What to know before hiring a drone operator

So, you want to hire a drone pilot for you video production?

Awesome! Low-cost drone technology has changed the video production industry forever. In most cases, clients no longer need to book expensive flight time with a helicopter pilot and a separate aerial videographer to get the job done. This opens productions up to even more possibilities than ever before.

However, there are some regulations, procedures, and safety concerns that clients should know when looking for a drone videographer pilot. Now, we’re not lawyers nor do we play ones on TV, but a rogue drone pilot could open an unsuspecting client up to legal and financial liability. So here’s what you should know when hiring a drone operator…

All drone operators flying for a commercial venture must be licensed by the Federal Administration Administration.

This point is non-negotiable. If a drone operator is flying to further any business (with or without compensation) it is considered a commercial activity and they must operate under a FAA Part 107 licenses. Drone pilots who are operating recreationally (for fun) do not need to be licensed. But since you’re hiring someone for video production work, that activity is always commercial.

The licensing process involves a federal background check, paying the appropriate licensing fee, and completing an airman knowledge test at a FAA approved testing center. Operators who complete the process will receive a temporary paper certificate and then a card in the mail weeks later.

Knowingly hiring an unlicensed drone operator is a crime. Always ask your drone operator to show license before the flight begins. Many clients assume that the legal ramifications of an unlawful operation will only fall on the operator. However, the FAA has ruled that those who hire unlicensed operators could also be legally and financially liable. Protect yourself!

Tampa Bay Video Service’s Ryan French is licensed to operate a drone by the FAA. Also any pilot we may contract with to complete a larger video production a job will also be licensed. If you decide to hire another company for your drone work, make sure they’re operating under proper credentials.

Your drone operator may need to have the drone registered

It’s the law! All drones weighing over approximently a half pound (.55 lbs) and up to 55 pounds must be registered via the FAA’s drone zone web portal. Drones weighing more than 55 pounds undergo a licensing process similar to typical manned aircraft. This is for aircraft identification in case of an accident and the FAA needs to contact the owner.

Nearly all drones equipped with cameras suitable for video production work will fall within the weight limit and will need to be registered. When hiring a drone operator ask to see a copy of the registration. All drone operators should have no problems producing this information to their clients.

Your drone operator may require authorization to operate near airports

All commercial drone operators must have authorization from the FAA to operate within 5 miles from certain airports. 

Without authorization, no commercial drone operator can fly within 5 miles of a towered airport that is within Class B thru Class E airspace. Some of the airspace designations may be confusing to non-pilots however, there are smartphone applications such as AirMap that anyone can use to check the airspace given a particular location.

A general “blanket” authorization can be obtained via the FAA’s official DroneZone web portal. Blanket authorizations are usually requested for a large portion of the airspace and a for a broad timeframe. Many airports now offer instant authorization via several FAA approved applications, no longer requiring a long application process for an airspace authorization.

Tampa Bay Video Service has valid authorizations for all of the area towered airports including Tampa International, St. Petersburg-Clearwater International, MacDill Air Force Base, Albert Witted, Lakeland-Linder International, Bartow, Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional, and Sarasota-Bradenton International.

Even with a blanket authorization, certain locations directly in front of departure or arrival corridors may be restricted in altitude or may require a more specific authorization which includes a specific date, time, radius, and altitude. The drone operator should provide the customer a copy of the authorization which will include a map of the airspace and any applicable restrictions.

Flying unlawfully in the airspace is a crime because doing so can result in damage to aircraft, injury, and death! As a client, you should discuss any concerns you have regarding operating near airports and ask the operator to show you any relevant documentation.

Your drone operator be operating in accordance to regulations

With a license alone, drone operators may not do the following: fly at night, fly over people, fly beyond line of sight, fly higher than 400 feet over the ground or structure, fly from a moving aircraft or vehicle, or a single pilot flying multiple drones simultaneously. A drone operator must have a written waiver from the FAA to do any of these. 

In addition, a waiver may indicate special procedures required by the pilot in order to be in compliance with said waiver. For example, a waiver that allows a pilot to fly at night may require the drone to have upgraded strobe lightning or use a separate visual observer. Either way, ask the operator if a job requires a waiver and if they can show it to you.

Your drone operator should be insured

Despite the best intentions, pilot error, malfunctions, interference, or acts of God could result in damage to property or injury to persons on the ground. It is likely that such incidents may result in a civil claim in which the drone operator and the hiring person or business could be listed as the co-defendant. 

It is our policy at Tampa Bay Video Service to take out a specific policy on every drone job we take on and include the client as additional insured party. This is to protect not only our interests but our clients. Insist that your drone operator be insured and ask to see a copy of the policy before they take off.

Conclusion

We hope you’ve learned that hiring a drone operator may require a little more due diligence than originally thought. At Tampa Bay Video Service, we believe in customer education and our clients are entitled to the most information possible. Whether you hire us or not for a drone job, make sure your pilot is operating with your best interests in mind. Remember, safety first!