If there is a large (or small) protest near where you live, and you have a drone handy right where you can see it… then you’ll probably feel the itch to take your drone and film it.
While that’s understandable, I’d recommend you refrain from doing that. Never mind the obvious risk of angry rioters shooting your drone down (and costing you a lot of money), flying drones over groups of people is illegal in most cases.
According to the FAA, flying drones over protest or any large group of people is illegal and can get you charges for misdemeanor. This applies to both recreational and commercial pilots, unless you’re a commercial pilot with a Part 107.39 waiver.
If all you’re after is the short to-the-point answer, then you can stop reading right now. If you’re the type who likes to dig further, and hopes there might be a legal way to fly over protests, then keep reading.
If you’ve passed the part 107 test, then you might think your hard earned license allows you to fly over protests. That could not be farther from the truth.
You can’t just fly your drone over people (groups). These rules don’t only apply to Part 107 operators. If you’re flying recreationally, you still can’t fly over people and vehicles.
Previously, the only way to fly over people was if this group of people was aware and is part of your drone operation. Like this group of protestors in portland:
As of April 21, 2021 though, the FAA included some slight changes to the part 107 rules to allow more flexibility to commercial drone pilots. It’s called the part 107.39 waiver, but comes with strings attached…
Let’s look at this waiver for a moment. What exactly is it?
Well, as the name suggests, it’s basically an exception to the rule. With this new change, the FAA has introduced the ability for drone pilots to fly over crowds. But not anyone can fly.
Two things must be taken into consideration: the category of your drone, and the type of flight you’re doing.
There are currently 4 drone categories. 1, 2, 3 and 4. The responsibility of identifying these drones and separating them into categories falls unto the manufacturer of said drones. Each drone classification needs to be supported by two documents.
First, a Means of Compliance (MOC). It’s a document made by the manufacturer outlining why a specific drone should fall in a specific category. This usually implies that said drone has undergone ample testing and the document will be submitted to the FAA for review and approval.
Second, a Declaration of Compliance (DOC). A document submitted by the manufacturer once the MOC has been approved. It specifies the drones and their serial numbers that were manufactured according to the approved MOC.
Once this process is finished the FAA will add the specific drones to their database according to their category. The database is publicly available and is usually used by pilots to check a drone before buying it.
The second piece of the puzzle is the type of flights. The FAA separates drone flights over crowds into two categories: sustained flight and transitioning flight.
Sustained flight: this refers to any drone flight that remains above some part of the crowd or protest. It can take the form of hovering in one spot in the air, flying back and forth or circling over the crowd.
Transitioning flight: this is a brief flight done over the protest or assembly. A flight can be described as a transition flight if the drone goes over a crowd merely because it’s in the way, for example. Going back and forth over the crowd however is considered a sustained flight.
Let’s take a look at what determines the category of drones according to the FAA (and the drones manufacturer). To avoid confusion, I’ll be using a table:
|Category 1||Category 2||Category 3|
|Weight limit||0.55 lbs. or less||Less than 55 lbs.||Less than 55 lbs.|
|Eligibility requirements||No exposed rotating parts that can cause laceration||No exposed rotating parts that can cause laceration||No exposed rotating parts that can cause laceration|
|FAA category approval||None||Must be requested by the manufacturer||Must be requested by the manufacturer|
|Label requirement||None||Must be Labeled as Category 2||Must be Labeled as Category 3|
I didn’t go over category 4 because frankly, you probably won’t come across it almost anywhere. Note that when I say FAA approval is “none”, it means that category 1 drones don’t require the drone manufacturer to wait for the FAA’s approval of their MOC and DOC (see above).
Let’s wrap it up, depending on the category, can you fly a drone over a crowd and which type of flight can you perform? Below is a table that explains just that.
|Category 1||Category 2||Category 3|
|Sustained flights over open air assemblies||Yes, if UAS meetsRemote ID requirements||Yes, if UAS meetsRemote ID requirements||No|
|Sustained flights over moving vehicles||If inside a restricted area and people are on notice.||If inside a restricted area and people are on notice.||If inside a restricted area and people are on notice.|
|Sustained Flights anywhere else||Yes||If inside restricted area and people are on noticeoroutside restricted if under a structure or inside a non-moving vehicle.||If inside restricted area and people are on noticeoroutside restricted if under a structure or inside a non-moving vehicle.|
|Transitioning flights||Yes includingOpen Air Assembly andOver Moving Vehicles||Yes, but not over Open Air Assembly.Over moving vehicles if over restricted sites with given notice.||Yes, but not over Open Air Assembly.Over moving vehicles if over restricted sites with given notice.|
You might be asking yourself what open air assemblies are. Basically, it refers to any large group in an open-air environment.
The specific criteria for a group to be defined as an open air assembly isn’t explicitly defined in the regulations. The FAA simply states that an open-air assembly is assessed on a case-to-case basis. Factors like the density of people and their number is often considered to decide.
This is an important question because the major requirement for drones to fly over people is that their rotating parts should be covered to prevent them from causing laceration.
A 250 grams can still cause harm with its propellers, and therefore can only be considered as a category 1 if it has propeller guards. This is usually considered by manufacturers before they classify their drones.
This actually means that ANY drone whose propellers can harm the skin is not to be considered as category one, even if it has a weight below 250 grams.
I hope this article has given you a full complete idea on whether you can fly your drone over people and crowds or not. While as you can see in some cases you can, I can tell you that without a doubt in most cases you’ll find yourself not qualified for it.
It’s almost always because your drone lacks propeller guards. If you’re dead set on shooting crowds with drones, make sure to customize your drone and get plastic guards in place.