The short and simple answer to whether drones with cameras are illegal in and of themselves is a hearty no.
As the 21st-century advances and professional photographers are exploring their options more and more, lots of them are adding drone cameras to their toolkit, because they can add spectacular perspectives, views, and angles to a photographic portfolio that it would be difficult to guarantee in any other way – even by taking photos from a small plane or glider (Just a heads-up – if you’re taking photos from a small plane or glider, you should really go with someone else, because otherwise your full attention is supposed to be on flying the plane or not crashing the glider into any number of obstacles – most notably the ground).
The tricky thing is that drones with cameras are not legal in a blanket sense, either. The potential for boundless invasion of privacy, spying, revenge porn, etc would be overwhelming were this the case.
There are two levels of legality when it comes to flying drones with cameras, the commercial and the non-commercial.
Commercial drone photography is governed by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) under its Small UAS Rule, otherwise known as Part 107.
Without a valid Part 107 certificate, without registering your drone as a ‘non-modeling UAS,’ and without adhering to the rules laid down in Part 107, it’s illegal to operate a drone with a camera commercially.
To get your Part 107 certification, you have to meet a bunch of FAA criteria, as follows:
- You must hold a Remote Pilot Certificate issued by the FAA to fly commercially.
- You must register your UAS with the FAA on the FAADroneZone website.
- Your UAV must weigh less than 55 pounds, including payload, at takeoff.
- You must fly in Class G airspace.
- You must keep your UAS within visual line of sight.
- You must fly at or below 400 feet.
- You must use anti-collision lighting to fly during civil twilight or evening.
- You must fly at or under 100 mph.
- You must yield the right of way to manned aircraft.
- You cannot fly from a moving vehicle, unless in a sparsely populated area.
And that’s before we even address the privacy issues.
For non-commercial uses, your drone won’t come under Part 107, it will come under Section 336. That carries the following requirements:
- Fly only for recreational purposes (enjoyment).
- Follow the safety guidelines of an FAA-recognized Community Based Organization (CBO).
- Keep your drone within the visual line of sight or use a visual observer who is co-located (physically next to) and in direct communication with you.
- Give way to and do not interfere with manned aircraft.
- Fly at or below 400 feet in controlled airspace.
- Fly at or below 400 feet in Class G (uncontrolled) airspace.
- Take the Recreational UAS Safety Test – and carry proof that you passed it.
- Have a current registration, mark your drones on the outside with the registration number, and carry proof of registration with you.
- Do not operate your drone in a dangerous manner. For example:
– Do not interfere with emergency response or law enforcement activities.
– Do not fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
All of this applies to flying drones at all. Drone photography also has some personal privacy issues. The trouble with those is that they’re governed by individual state laws, rather than a single federal law, so you have to check what you can legally take shots of by drone in your state before you send up your photography drone.
Fortunately, a state-by-state list exists of what you can and can’t take photographs of (eg, in California, it’s illegal to take film or photographs of people engaging in personal, private, or familial activity (potentially understandable, given the hunger of tabloids for celebrity shots). Check your state drone laws here.
Is drone photography legal?
It’s legal for professional photographers to take photographs by drone, if they have a valid Part 107 certificate, under the FAA’s regulations on drone activity, and they stay within local state laws on what’s legal to photograph by drone, and what isn’t.
That entails quite some drone training and the observation of local laws. Be aware that local laws are… well, local, so you have to be up to speed on what photographs you can and can’t take in your area. For instance, it won’t surprise you to learn that in California, the home of Hollywood, it’s illegal to take drone pictures
The same is true of non-commercial photographers. You have to obey some recreational drone flight rules, under the FAA’s Section 336 before even flying your drone is legal, so take a look at that before you get ideas about taking photographs by drone.
Then, take a look at your local drone flight and personal privacy laws, just in case you might – accidentally or intentionally – be about to take photos that could see you in court for breach of privacy.
Depending on who or what you intend to photograph by drone and what your history is with your subject, you could also run into harassment law if you’re not absolutely clear on why your photographs are necessary.
Ideally, know who you’re photographing – either in terms of people, or building ownership – and get some consent forms signed where you can, so you have the right to take and hold your drone photographs under most local state laws.
In essence, drone photography is legal if you have the appropriate license to fly a drone in the first place, obey local state laws on what you can and can’t take pictures of, and don’t use your drone to take invasive, personal, private or otherwise illegal pictures of people whose permission you don’t have.
That’s essentially why a lot of the rules to do with taking photographs with drones exist to govern the correct flying of drones in the first place – because the rules governing what you can reasonably take photographs of involve several different laws, including privacy laws, harassment laws, even sometimes copyright laws, and also because the laws on content change on a state-by-state basis.
So while yes, technically, drone photography is broadly legal, when you get down to the specifics of cases, it’s a lot more complicated and you have to check your own state’s rules on what you can and can’t do.