Using Drones Without FAA Approval for Photos or Video is Illegal

Using Drones Without FAA Approval for Photos or Video is Illegal

In the last 12 months I have seen a number of new unmanned aerial vehicles (also known as drones) entering the market with the ability to capture video or photos. It has been something that I have been quite interested in and have intently researched buying one. However my latest findings have convinced me to wait a few more years before I make a purchase as now I realize they are illegal and the FAA can issue large fines and even shut you down if you are caught operating one for your business. Read on to learn more.

One of the most popular uses for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV's) has been for real estate photography. They use the UAV's as an inexpensive alternative to chartering a helicopter to photograph high profile buildings and properties. However, according to the Photography for Real Estate website using these UAV's is actually illegal and can cost you a fine and even risk being shut down. These rules will change in a few years as Congress did sign a bill into law mandating opening air space to unmanned drones on September 30, 2015. If you are thinking about incorporating UAV's into your business it might do you well to wait a few more years. I have a feeling by then you will see a lot of manufacturers entering the market offering UAV's thereby driving down the price substantially. Also by waiting you can avoid being shut down like California photographer Daniel Gárate experienced.

In order to operate the drones, outside of doing it as solo a hobbyist, one needs to have a Certificate of Authorization from the FAA. This site lists everyone who has one of these COA's and is able to operate a drone for commercial or industrial use legally.

To find out more about the use of UAV's in your work check out the article posted on the Photography for Real Estate website.

[Via Photography for Real Estate]

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Hi, I'm from the government and I'm here to help....  

government won't allow competition...

thanks for that, I needed a laugh :-)

a work around is not to charge for flight and claim it as a hobby, the photos are a after product of said hobby that can be resold

Alain's picture

Try to make your point BEFORE being shot/shut/whatever.

Doesn't work with homeowner's insurance, probably won't work with the FAA either.

I love armchair lawyers.

An armchair lawyer is an upgrade from a real lawyer in my book

Mike Traynor's picture

A friend of mine owns a drone company, and I remember him talking about this. I believe it also has to do with airspace, and reserving airspace, being licensed to fly in it etc. So whether it's a hobby or not is probably not the issue, at least in that regard.

Won't hold up.

I used to be an active member at and there for sure is a lot of fist shaking at the regulations. Hobby use is no shortcut either, as flying things over people / houses / things other than open fields is generally off-limits as well, from an official point of view.

 And a legal point of view too. That would probably be classed as nuisance and trespass to land.

The only current "law" in effect is you must fly basically below 400'

Hmmmm...  What about photos from kites or from balloons?

Davis DeLo's picture

Nein! Nein! Das ist streng verboten!

man this gov. sucks they cry for small business this small business that, and yet set up red tape for anyone wanting to start a business.  I've used my trex 450 for aerial here in Hawaii, and was shut down 1st day I flew it for a client.  The police took my heli and but was nice enough to give me my camera.

You're starting to learn their game, the government isn't in favor of small business, unless that means helping out big businesses that have something to sell to small businesses, like loans.

I would write off the copter twice then in your taxes.

Been flying RC for over 25 years and used to do aerial vids and pics. So I'm rather upset at the legislation and how slow it's moving BUT.. I'd rather wait for the OK than potentially lose my business. And I bet the government would go after your client too!
And I urge anyone who does try to "test the water" to please reconsider as all it will take is some accident that does enough property damage or kills someone or pics/vid to be released illegally for this activity to be banned forever.

What about what Red Bull did, does that class as a balloon?

I can't believe Mike Kelley didn't get this first! He's a regular over at PFRE.

This seems ridiculous and really it probably is just in need of clarification of the law. When doing it as described you aren't doing anything wrong and shouldn't be subject to punishment but I imagine the law was created to stop people from attaching cameras to drones and using them to breach people's privacy.

If it were widely allowed people like paparazzi would have a field day with it flying into people's homes or above their fenced in yards.It could also be used to scout for break ins and to spy on confidential conversations.

They already have laws in place in California regarding telephoto lens into peoples back yards.

Good luck using it for spying on conversations LOL. Multirotors are so loud it would be impossible.

Mike Payne's picture

What I want to know-- who instagram's out their gear photos with fake light leaks?  That hectacopter looks soooo stylish!!

harry's picture

The problem is where do you draw the line?  At what altitude/airspace do you call safe and a no threat area to lanes of traffic?  The air is more congested than you may think, so having random people without a clue strapping photographic or video gear to high end drones and flying them behind a couple hundred feet can be catastrophic.  So it's many things wrapped up all into one...privacy issues, FAA flight safety consideration, liability, etc.

RC planes and heli's aren't new.  What the FAA is doing is crushing the business side of it.  They've had regulation in place around RC heli's and planes forever so the lines are already drawn.  What they don't have yet is a way to make money (ie. sell/issue a license).  Simply put, they want a cut of the business and don't have a way to do it yet.  

harry's picture

Good, as they should.  It's how we as a society can regulate the use of these devices to protect ourselves and our interests. 

Sounds like a lawyer :-(

My video business has become what it is due to incorporating RC multicopter footage into our work.  Our RC pilot has both a fixed wing and rotary license and we stay under 400ft, fly a line of sight, have auto pilot and lost link capabilities, back up motors, pre/post flight checks, log books, and the list goes on.  We operate it like a real aircraft because it is and even have a $1million property and personal liability policy specific to the drone we use.  With all that, we still received a letter from the FAA last week requesting our immediate compliance with their regulation.  One can not accept payment to fly a UAS (drone).  Flying with a camera is irrelevant, it's accepting money that sticks.  Great, so now we can fly a 20k rig around for fun!  Can't wait.