Drone Photography: Is it legal? How long?

A DJI Phantom 2 drone quadcopter, complete with remote-controlled video camera.
A DJI Phantom 2 drone quadcopter, complete with remote-controlled video camera.


I wrote a piece here on The Discerning Photographer back in 2010, as we were sweating our way through the infamous BP oil spill, about a former Getty Images editor who was using a small drone helicopter to shoot aerials for a fraction of the cost of commercial helicopter charters. Anthony Jacobs had come down and shot some footage of the spill and I ended up interviewing him about his service, Perspective Aerials, which is apparently still up and running, using drone photography as its main business model.

Since then a lot has changed, and some things haven’t about shooting commercial photos and videos with this type of drone helicopter. The machines themselves have gotten better, and cheaper.  (Now you can control one remotely in tandem with your iPhone.) And the FAA, which controls all commercial airspace in the United States, continues to fumble its way along towards effectively regulating this gray area of aviation.

A bit of the BP oil spill, as photographed by Anthony Jacobs with his drone helicopter in 2010.

A bit of the BP oil spill, as photographed by Anthony Jacobs with his drone helicopter in 2010.

Up until two weeks ago, all commercial use of drone helicopters was illegal. Then a judge struck down a case in which the FAA was attempting to fine a commercial photographer for drone photography–essentially an unregulated commercial flying machine–saying the agency had not written rules for these aircraft. Now the FAA has come out with its own ‘myth busting’ FAQ on its website about drones and reasserting its right to regulate them.


But the plot thickens:  on March 13th, when an explosion in East Harlem flattened two buildings, local New Yorker Brian Wilson raced to the scene with his drone helicopter, a DJI Phantom 2 , a machine which can fly for about 30 minutes on a battery charge, shoot HD video and stills, and tie into an iPhone app which allows the on-the-ground pilot to see what the drone sees on his iPhone. Although they were uncomfortable with the situation, New York City police allowed Wilson to fly the drone, at least for about 30 minutes. His videos appeared on the website of the New York Daily News as well as other places.

So what is going to happen? Should you rush out and buy yourself one of these babies and set up a new revenue stream for your photography business? How is this going to all play out?

Personally, unless you’ve already taken the plunge and started down this road, I would suggest you keep your wallet zipped shut. The FAA will eventually get their act together. They will get the legislation written to control these drone photography machines, and at that point you will be dead in the water. Why? Because, as a pilot friend of mine explained to me, the insurance required to fly one of these units commercially will make it cost prohibitive to operate them: you’ll be looking at spending upwards of $10K a year to insure your $1200 drone helicopter, if you can even get licensed to fly the thing. (You’ll need a commercial pilot’s license of some sort.)

But they are totally cool, aren’t they? As someone who’s done a lot of photography hanging out the open cockpit of a ‘real’ helicopter, the notion of having all of that aerial photography available for such a small initial investment is awfully tempting.

But don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Update 3/20/2014: Here’s another story about yet another photographer using a drone to shoot news and this time, getting into hot water with the FAA.

Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Or subscribe to our Facebook page ,Google+ page or our Twitter feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

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7 Comments on "Drone Photography: Is it legal? How long?"

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  1. Bayou Bill says:

    As a (currently inactive) pilot and a (currently active) photojournalist, this article was very interesting to me. Thanks, Andrew, for posting it.

    This is yet another instance where the regulatory ability of the federal government, which moves, shall we say, at the speed of a slug, falls way behind today’s technological innovations, which seem to move (shall we say) at the speed of light.

    Here’s the rub in this instance: The FAA regs say, in so so many many words, that in order to fly any aircraft for commercial purposes (which boils down to whether remuneration over and above the actual cost of operation is involved), the pilot of that aircraft must possess a commercial aviation certificate (aka “commercial pilot’s license”). The type of aircraft doesn’t matter.

    So the questions are (1) are drones “aircraft” within the scope of the FAA regs, and (2) is the drone operated for commercial purposes as described above?

    Based on Andrew’s link to the FAA drone FAQ, the answer to the first question is “Yes”.

    Based on the context in which Andrew’s post is couched, the answer to the second question is, in the cases he contemplates, also “Yes”.

    So, what is required to obtain a commercial pilot certification?

    Answer: Much, much, much more than any drone “pilot” would want to go through, and it involves the very expensive learning of skills that no drone pilot really needs.

    So, until the FAA comes out with its revised regulations on the operation of drone aircraft (and don’t hold your breath for that), Andrew’s warnings are well-advised. (Unless, of course, you are a risk-taker who likes to tweak the government’s nose.)

  2. Thanks Bill. It’s going to be interesting to watch this play out, both out in the world AND in the courts.

  3. I disagree on the licensing issue. You can fly an ultralight or a paraglider without a license and you can way more damage with one of those than one of these drones. Insurance will probably be the limiting factor for many, but I think we are about to see a whole new wave of business opportunities open powered by these little drones.

  4. Interesting Chris…but would that be a commercial use of that para glider or ultralight? I think that’s the key issue for the FAA.

  5. matt rose says:

    Hi Andrew,
    I have been flying a toy quadcopter so I would have some experience before buying a real one. I was turned off after making a search “quadcopter injuries” on the web. They can cause a lot of damage if they hit anyone. Some “experienced” flyers have had serious finger and hand injuries from not being careful enough. One guy got quite a slash on the side of his head. Something I don’t need.
    I would not trust being near one of these in flight unless I knew the pilot was an expert drone flyer. I surely would not trust myself as a pilot at this point. Until a people-safe model comes out I will stick with the toy.

  6. Thanks Matt! Interesting to hear the perspective of a photographer who’s actually fooled with one of these things.

  7. Bayou Bill says:

    FAA Sued Over Model Aircraft Operations

    Here’s an article that proves that the FAA is serious about requiring commercial certification for operators of “Unmanned Aircraft Systems”, which includes drones, when the use is other than recreational, and what one organization is doing about it:


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