What aerial photographers need to know about FAA’s new drone laws

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Marek Uliasz / 123RF
While the Federal Aviation Administration’s new drone laws put a damper on future pizza deliveries, the guidelines – which went into effect in summer 2016 – could affect established businesses that utilize drone photography and videography. With drones already involved in a mix of business applications from weddings to real estate shots, how do the new drone laws impact professional photographers?

The laws apply only to commercial use of drones that weight just over half a pound (.55 pounds, or 250 grams, to be exact) to  big aircraft weighing up to 55 pounds, so hobbyist photographers are off the hook, for now (provided they still avoid some big no-nos like drone flights at airports). And as for FAA laws, they apply only to drone use in the United States. Still, the new laws could have some pretty big implications for professional drone photographers based in the U.S.

First, commercial drones are no longer allowed to fly over groups of people. While that may be a non-issue for aerial real estate photography, it poses a big challenge for wedding and event photographers using drones. Drones can, however, fly over people that are part of the drone-operating crew.

Second, commercial drones also now need to remain within view of the operator at all times. That could pose some challenges for using drones to shoot views that are difficult to access, as well as long-distance flights.

Third, nighttime flights are also prohibited under the new guidelines.

But there’s one regulation that actually provides a bit of relief for drone operators. Commercial drone pilots now need only to pass a drone-oriented test before flying. Before, operators were supposed to have a pilot’s license — the same one you’d need to fly actual airplanes (though it’s unclear how often that particular regulation has been violated).

The aeronautical exam is in-person for those not already licensed to fly an aircraft, though current pilots can take the test online. The test costs about $150 but may vary by location. Thankfully, the FAA’s latest list of places offering the testing looks pretty expansive, with 689 locations across the U.S.

According to the FAA, one of the test’s functions is to determine if the potential pilot knows how to use aeronautical charts to avoid prohibited airspace. The FAA is offering both an online training course and sample questions for aspiring drone pilots to prepare for the exam.

Once potential drone pilots pass the test, they’re required to fill out an FAA Airman Certificate application. Then, if approved, they’ll get a temporary license within 10 days and a permanent certificate within 120 days.

Waivers will allow some wiggle room in regards to flying over people, at night, and out-of-sight flight, but drone pilots should expect to document the safety measures in place in order to receive the go-ahead from the FAA. While the waiver process timeline will vary, the FAA recommends allowing at least 90 days for the process.

Updated October 24th to further clarify the FAA weight limits as they pertain to Part 107 commercial flight requirements.

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