The Location Manager’s Guide to Drones
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With drones now commonplace in the industry, Location Managers have the difficult task of knowing where drones can be flown and how to get in front of the issues that can arise when using drones for filming. With turnaround times as short as two weeks, it’s important to look for red flags upfront that may cause problems when it comes time to shoot.
The first thing to know is that no matter their job function at the time, drones are an aviation tool and are regulated accordingly by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration). The FAA has several standard regulations to be aware of.
Here’s an overview:
It is important to note that these laws are important for the safety and structure of national airspace, but waivers for these rules can be requested by licensed drone operators on a case by case basis. When you see a red flag, contact your drone operator as soon as possible for guidance.
Red Flags for Drone Filming:
Airport within a 5-mile radius
Filming at a prison
Military base in the area
School in the area
In many circumstances, proper permissions can be achieved, but the last thing you want to do is to choose a location only to find out that you won’t be able to fly the drone afterward.
“The last thing you want to happen is the Director chooses the one prison you scouted, for instance, that doesn’t allow drones. Then you’re stuck,” says Beth Melnick, Location Scout Manager for Northlight Locations. She advises scouts to pick up the phone at the first sign of an issue:
“As soon as you see a red flag, call your drone operator.”
In addition to federal regulations (more details here), states, cities, and local municipalities often have their own regulations that go above and beyond the FAA’s requirements.
When scouting a location, keep the following in mind:
Timing of the Shoot
With limited time to prep for a shoot, ask yourself important questions early.
- Looking to catch the magic hour? You will need a Nighttime Waiver.
- Want to shoot downtown? Plan carefully; flying over people requires a special waiver.
- Is your perfect location outside next to an airport or government building? You’ll need a waiver to fly in a restricted airspace.
- Tip: Use https://app.airmap.io/ to check airspace for your location
Some waivers can take up to 4 months to process!
If your drone shot is at the beginning of filming and you’re going to need a waiver, it may not come in time. Applying for waivers can be a taxing process and are never guaranteed. We suggest consulting with an experienced drone cinematographer as early as possible whenever aerial shots are desired.
Some FAA-certified aerial filming companies, like M2 Aerials, have already obtained waivers that stay with them, such as a nighttime flying waiver. This means they don’t need to apply for a waiver for your job; the waiver is good for any otherwise-approved job in the U.S. Drone operators can also request near real-time processing of airspace authorization for locations that are part of the FAA’s LAANC system (Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability). Confirm these permissions with your drone pilot.
The Location of the Set
You can quickly assess the ease or difficulty with which you will be able to use a drone for filming by the type of scene location.
Urban settings require the most consideration and preparation. The most inhibiting federal regulation for using a drone in urban environment is the restriction on flying over people who are not part of the operation. Due to the highly populated nature of cities, this makes filming especially difficult.
For veterans of the industry, it is good practice to think of flying a drone in the same way you think of flying a helicopter. Make the same provisions such as clearing the streets. If a helicopter could shoot the scene legally, so can the drone.
The other inhibitor to urban filming via drone is privacy laws. If you’re going to be flying over skyscrapers or commercial buildings, you must first obtain permission from the building owner. Most major cities have their own regulations and codes for UAV operations, some stricter than others. Washingon D.C. is a strict No Fly Zone. If using a drone for filming anywhere in or near Los Angeles, you have to obtain a permit first from the L.A. Film Commission. To use a drone on state property, apply with the California Film Commission here. New York City’s air map is complex; if shooting in NYC, contact your drone operator to be sure you will not be hit with fines.
“A lot of people want to fly on 42nd street, but that kind of shoot is so limited,” says Jeff Caron, NYC-based DGA Location Manager & Part 107 Certified Drone Operator. “It has less to do with airspace and more to do with flying over people.”
He goes on to recommend,
“If your ideal location has multiple red flags, call your drone pilot right away and talk through it. Oftentimes, creative strategies can be formulated to accomplish the vision.”
See more location-specific details on our Location Manager’s Drone Cheat Sheet.
Generally speaking, the further away you are from a metropolitan area, the easier the process will be. However, you still must be conscious of privacy laws and restricted airspace. If you’re using someone’s private property for filming, be sure to inform them and their neighbors of the use of a drone when you acquire permissions. There has been more than one instance of drones being shot from the sky from property owners wary of its purpose above their home.
Also, you’ll want to confirm that there are not any small or private airports, or other sensitive areas (military bases, prisons, etc) within a 5-mile radius before booking the site, as drone use may be prohibited.
Although the complexity of federal and local drone laws can feel overwhelming, creativity and an experienced drone pilot are your most useful tools in getting the shot you want.
Talk to our team of drone operators to see what can be done to achieve your vision.