhaps the easiest is through the FAA’s DroneZone. There, you can search for the airspace you are planning to fly in and see what kind of authorization you might need to get.

It is important to note again that no matter what purpose you are flying your drone for, you need to register it with the FAA. You can take care of this on the FAA’s DroneZone site, too. By registering your drone, you are not only protecting the other pilots and people occupying the airspace, but you are also protecting yourself. Being registered means that you are on record as being a responsible pilot, and that can go a long way in a lot of different situations.

Commercial Operators Requirements

Odds are, if you are flying your drone to take photographs, you are doing so with commercial ambitions. Whether you are flying for a company or you are freelancing on your own, you will have to have a license. Getting your permit will not only help you be compliant with the law, but it can also open up business opportunities for you. Most companies hiring a drone operator will want to make sure you are licensed, so if you do it ahead of time, you can avoid any delays in work.

To get your drone operator’s license from the FAA, you must do a few things. One is that you have to pass the FAA’s Knowledge Exam. The Knowledge Exam is the same one given to all pilots and aircraft operators. In this exam, they will test you on your knowledge of the Airmen Certification Standards, and the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge. All of these materials, as well as a practice exam, are available on the FAA’s website.

As with all categories, the final step to complying is to register your drone with the FAA. Once you have passed your exam and paid all the related fees, you are free to start flying for commercial purposes and getting beautiful aerial views with your drone.

Public Safety and Government Requirements

Drone operators who are using drones for public safety and governmental applications can be exempt from having to get their license. There are many reasons why a government agency would need access to drone operations. Search and rescue, wildfires, and law enforcement are all possible applications for the versatility offered by drone photography. If you are a part of a government agency that is interested in getting certified for drone operations, you have two options.

The first option available to you is to pick a few people from your agency who will be the designated flyers. These people will go through the regular commercial licensing process, and they will be the only ones authorized to fly the drones. This has the potential to be a good solution if the drones are not going to be used all the time, and if your department does not have a high turnover rate. Getting people individually licensed can be costly, especially if you have to keep doing it over and over.

The other option that government agencies have is to apply for and receive a Certificate of Authorization, or COA. This certification will register your agency as a public aircraft operator, and you will then be able to license and register your drone pilots through your agency. This would be the best solution for an agency with a lot of different needs for drones or with a high turnover rate. The initial COA can be pricey, but in the long run, you could save money on individual licenses.

Educational Users Requirements

If you are a teacher or any kind of educator, you might be interested in using a drone for educational purposes. Drones can be great tools for teaching physics, math, and many other scientific applications. For the most part, educational drone operators fall into a similar category as recreational flyers. As long as you are operating the drone safely and legally according to your local codes and ordinances, you shouldn’t have any problems.

It is important to note that the weight and altitude limits still apply. Your drone must be under 55 pounds and must not fly at an altitude above 400 feet. Most educational applications won’t require anything more serious than that in the first place. Any lesson that can be taught with a large drone can also be taught with a small one.

For educational users, there are also extra benefits to registering as such. Educational flyers get automatic access to the FAAST Team. The FAAST Team is a branch of the FAA that is invested in educating young people and community leaders about drone safety. The FAAST Team DronePros are volunteers who will come out to your institution and lead workshops and demonstrations on equipment, materials, and safety. This opportunity alone is reason enough to get registered as an educational user and start taking advantage of some of the benefits.

By teaching with the assistance of a drone, you can get your students interested in all kinds of things like aviation, conservation, law enforcement, and anything else that drones have the potential to play a large part in.

State and Local Laws

Even though there are specific laws that are laid out by the FAA, those are only laws enforced on a federal level in the United States. Depending on your state or country, the laws could vary. They could also vary depending on things that might be in your proximity. For example, if you live near an airport, it would be best not to operate your drone near there at all.

One of the biggest reasons to not fly your drone near an airport is that, compared to an airplane, they are minimal. No matter how prominently your registration number is displayed, if pilots can not see your drone at all, it doesn’t do much good. Drones can interfere with navigation systems or get sucked into jet engine intakes. All of these things could have potentially disastrous results, so it is best to err on the side of caution and steer clear of airports at all costs.

