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]

Trevor Dayley's picture

Trevor Dayley ( was named as one of the Top 100 Wedding Photographers in the US in 2014 by Brandsmash. His award-winning wedding photos have been published in numerous places including Grace Ormonde. He and his wife have been married for 15 years and together they have six kids.

Log in or register to post comments

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

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

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?

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.

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

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.  

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.       

Adapt and overcome then.  I can't honestly believe you all are going to sit back and only look at the business side of money you've already been gaining from this form of visual capture.  There is policy in place for local, state and federal to obtain certificates of authorization to fly UAS's so lobby for the hobbyist or business minded to be able to do the same. 

I honestly wouldn't want people buzzing around with UAS with cameras mounted to them anyways unless of course I'd be using them for semi-automatic weapons practice...

We're members of the organizations that are lobbying for us.  We'd be glad to obtain a certificate of authorization and fly legally but they aren't making it possible at the moment.  Until then, I guess it's just a hobby again and we'll be collecting footage to sit on;)

If it makes you feel any better, you should check out the regulations about AUTONOMOUS unmanned aircraft. Combine that with ultra-high-altitude stuff. I had a project that was... mostly... under all of the FAA regulations: under five pound weight, non-populated area (airspace and ground), non-harmful purposes, and so on. I called up my local FAA representative to formally announce my intentions and get some sort of "blessing" and I was quite literally laughed off of the phone. On the up side, it was not for money!

 Where are you? I have an idea. ~ RobRoy @

Incase you haven't seen. I am also looking into adding a drone to go along with our video business. Others have fought the FAA and won. They have no true regulations in place.

FS:  I am not sure this is accurate.  According to the link below, if an RC aircraft stays under 400ft, line-of-sight, and avoids noise nuisances and generally 'plays-it-safe' I believe you can shoot video (if whomever you are photographing agrees to it).  Where is the legislation against this?  Check out this FAA "Advisory Circular".  I believe there is a common misconceptions that people think Drones and UAS are the same thing.  The two are getting closer, but there are differences.

cameras + r/c aircraft under 5lbs within line-of-sight are not the issue - charging for the services thereof are. In the same fashion, having a private pilot's license and taking a few friends up vs charging people for a sight seeing tour may be practically the same thing, they have a very different tone to the regulators.

Wait.. Didn't I see a video by Chase Jarvis using a drone to shoot some video using the D7000 when it first came out? OOH Lucy, you in big trouble now!

I think this is silly. I understand if we (photographers) where flying an object that reaches high altitudes, but a few feet off the ground?

Chase, Disney, every production house in Hollywood, TV commercials, and the list goes on.  A lot of people and companies have chips on the table.  It is silly.  The FAA wont be able to keep up with the explosion of this industry until they stop focusing on shutting operations down and focus on making regulation happen faster.  Idiots.  

What's the cost of getting one of these certificates? And do you need one for each shoot?

I mean, if you're not caught during the shoot - I doubt anyone could prove it's been shot from a "drone".

You can't get a certificate unless you're a government agency or research facility and even then you can't accept money for flying.  They don't make it possible to comply.  That's the pain.  Won't happen until 2014-2015

Amazing how many laws and regulations come out on a daily, weekly, monthly basis around the world to "protect" us... Surprisingly enough, looks like we are all growing apart more and more, less and less communication, more issues between people, races, genders, religious groups... moral and human beliefs lead to other issues... 

I do not live in the US, and my country has it's own issues as every country, but seriously... i wonder if there is another country like the US in terms of "control Freak" and preventing people to just have minimal freedom with a bit of sanity. Are we going to pull out the "scare mode" argument ? someone could attack with a photo Heli ? take photos of critical sites ?? If only we could refocus on good human nature and remember that when babies and children... we are/were not like that... maybe that would remind us that our thoughts are based on beliefs and what our environment leads us to believe... we might then be able to reduce many laws, regulations, and crap from all over the place. 

Illegal to fly a quad with a camera on it in the US? Dang dude ... home of the free indeed. I think Davis DeLo got it about right (look for his statement above)

Another reason i'm really stoked to be living in South Africa

In this case FAA = Nazis. Sure they should be flown around flight paths ... but ... please!

The Government wants a monopoly with their drones

wow... thanks for the story and thanks for the comments here... I am learning lots

Could you have a 2nd "sacrificial" business that only covered the aerial photography? Or "give" the UAV to someone not in your employment and then use the photos they take, but that weern't taken by you or your company?

Does elevation matter? Does it make a difference if, for example, you are 20 feet verses 200 feet off the ground?

If I understand this correctly, it's OK to stick a camera on an r/c aircraft as long as 1. I'm not doing this as a business 2. I'm not being paid for it. I'd like to purchase that new Phantom copter this summer and stick my GoPro on it.

More comments