Three Questions You Need to Ask Before You Hire a Drone Photographer

 Home exterior photographed with a drone :: Illinois Home Photography, Lincoln, IL // Michael Gowin

Home exterior photographed with a drone :: Illinois Home Photography, Lincoln, IL // Michael Gowin

Small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS)—more commonly known as drones—are soaring in popularity in the United States. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recorded 670,000 drone registrations in 2016 and that number is expected to grow in 2017.

With the ability to make photographs and videos from new vantage points, a drone pilot can capture unique images for your business. Whether you need marketing photographs of a home for a real estate listing, a survey map of a farm field, or the ability to inspect a building or tower, drones offer notable advantages over traditional methods of doing the same things.

This new technology creates new opportunities but business owners, from real estate agents to farmers, need to be aware that they can't hire just anyone with a drone to do a job. Here are three crucial questions you should ask a drone aerial operator before you sign a contract.  

1. Are you an FAA-certified remote pilot?

The FAA passed new rules on August 29, 2016, governing the commercial use of unmanned aircraft in the national airspace. Referred to as Part 107, those rules include the following requirements for remote pilots (drone operators):

  • Must be at least 16 years old
  • Must pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved testing center
  • Must be vetted by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA)
  • Must register their aircraft

Drone operators who fulfill these requirements receive a Remote Pilot Certificate with a small UAS rating from the FAA. Hobbyists aren't held to the same standards but anyone flying commercially—for hire to photograph a house, survey a farm field, or inspect a tower—must be FAA-certified. If they're not, they are breaking the law. Penalties could include steep fines.

There are other requirements and guidelines as well but a certified remote pilot should be familiar with them. Before you hire a drone photographer, ask if they are FAA-certified.

2. Are you authorized to fly in this area?

If you live in an area that's anywhere near an airport, your photographer might need permission from the FAA to fly there.

The FAA is concerned that all aircraft operate safely while they're in flight. Areas adjacent to airports are considered controlled airspace and remote pilots must be authorized by the FAA to fly in those areas. In central Illinois (where I live), for example, much of Peoria and Springfield are covered in Class C airspace and the entire Bloomington/Normal locale is encircled by Class D airspace.

As part of their certification training, remote pilots learn to read airspace maps called VFR sectional charts. Using these charts, remote pilots can see where controlled airspace begins and ends so they can 1) avoid a potential collision with manned aircraft and 2) be compliant with FAA rules.

Additionally, areas like national parks and the airspace around Washington, D.C., are prohibited and ban the use of drones entirely. Temporary flight restrictions, or TFRs, for special events (presidential visits, sporting events, etc.) can limit the use of unmanned aircraft as well.

Remote pilots can seek waivers/authorization from the FAA to fly in controlled airspace but these can take time for the FAA to review and approve—up to 90 days. The FAA is taking steps to reduce the wait but, at the moment, expect a 90-day lead time. 

Check with your drone photographer well in advance of your project to ensure they can request authorization if necessary.

3. Do you have drone insurance?

The last thing you want is to have your project spoiled by a crashed drone—or worse. A crashed aircraft can damage property and injure those on the ground.

Any good photography business will carry general liability insurance. In many cases, though, that general liability policy won't cover the use of an unmanned aircraft. Insurance companies now offer policies especially for drones. Though the FAA doesn't require remote pilots to carry drone insurance (yet), it's best to make sure your photographer is adequately insured in case of an accident. 

The proof is in the documents

Conscientious remote pilots should have their FAA documentation (Part 107 sUAS certificate and aircraft registration), any waivers/authorizations they've received, proof of insurance, as well as a pilot's log book available for prospective clients to examine. Just ask!

One last thing

If you plan to hire a drone pilot for photography or video work, you might find it helpful to familiarize yourself with the legal guidelines for commercial drone projects. KnowBeforeYouFly.org has an excellent—and brief—overview of those rules.

And one last, last thing: I passed my Part 107 certification test in February 2017 and am logging training hours on a DJI Mavic Pro drone. I'll be offering my clients drone aerial photography and videography services soon—stay tuned.

Posted on March 1, 2017 and filed under Advice.