The Drone Commandments

photo by Invisible Power

Unmanned aerial vehicle, unmanned aerial system, quadcopter, drone: no matter what you call it, when you add a camera to this high-flying gadget, you open up endless possibilities to elevate the filmmaking experience. A drone offers flexibility to shoot angles and areas you’d otherwise never have access to, and well-done aerial shots can lend a gorgeous, cinematic quality to your work. These remote control machines not only offer a more economical option to, say, renting a crane, but as technology advances, they’re also becoming lighter and smaller – check out the brand new DJI Mavic Air to see just how compact a drone can get.

On the flipside, drones can also cause problems when used inappropriately. During one incident in 2014, an operator crashed theirs into Yellowstone National Park’s Grand Prismatic Spring, which set off concerns about how the submerged machine might affect the famous natural resource. Personal drones have also interfered with wildfire fighting efforts over the past few years, especially in hard-hit California. And even more recently, a drone was the suspected cause of a helicopter crash in Charleston, South Carolina when the pilot lost control after maneuvering to avoid a collision.

Luckily, it’s not that difficult to become a responsible drone operator. Here are some tips and suggestions to help you start flying on the right path.

photo by Matt Artz

Get friendly with the FAA. It might seem odd to invoke the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for something the size of a shoebox, but drones – even the non-commercial, hobbyist kind – are considered a form of aircraft and have their own set of regulations. Luckily, the FAA offers a series of websites and resources about commercial and non-commercial drone usage. Start with their special FAADroneZone and their page for Unmanned Aircraft Systems to access the most comprehensive information on current guidelines and best practices. While you’re there, it’s also important to register your drone. This is a fairly painless online process that costs five dollars; you’ll need to renew every three years.

Practice makes perfect. As with most things in life, the more you practice, the better you’ll be. If you’re brand new to drone operation, it’s best to practice with a lower-end (read: cheaper) model before heading out with a more complex (and costly) machine. It’s also easy to practice using a flight simulator program; most drones will come with a program or access to one, but you can also find standalone simulators available online. When you do begin to fly an actual drone, ease into the action – keep the device low to the ground and use slow, controlled motions until you feel comfortable with the controls. Once you’re feeling more adept, you can experiment with different angles in addition to shooting straight ahead: steady lateral, vertical, and diagonal movements can add variety to your shot bank.

Safety first. Knowing all components and learning how to operate your rig is the first step in ensuring safety, but there are a whole host of other best practices to keep in mind. Complete a pre-flight check on every outing: look for cracks or missing parts on the casing, propellers, and camera, ensure the battery is fully charged, and make sure all of the systems (including the internal compass / GPS) are properly calibrated. It’s a good idea to also carry spare parts – batteries, SD cards (if you use these), and propellers, especially. Protect your setup by using an appropriate carrying case, and by avoiding extreme weather – high winds, rain, and cold can all potentially damage your drone. Also be conscious of light – know the times for sunrise, sunset, and civil twilight, and be sure you’re grounded before dark. Finally, bring along another person to act as an extra set of eyes to look out for potential obstacles.

Understand space and distance. The FAA requires all drone operators to keep the device within eyesight. This applies even if you’re using a screen to monitor the flight – you need to be able to look up and make visual contact with the drone. This is a great reason to employ a spotter to help you keep track and ensure it doesn’t venture beyond those parameters. At the same time, you also need to fly no higher than 400’ above the ground, over 300’ away from wildlife, and at least 100’ away from any objects. Speed matters, too – keep your craft going at 100 mph or less.

photo by Josh Withers

Choose your location wisely. Deciding where to shoot can be an exercise in both fun and frustration. It’s important to devote some time to research – and to asking permission if your flight plans include private property (here’s our refresher on location permitting). Drones are not allowed in designated wilderness areas (this violates the Wilderness Act’s restrictions on mechanized / motorized devices) and they cannot launch from, land, or operate in national parks. You’ll find far fewer restrictions on public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. City, County, and State regulations will vary between administrators and properties – check websites or call before falling in love with a location. Once you do land on the perfect spot, use every tool at your disposal (location scouting, sunrise/sunset times, Google Earth) to come up with a shot list before launching your drone; this will maximize your flight time and minimize battery waste to ensure a successful shoot.

Respect people and property. As with any other type of filmmaking, privacy rules apply when using a drone. It is never appropriate to film a private property, including a home backyard, without previous permission. Similarly, ask for consent before filming people, and avoid stadium events and other large gatherings. Do not fly over restricted airspace (i.e. over airports, military bases, etc.) or above emergency situations like wildfires. The golden rule of drone usage is to do no harm – to other people, to wildlife, or to property.