The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) virtually bans drones or UAVs (uncrewed aerial vehicles) over cities and other populated regions. If that's the case, how come there are so many drone shots of bridges, jampacked stadiums, city squares, etc., on the Internet? This also begs the question: Is flying a drone over moving traffic allowed?
The FAA doesn't usually permit flying drones over moving traffic as drivers are likely not to be wary of the drone's presence in the sky. As a result, they may be caught off guard or not respond appropriately if a drone crashes and descends from the sky onto the street or lands directly on the car.
To answer the earlier question, the drone shots of bridges, stadiums, urban structures, etc., are usually captured after seeking special permission and going through multiple legal hoops. To learn more about the topic and everything relating to flying a drone over moving traffic, read on.
Some Clarity on Flying a Drone Over People and Vehicles
According to the FAA, people can fly their drones over a vehicle if it's not moving or has no one inside. Also, it's okay to fly a drone over people if they are inside a car or have some sort of head cover or roof that would potentially protect them in case a drone abruptly fails in the middle of its flight and drops cold turkey from the sky.
Besides taking refuge inside a car, the overhead protection could also be a canopy or any barrier that comes in between the drone and a person or affords reasonable protection from a crashing UAV.
Flying a drone over a biker – whether they are wearing a helmet or not – is not allowed as bikes do not envelope people like cars tend to.
Why is it not okay to fly drones over moving vehicles? Unlike a stationary car or truck, a moving vehicle's environment is dynamic. The potential forces of impact when a moving wagon and a drone collide increase multi-fold compared to a drone crashing into a stationary car.
Moreover, the drone hitting the moving car or the impact itself could distract the vehicle's driver and lead to hasty responses or reflex actions, causing an accident. Even if the UAV doesn't come in direct contact with the vehicle, the UAV falling in the driver's line of sight all of a sudden itself can be perilous.
Circumstances in Which Flying a Drone Over Moving Traffic May Be Feasible
It's still possible to fly a drone over moving traffic. If not, the drone shots of bridges with moving vehicles floating on the Internet may not have been feasible, or they would have been marked as "illegal footage" (which they are not).
Prior permission from the FAA and the authorities certainly help. Also, suppose the state or any governmental agency/department needs to grab some aerial perspectives of the city for "state tourism" reasons. In that case, drone shots of moving vehicles are allowed.
If the moving vehicle is a part of the drone footage production team, the drone is allowed around or near the vehicle. The participation could be in the form of:
- Being directly involved in the drone's flight or operations
- Serving as the remote pilot or the individual manipulating the UAV's controls
- Participating as a visual observer
- Offering services to ensure the drone is being safely operated
If an individual is tasked with making sure outsiders or the general public don't enter the drone's operation zone, they are considered a participant. For example, a real estate agent employed to maintain the perimeter or ensure people do not enter a drone's flight area is also a form of "direct participation".
Getting a Waiver
You can seek a waiver to fly a drone over moving traffic or in scenarios where it's usually not allowed to fly a drone. A waiver is a piece of official documentation issued by the FAA approving specific drone operations that fall outside a regulation's limitations. Specific drone operations not permissible under the FAA Part 107 rule are allowed, employing some alternative flying methods.
Some of the drone operation types that warrant a waiver are:
- Flying a drone at night
- Flying a drone over a vehicle in densely populated areas
- Flying multiple drones with just a single remote pilot
- Flying drones over an individual or crowd, etc.
To learn more about the waiver and how to apply for it, visit this official FAA page. The FAA gets backs to waiver requests in three months from the communication date, based on the request's complexity and the number of requests pending approval.
General Drone Flying Rules
Operating a drone is comparable to driving a car or riding a bike. Most drone users may not accept that statement, but the FAA certainly believes in it. Therefore, the governmental agency has a relatively long list of dos and don'ts (mostly don'ts) that it recommends drone users adhere to when flying their mini aircraft.
- Not flying your drone 400 feet or above from the ground so that you could avoid crewed aircraft.
- Not operating the drone recklessly or carelessly. The maximum permissible speed is 100mph (161kph).
- Keeping the drone in sight when it's up flying. If you employ any technology to keep a virtual eye on the aircraft, ensure someone in your crew is watching the drone live and not on some digital screen. And watching it in the metal means not using binoculars.
- Do not fly the UAV over unsuspecting people or the general public. It's, however, okay to fly your drone over individuals who are part of your team.
- Avoid flying the quadcopter when you're in a car or on a bike, especially if the area you are flying the drone is a densely populated place.
- No flying drones 30 minutes after sunset and 30 minutes prior sunrise, even if your UAV is equipped with anti-collision lighting, and also if the natural light is not too bad.
The above rules and guidelines are by no means exhaustive, but they do cover the major points. As drone flying rules keep getting updated regularly, new drone-flying stipulations could get added, or existing rules may get altered in the future.
Drone Registration and Pilot License
A couple of other things (perhaps the most critical for flying a drone legally or precursors to all of the rules mentioned above) to always comply with are i) getting your drone registered and ii) carrying a drone pilot license.
Register your drone with the FAA before launching it into the sky. The registration process is online, straightforward, and can be wrapped up pretty quickly too. And it should only cost you $5. Click on this link to register your drone.
Upon registration, you'll receive a drone registration number. Write that number down and stick it on your drone. You may also engrave the number, use a permanent marker or an everlasting label, etc. Regardless of how you display the number on your drone's outside, make sure it is visible.
It's kind of mandatory to stick the registration number on the drone. When your drone gets lost, the listing number serves as its address.
A remote pilot license is needed to fly a drone in the U.S. If the person flying the drone doesn't have one, they should at least fly the uncrewed aircraft under the direct supervision of a licensed drone pilot. You should be 16 years or older for the license and must clear an aeronautical knowledge exam at an FAA-recognized testing center.
Your drone requires certification too. The certificate authenticates the drone is tested and safe for flight. Such drone testing may not apply to relatively compact drones or the ones that weigh less than 0.55 pounds (250g). The UAVs that qualify for or warrant a test will have to be inspected for their airworthiness standards.
The testing procedure entails checking the connection link between the drone and its control station and the multiple facets. If the drone was involved in an accident before and caused damage to property or lives, the same should have been reported to the FAA.
To conclude, flying a drone over moving traffic is not allowed. The vehicles should be a part of the production team in some way or form to deem the flight over the automobiles legal or acceptable.
To circumvent the rules, or ensure the drone doesn't come anywhere near vehicles, some drone pilots choose to fly the drone as farther or high as possible, to pose little to no distraction to drivers, or negate the likelihood of their drones falling in the periphery vision of the unwary drivers. This is after, of course, keeping the 400 feet maximum flying height rule in mind.
Though the above sounds like a plan, it's not legal because there's still the possibility of the drone failing mid-flight or in the air and descending uncontrollably, disrupting the vehicles on the ground ultimately.
You should always seek proper permission from the FAA and the local authorities and be aware of the laws specific to the particular region. The rules for flying a drone over vehicles in New York City and Nashville are not the same after all.
Shawn Manaher loves to play with new toys and dive into new hobbies. As a serial entrepreneur, work definitely comes first but there is always room for hobbies.