Quadcopters, Cameras, and the Law

Quadcopter With Video Camera

Quadcopters, multicopters and other remotely controlled model aircraft aircraft have long been enjoyed by videographers who envision capturing stunning aerial video. Since the military has devised the highly effective drones for use in the war, these more innocent hobbyists aircraft have attracted new attention.

Let’s start by defining some terms. The term drone is most properly applied to a military weapon. But the word has been erroneously applied to radio controlled model aircraft flown by hobbyists. Drones are for the military; RC aircraft are for hobbyists. OK?

First Person Video (FPV) is captured by a camera that is mounted on the aircraft. This video makes it appear that the pilot is in the aircraft, but the pilot is remotely controlling the plane.

Visual Line of Sight (VSOL) refers to the practice of keeping the aircraft within sight at all times. Should the aircraft fly beyond the pilot’s sight, people and property may be endangered.

Aerial Filming and Privacy

The right to privacy is not mentioned in the Constitution, but the Supreme Court has said that several of the amendments create this right. Many states have laws or legal precedents which grant a right to privacy. Rights to privacy may apply where a person, their home or property is being filmed. So the same releases we use for ground-based video should be used. These releases grant permission to the videographer or filmmaker to legally use that footage. An aircraft can see a lot more of the earth and people so numerous persons or property owners may be affected.

Some states are passing bills like Texas House Bill # 912 to ban any aerial filming from remote controlled aircraft. Similar laws are being debated in Oregon and other states. To keep up to date with such legislation, see The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) Government Relations Blog

The AMA is the largest model aviation association, representing more than 150,000 members who enjoy the hobby of flying model aircraft. The group provides liaison with the Federal Aviation Administration. It is the F.A.A. which has authority to regulate and oversee all aspects of civil aviation including radio-controlled model aircraft. The most current FAA Advisory Circular is important reading for everyone who flies model aircraft.

FAA is crafting new rules about model aircraft and how they may be used. This new version is due out before the end of 2013. A more complete set of guidelines is available from the AMA Guidelines for Radio Controlled Flight.

Here is a summary of the rules:

  • Do not fly above 400 ft.
  • Do not fly above a populated area.
  • Always fly close enough to see your aircraft also called visual line of sight (VSOL).
  • If flying First Person Video (FPV), have another person standing next to you spotting your aircraft so it does not leave your Visual Line of Sight (VSOL)
  • Do not fly within 3 miles of an airport.
  • Do not fly your aircraft for any commercial purpose.

For videographers, that last one is controversial, but in dangerous times it may not be unreasonable.

Enjoy the sport. Be safe and share your videos. Check these quadcopters for every budget.




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15 thoughts on “Quadcopters, Cameras, and the Law

  1. Max Myers

    Great article; very informative. However, it is troubling that the iron hand of regulation could take away the livelihood of many videographers. Time will tell.

    Lastly, I was bemused by the, “Enjoy the sport,” line at the end of the post.

  2. Brian

    The last point – not using for “any” commercial purpose – seems to almost completely negate the usefulness of this technology for commercial photographers and videographers, no?

    Is there a way to “register” or something with the FAA to be permitted to fly a quadcopter “commercially” – and if so, shouldn’t that have been included in this article?

  3. Randel Smith

    A very annoying turn of events. The State can do it but you cannot. Well, there are so many problems with these first issue laws that they will be debated a long time or thrown out. Pressure them. Or ignore it. There is safety in putting a camera on a model aircraft, if you can afford it. Then there is recording the video onboard the aircraft for later retrieval vs. transmitting it to the ground in real time, something hard to do for actual use in a film. Even big government drones transmit crummy video but it is good enough for their purpose most of the time but probably not for our uses. Your tax department videos and photographs your home and land annually to look for changes and improvements so they can tax you. That is done in Texas all the time. By pilots, yes, but by remote control will probably come into use if it gets good enough and is cheaper. Pilots loose work; I would have this thrown out on the basis of shooting anything in public as we already do, with homes, people in the shots. As long as you can’t recognize a face it just does not matter. And even if so, it is a civil matter, not a criminal one. It is expensive to sue someone and you may loose anyway. A very basic legal contest of these overarching bills will get most of it thrown out since decades of legal, practical precedence has been set by the film and still photography industry. Smart politicians will quickly figure out that they can sell licenses and collect fees and levy fines for the use of arial video platforms. Just watch.

  4. paul bolden

    “that last one is controversial, but in dangerous times it may not be unreasonable”

    Say what?…are you sure that you didn’t mean the second to last one “Do not fly within 3 miles of an airport”

    Please explain.


  5. Hal

    You’re right. I misspoke. Considering the potential dangers, I think the F.A.A. needs to come up with well-thought-out rules. This may mean limiting the size and capabilities of model aircraft. I don’t think that’s unreasonable.

  6. Joe

    I think it’s pretty laughable how you link to the “latest” document from the FAA and its from 1981!

    What I want to know is how folks are getting by the commercial restriction. People use quadcopters for movies and other commercial endeavors, and they are not giving it away for free. So how do they do this?

  7. Hal

    It may seem laughable, but it’s true. 1981 was the last FAA rule on Model Aircraft. You can ask them yourself.

    It’s also surprising considering the dangers in today’s world that were not present then, that the 1981 rule still does seem to work.

  8. Chuck

    I had one hovering over my backyard this morning for about 20 seconds. It left when I went to get my shotgun. It then went down the neighborhood backyards before heading across a field. An unwarranted invasion of privacy! If someone can’t step on my property to film my family without my permission, why should it be done via the air?

  9. Dave

    i heard its commercial if you charge for it. so they way around it is you do not charge for the aerial footage but you charge for the editing and other things. there’s always a loop hole

  10. Hal Post author

    Good try, but I wouldn’t want to test that definition of commercial in court. They might not buy it.

  11. Andrew Smith

    I believe that quadcopters should be kept for recreational use. They are great for aerial photography, but not for spying on people. Just my opinion!

  12. Ruben Obed

    I believe that Drones or UAV’s are simply a tool just like the camera on a cell phone. If I climb up on a high ladder, or a tree or on top of a building to film a neighbor its basically Aerial footage too. I gues the entire planet would need to have a mass recall on each and every tablet, cell phone, laptop, or device which has a camera. I think that whats going on here goes alot further. UAV’s give civilians power. It gives us a tool to defend ourselves which goes against what the Gov’t wants that it to leave us vulnerable without right to bear arms and without an edge. Drones are a usefull tool which we can utilize to point out police abuse, to point out Gov’t abuse. Thats the real reason why they want to make it impossible for UAV owners.

  13. Logger1492

    “Let’s start by defining some terms. The term drone is most properly applied to a military weapon. But the word has been erroneously applied to radio controlled model aircraft flown by hobbyists. Drones are for the military; RC aircraft are for hobbyists. OK?”
    Now, now. Let’s try rewording that with “assault rifle” and “sporting rifle” instead of drone and RC aircraft to see how that works.

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