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American Towman Magazine Presents the Week in TowingJune 12 - June 18, 2019

Is Your Drone Use ... Legal?

pexels d4430By Brian J Riker

Drones have exploded in popularity in recent years and now towmen are using them in creative ways to promote their business, showcase abilities or even help collect documentation for invoicing. American Towman even used drone footage in the coverage of the inaugural Spirit Ride from Las Vegas two years ago.

As cool as this technology is, do you have the legal certifications required for the commercial usage of these drones and the resulting video footage? I am willing to bet that answer is likely no.

In an effort to protect American airspace, the Federal Aviation Administration has developed regulations and standards for the use of model aircraft and other unmanned flight systems such as drones.

The FAA regulates commercial usage of drones as subject to 14 CFR Part 107. Typically, if you are not flying recreationally as a hobbyist under Section 336, your use requires certification by the FAA. The FAA uses ordinary definitions of hobbyist, meaning it must be for relaxation and distinctly separate from your occupation.

Your drone must be registered with the FAA and comply with all applicable regulations.

I will focus on commercial applications since that is what flying a drone becomes once you use it to document your work—especially if you then use the footage for promotion, training or billing. This type of flight usually will require compliance with Part 107 regulations including:

Registering your drone with the FAA if it weighs more than .55 lbs.

Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) pilot certification or Section 333 waiver.

Notifying nearby airports and control towers (if within five miles of such).

Waivers to fly over or near emergency response scenes.

Waivers to fly directly over people.

Display registration number on drone and carry your certificate.

Stay within Class G airspace (400' ceiling, maintain visual contact).

Fly only during daylight hours or civil twilight without a waiver.

The visual contact rule further complicates the use of drones during poor weather.

The FAA has developed a mobile app, B4UFLY, to help drone operators determine if they are in restricted airspace or are free to deploy their aircraft. I highly recommend using the app to help keep you in compliance.

Perhaps the most problematic for towmen is the restrictions on flying near emergency response scenes or over people: both conditions are usually present in our daily work environments. The FAA restricts airspace near emergencies such as wildfires, hurricanes and other emergency scenes where aircraft may be part of the response effort.

To legally deploy drones over people or at emergency scenes you may be required to obtain waivers for use in temporarily restricted airspace. Depending on the agency that is restricting the airspace, a UAS pilot may need to obtain permission from an agency other than the FAA.

Other restrictions to airspace involve national security. For example, Washington, D.C., has the most restricted airspace in the country. All drone use is prohibited within the inner loop, a 15-mile radius. Limited deployment of drones is permissible in the outer loop, a 30-mile radius around D.C. Other areas near military bases, some power plants and stadiums or sporting events are also restricted.

Another consideration regarding aerial photography with drones is privacy. It is always a good idea to protect the identity of your customers, especially when their vehicles are found in a compromising position.

(Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and the following is not legal advice. Check with your attorney for specific rules on privacy in your area.)

What about protecting the privacy of individuals who are bystanders? It may be permissible to capture video in public areas where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy; however audio may be restricted by various state laws. It is always a good idea to obtain signed waivers from anyone in a video that may be published, especially if they did not have direct knowledge of their participation prior to filming.

Drones are a great new tool in our toolbox. The video can help prevent future mistakes when reviewed as part of an after-action briefing. It can help us justify our invoice on complex recoveries ... and it looks cool when used as promotion material.

My last word of caution, and this applies to conventional photographs as well as video footage: Make sure what is released publicly depicts proper procedures and portrays a positive image unless used in a training environment. Keep in mind that regulatory agencies such as OSHA look at public forums and can initiate an investigation based off a news report or other public display of wrongdoing.
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