If you are unsure about the local laws that may or may not apply to you as a drone operator in your state, there are many ways you can find out. Perhaps the best start is to go to UAV Coach’s Master List of Drone Laws. From there, you will be able to search for your state or country and see what the specific regulations are for drone operations in your area.

Even though you may be in compliance with all the federal regulations, you may not be flying your drone legally in your area. It is important for everyone’s safety that you are up to code before you take off.

License Fees

The fees associated with getting your drone license are nominal, but they must be paid to keep everything up to date and compliant. If you don’t pay the license fees, you are technically not licensed and therefore unauthorized to be flying your drone.

If you are taking the Airman Knowledge Exam, the fee is $150 for every time that you have to take it. Because of this, a little preparation can go a long way. By studying and taking the practice tests, you can avoid taking the exam more than once and adding extra fees.

As stated above, after you get your drone license, you must register your drone with the FAA and display its registration number prominently. This only costs $5, but it is perhaps the most important step of all. By registering your drone, you will be on record for any accidents that you may or may not have been a part of. This number keeps your drone identifiable and avoids cases of mistaken identity should any drone misconduct be reported in your area.

Even though the fees for taking the exam can be a bit steep, especially if you have to take it multiple times, they are not prohibitive. Compared with the cost of getting a helicopter license or any other type of aviation certification, the price is relatively low and offers a lot of potential for making that money back. Photography, videography, and industrial applications are all very lucrative and make the fees worth it.

Drone Overview

A drone is a remote operated, unmanned aircraft. They come in many forms and have many different purposes, including military, space, and search and rescue. Most drones designed for aerial photography are small and lightweight and are powered by one, two, three, or four equally displaced propellers. Drones are also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAVs.

Many drones are equipped with both still and video cameras. Once the motor technology became powerful enough to lift both the camera and the vehicle, drone photography was born. Some high-end drones have monitors that enable you to get a literal bird’s eye view from your drone as you pilot it. This can be incredibly useful for making sure that you get the perfect shot that you need every single time.

With the battery and motor technology getting more and more advanced every day, drones have become accessible to almost anyone. They are as ubiquitous as remote-controlled helicopters but are capable of precise movements and quick speeds. This makes them ideal for long, gorgeous tracking shots and stunning outdoor photography.

Drones can reach tremendous altitudes that were previously unavailable to amateur aviators. Due to advances in radio wave technology, the range of modern drones is previously unheard of. Most new, consumer-grade drones have a range of up to 5 miles in any direction. As long as the air is thick enough to give it lift, a drone can fly there.

Because of this long-range and high power, there has been some safety concern. Any time an aerial vehicle can reach the same altitude as a private or commercial plane, there are going to have to be some regulations. Possibly interfering with a commercial or private flight could have bad results that no one wants to be a part of. If you are familiar with the rules and regulations of your local area and fly in the correct spaces, you should have no problems.

Different Types of Drones

There are many different types of drones. The kind that you would be using for aerial photography is going to be very different than one that would perhaps be used for a military purpose. Things like wing configuration and the amount and placement of propellers will determine whether or not a drone is suited for a particular function.

  • Multi-Rotor – Most drones that are used for photography and filming are going to be of the multi-rotor variety. These drones have three or four propellers that help create an even amount of lift. These types of drones are quick, responsive, and usually legal to fly in most places.
  • Fixed-Wing – Fixed-wing drones look more like airplanes than helicopters. They operate on the same principle as a regular airplane and use force to push themselves forward instead of upward. This means that they have a longer range and require less energy than a multi-rotor drone.
  • Single-Rotor – These drones use the exact same principle as a helicopter. They use one big, powerful rotor to create the downforce necessary to lift the drone into the air.
  • Fixed-Wing Hybrid – These drones are a combination of the rotor and fixed-wing type drones. They use a similar idea to the Harrier Jet that allows them to be both long-range and maneuverable.

The laws and regulations in place regarding drones generally apply to all types. However, as with all things, it is a good idea to check and make sure that your drone is legal to fly in your area as per the local ordinances.

