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What You Need to Know About Flying Drones Commercially

There's been an awful lot of news coverage lately regarding Unmanned Aerial Systems -- UAS or UAV(ehicle) -- more commonly called drones. Since I've loved flying and been a licensed private pilot for more than 30 years, and an aerial photographer for the past 15 years, I've been paying attention to these fast-moving developments. Many of my clients are asking me about using drones for their aerial photo needs, so let me tell you what I know up 'til now.  Please use this post only as a reference and a startng point for your own research.  It is every pilot's individual responsibility to know and follow all relevant safety regulations to keep the skies safe for all of us.

Old Drone Regulations

Previously, private hobby drones fell under the FAA designation of model or hobby aircraft and as such were not allowed to be flown commercially -- for economic benefit.  The exception to this was known as a Section 333 Exemption, named after the relevant FAA regulation.  With a Section 333 exemption drones could legally be flown for commercial uses if several factors were met, but getting that exemption was a cumbersome and potentially expensive process and still required that drone operators by licensed pilots.  Until very recently, only a few dozen firms throughout the US had gone through the proper channels to obtain a 333 Exemption, mostly in the film and television industry.  Previously, anyone flying drones commercially without a Sec. 333 Exemption was not only breaking FAA regulations, but was also subjecting themselves and their clients to potentially huge liability.

New Drone Regulations

You've probably heard that the FAA regulations covering small drones have recently changed.  Effective August 29, 2016, there are new FAA rules in place governing both the commercial use, and non-commerial use, of small unmanned aerial systems (drones)These are known as the Part 107 Rules.  Part 107 Rules modify the previous rules as they apply to small drones flown for either hobby or for commercial purposes.

Flying a Hobbby Drone

As explained on the FAA's website here, "You do not need permission from the FAA to fly your UAS (aka drone) for fun or recreation, but you must always fly safely.  Before you fly outside you must:

  • Register your UAS if it weighs more than 0.55 pounds and less than 55 pounds
  • Label your UAS with your registration number
  • Read and understand all safety guidelines

You must also be:

  • 13 years of age or older (if the owner is less than 13 years of age, a person 13 years of age or older must register the small unmanned aircraft)
  • A U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident.  Visiting foreign nationals must register their UAS upon arrival in the United States (online registration serves as a certificate of ownership)."

Flying a Drone Commercially

The FAA's website here explains that to operate a drone commercially, such as for aerial surveys, aerial photography, or visual inspeactions, pilots:

  • Must be at least 16 years old
  • Must pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center. (However different rules may apply for a person who already holds a pilot certificate issued under 14 CFR part 61 and has successfully completed a flight review within the previous 24 months.)
  • Must be vetted by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA)

Also, the aircraft must weigh less than 55 lbs., and it must be registered.  Finally, the pilot:

  • Must fly only in Class G airspace unless permitted from Air Traffic Control (ATC)*
  • Must keep the aircraft in sight (visual line-of-sight)*
  • Must fly under 400 feet*
  • Must fly during the day*
  • Must fly at or below 100 mph*
  • Must yield right of way to manned aircraft*
  • Must NOT fly over people*
  • Must NOT fly from a moving vehicle*
  • * all these regulations are subject to waiver

The FAA publishes a helpful table explaining the requirements and limitations of hobby flying vs. commercial flying of your drone, which is reproduced below:

Lastly, I would add that while not an FAA requirement, anyone operating a drone commercially should also carry the proper, drone-specific insurance to protect themselves and their clients in case of a mishap.  How much do you think the local power company charges to fix the mess when your drone hits the power lines or you accidentally crash it in to an iconic monument?


If you're interested in becoming a commercial drone pilot, the best place to start is undeniably the FAA's website for Unmanned Aerial Systems.  Here you'll find all of this basic info, as well as more specifics on Becoming a UAS Pilot, Where NOT to Fly your drone, even How and When to Report an Accident.

Many photographers and hobbyists have been rushing out to buy these increasingly affordable drones and are studying up for their new Part 107, Remote Pilot Certificate exams in hopes of starting their own drone-related businesses.  But regardless of the regulations and training involved to fly legally, when it comes to aerial photography there are still clearly some limits to what drones are capable of.  Much more on that, as well as  impressions from two seasoned aerial photographers, in a coming post.

Until then, fly safely!

Andrew Buchanan is a 20-year professional architectural, aerial, and landscape design photographer based in Seattle.  He photographs roughly a dozen aerial projects every year.  View some of his aerial photography on his website here.

Tips for Protecting Your Work

While social media sites provide a vast network of marketing opportunities with little or no outlay of cash from users, as you'll see from our Social Media White Paper they are not without costs of a different kind. Consequently, APA recommends that if you choose to post images to social media sites, you do so with full awareness of the potential consequences:

  • Terms of Service (ToS) and User Agreements are binding legal documents that apply to you whether you read and fully understand them, or not.
  • Most of these documents dictate ways in which the services can use, share, even sell your images without any further permission from you.
  • Images you post may escape your control and may not ever be completely removable from the internet, even in cases where you may be legally liable.
  • Even if your images never leave the site, you may forfeit future licensing opportunities because clients may want exclusivity that you cannot guarantee.
  • You may be liable for others' use, or misuse, of your own images that you post.

If you choose to post images to social media sites:

  • Consider limiting your postings to a small, finite group of images you're willing to devote to a marketing or business plan.
  • Consider watermarking your images to limit their commercial viability and to prevent your images from becoming separated, or "orphaned" from you, their creator.
  • Consider linking to your images from your blog or website, rather than posting new files.
  • Check your insurance policy to be sure you're covered for the potential liabilities you assume when posting to social media.
  • Know your rights. Take a few minutes to read the ToS for wherever you choose to post your work, then decide. And if you don't understand or you're unsure, don't rely on readings on the internet. Consult your own attorney for legal advice.

A Compendium of Resources on Copyright

Benefits to registration in brief

In order for you to get the full protection of copyright law, you must register your images with the US Copyright Office at the Library of Congress. This is not as hard as you might think. If you have a copyright infringement case and your images are registered, you are entitled to sue for attorneys fees as well as punitive damages, not simply compensation for the usage. While it is easier to register unpublished images in bulk, you can register published images, but they must be sent in separately from the published images. Additionally published works must be registered within 90 days to receive complete protection from copyright registration (ie. for any infringements). If published images are registered after 90 days from the date of first publication, you gain the benefits of registration only for infringements that occur after the date of registration. Please review the EP Copyright Primer for more information.

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