Photography Guide: How To Fly Drones & Not Break The Law

If you want to use drones to capture aerial images, make sure you're up to speed on drone laws and regulations before you send a drone skywards.

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In light of the investigation taking place following the first recorded incident of a drone flying into a passenger plane at Heathrow Airport, it’s important that photographers understand the latest rules and regulations governing their use. This guide, provided by the team at Alamy outlines the key legal considerations in the UK and US, to help you stay safe and lawful when flying your drone.

The use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles / Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAV, UAS or ‘drones’) for photography use has risen sharply in recent years. This is mainly down to advances in affordable technology within the sector and the fact that it’s now possible to produce extremely high-quality photography from smaller and smaller devices.

One thing that hasn’t kept up with the advances in technology is the legal framework surrounding the use of drones. Drone laws vary from country to country, so never assume that something that is legal in one country will be legal in another. Drone laws are developing at a rapid rate and legal frameworks are continually evolving, so your safest option before you fly is to check the regulatory guidelines from the relevant authoritative bodies in the country you want to operate your drone in.

Many people now realise it’s not legal to simply buy a photography drone then go straight out to start flying and shooting images and video, but many don’t. With a focus on the United Kingdom and United States, the basic rules, laws and principles of drone use are outlined below.

Always make sure you’re set up to fly safely and legally before you head out with your drone – it’s 100% your responsibility to do so. If you’re in the UK you need to be familiar with the guidelines set out by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and in the US it’s the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

 

Consider Safety At All Times

Regardless of whether you’re flying recreationally or commercially, be safe. As the FAA states, flying a drone in the national airspace system means that you’re now part of the aviation community. This is an area where safety always comes first. There are some general rules to follow, that apply to all unmanned aircraft users, which are summarised below:

  1. You are legally responsible for the safe conduct of each flight. If you don’t follow the rules for your country, criminal prosecution could follow.
  2. Check your aircraft for damage before you fly, making sure it’s compliant with the manufacturer’s guidelines.
  3. Keep your aircraft within your site at all times when flying
  4. You are responsible for making sure there are no collisions with people or objects, including other aircraft.
  5. It is illegal to fly your unmanned in a congested area, including streets, towns and cities.

Do not fly your unmanned aircraft:

  • In a way that could endanger people or property
  • Near airports or airfields
  • Within 50 metres of a person, vehicle, building or structure.
  • Overhead of crowds or groups of people at any height

 

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Get Legal

Even if you’re just flying for recreation, you need to make sure you’re flying within the law. In the US, all drones need to be registered with the FAA before they are flown outdoors. If the drone is going to be flown commercially – meaning any activity where you will receive money for the images or videos taken – you will need additional permissions from the FAA to make sure you’re qualified for commercial use.

In the UK, the commonly used terminology for commercial use is ‘valuable consideration’, which translates quite simply as ‘anything of value’, so if you’re getting anything in return for the photography or video you capture, you need to be qualified, registered and have permission for aerial work from the CAA.

In the US, in order to fly commercially, you’ll need something called a 333 exemption grant from the FAA. The FAA are looking at simplifying the process for those in the US, but it is taking some time for the amendments to take place.

In the UK, this permission is referred to as a PfAW certificate and you’re required to get this renewed annually via the CAA. There are other permissions required before you use your drone, but these are dependent on a number of factors, including but not limited to the weight of the drone and where you are going to use it. This helpful article from Hexcam summarises the changing face of UK drone pilot qualifications.

There are two main challenges faced by unmanned aircraft users:

  1. Getting your qualifications and paperwork in order costs thousands and,
  2. In the US at least, paperwork takes a long time to process.

It’s important to note that shooting either photography or video with a drone is classed as commercial usage, so be sure to check with the CAA or FAA for guidance before you shoot.

 

Get Insured

If operating commercially it’s essential that you’re covered and have liability insurance. The level of cover you obtain depends on what you fly and where, but don’t forget to obtain this. Lots of companies offer specific drone insurance for varying needs, so do your research in this area to find out what you’ll need for your individual circumstances.

 

Be Wary Of 'No Drone Zones'

It goes without saying that you should not be flying your drone within any type of restricted airspace. Sometimes the restrictions are temporary (e.g. during a certain event) and other times they are permanent (e.g. in and around a military airbase). The best advice here is, again, to do your research before you fly. Even if you’re licenced and insured you can still face prosecution or large fines for operating in airspace where flying is not permitted, and there are more restrictions in place than you may currently assume.

 

Learn More About Drones

If you're just starting out in drone photography, take a look at our introduction to using these unmanned aerial vehicles for capturing images with. We also have a hands-on preview of the DJI Phantom 4

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