Drone Etiquette

Aside from the official rules and regulations of drone operation, there are quite a few items of drone etiquette that are just as important to keep in mind. Even though a lot of these things are not necessarily the law, they are just as important to be mindful of.

By minding drone etiquette, you are ensuring that they will be welcomed in your area for the foreseeable future. If it is not followed, people start to complain, and new laws get put into place.

Here are just a few core pieces of drone etiquette:

  • Don’t fly near disasters – It is common to try and get compelling, newsworthy footage of disasters when they happen. A lot of these types of shots can be very lucrative and command high dollar commissions from big publications. However, depending on what the disaster is, your drone could be getting in the way of vital services. Not to mention, it can be downright disrespectful.
  • Avoid crowds of people – It can be tempting to want to show a large crowd in a shot. However, crowds mean that there are all kinds of people, and that means there are more chances for accidents. Mechanical malfunctions and pilot error could result in a crash, which could then result in a severe injury.
  • Respect privacy – The amazing maneuverability and accuracy of drones mean that they can be piloted into almost any space as long as there is room for the rotors to turn. This is impressive but also means that drones could be used for spying, invading privacy, and other unsavory activities. Avoid flying over private property or getting too close to any windows, especially if your drone has a camera.

Drones and Business

Should you decide to get certified and make your drone piloting official, you are opened up to a wealth of business opportunities. Everything from filmography to mapping and cartography is open to you once you get your commercial certification.

Perhaps the most common drone-related business is aerial photography. For years, the only way to reliably get a big, sweeping overhead shot was to either rent a helicopter or a crane. There were whole industries dedicated to aerial photography, and they were all very expensive. Having a shot like that take such a big chunk out of the budget was impossible for most independent filmmakers. Now, however, those shots are accessible to anyone who can hire a certified drone operator.

Mapping and industrial inspection is another blossoming business for drone operators. While mapping used to take whole crews and millions of dollars to haul equipment into undeveloped land, now a drone can be flown in instead. This means that as an operator, you are eligible for all kinds of lucrative government contracts. With enough business like that, you could pay for your license and registration in no time.

Another interesting business venture for drone operators is small business delivery. This is going to be something that you are most definitely going to have to check with your local area about, but it has been done. Everything from food delivery to medical supplies, there are many opportunities. Companies like Amazon are already doing it, and smaller businesses are ripe for this kind of outside-the-box thinking.

Drone Night Flying

One of the most controversial and hotly debated drone regulations set forth by the FAA is Part 107 of the commercial license agreement. In Part 107, the regulations state that commercial drone pilots can only fly during daylight or twilight. The regulations explicitly forbid the flying of drones at night for any reason.

However, if you are flying recreationally and not being compensated, you are allowed to fly your drone at night just like you would during the day. This is why many drone cameras have a night vision mode or are equipped with night flying lights.

One of the most significant issues that commercial pilots have with complying with Part 107 is that recreational pilots can undercut the rules. By doing commercial flights at night and getting paid under the table for them, recreational pilots can subvert Part 107 and have an unfair edge over licensed commercial pilots.

While it is true that recreational flyers could potentially fly under the radar (pun intended) with this regulation, commercial pilots are beholden to the regulations of their licensing agency. The reason that most commercial pilots get licensed as such is that they want to be sure that they are complying with all the rules and that everything about their business is above board.

Final Thoughts

Flying a drone can be an exciting and lucrative activity for a wide variety of people. With a relatively low barrier of entry, drone piloting is open to people from all kinds of backgrounds and socio-economic situations. Drone technology has leveled the playing field of filmmaking, industrial inspections, exploration, search and rescue, and countless other industries.

If you want to be a drone pilot for any sort of a living, you must get licensed. As mentioned above, there are fees and work involved in getting it, but there are so many benefits to following the regulations. Drones are in the news and on peoples’ minds. Many people are wary of them and will not hesitate to call the authorities.

In the event that something like that happens, being in compliance with the law will be a lifesaver. There are hefty fines for operating a drone outside of the codes set forth, and you could become ineligible for a license in the future. If you have all your licensure and paperwork in order, though, you won’t have any problems and will be covered should such an event arise.