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Kara's Corner

You Gotta Fight for Your Right to Fly (Sometimes)

July 6, 2017

Well, not literally fight. When it comes to flying your drone, you may find your motives questioned by authority figures. If you’re abiding by regulations, standing your ground is an effective way to protect your rights as a remote pilot. I explore how to go about navigating your way through precarious situations.

I distinctly remember the moment I got my Phantom 4 Professional. It was a late Christmas gift to myself last year. I had a few hours of spare time the day I received it via courier and decided to fly over the colorful Port Oakland crates near my home. As I was setting up outside the facilities, a local security officer stopped me and said it wasn’t permitted. I argued it was as I was standing on a public road. Who was right?

As it turns out, I was near Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, part of the East Bay Regional District where drone operations are prohibited, but not physically standing in the vicinity. I could have pointed this out but because I didn’t have a strong Wi-Fi connection, there was no way to effectively illustrate my point to someone unfamiliar with the laws governing UAVs. I ended up waiting until he left and then drove a half-mile down the road to a new public space. My point: luckily I still managed to get the shots I wanted but could have been more prepared.

Port of Oakland

You can fly over the colorful crates and other array of machinery that populates Port of Oakland. Be wary of where you take off and land.

When there’s doubt, print it out

One of the most compelling arguments I’ve seen for flying a drone in a questionable area came the way of a Facebook group I recommend everyone join, UAV Legal News & Discussion. In a recent post, drone pilot David Michael Butts relayed the details of an encounter with National Park Service (NPS) rangers.

Butts was flying his drone over Fort McHenry, a national park. However, since he had taken off from a public city street, while maintaining visual line-of-sight (VLOS), he was in the right. It was just a matter of proving his point to the NPS rangers who had requested his ID, which he declined to provide.

Butts was polite but also determined not to back down in the face of interrogation. The ranger informed him he wasn’t allowed to fly on NPS property. Butts acknowledged this was correct. Since he was standing on a public sidewalk belonging to the City of Baltimore, he was not breaking any laws. The ranger challenged him and that’s when Butts pulled out a printed copy of a 2014 memorandum to back up his point. That should have been the end of their discussion.

Here’s where things get interesting: a second ranger joined the conversation and attempted to discredit Butts with the assertion that he was flying out of line of sight. “Incorrect, I could see my drone at all times and even regularly looked below as to not fly directly over people.” When challenged on his merits even further, the argument was finally concluded with a simple question. “Have you ever flown a drone, sir?” “No.”

There are two lessons to glean from this encounter. If you’re flying near any area that is protected or off limits, such as a national park, it’s important to have a physical copy of documentation supporting your position, should you get questioned. Secondly, if you’re challenged, remain polite and levelheaded. State that you are maintaining VLOS, not flying over people or moving vehicles, and maintaining an above-ground-level height of 400 feet maximum.

While both my encounter with a security officer and David’s with the national park rangers ended without incident, things could have gone differently. Cussing, screaming, or showing any general lack of respect to an authority figure could potentially carry a fine or land you in jail. Arguing facts in a calm, succinct manner will not only help educate those not as familiar with this burgeoning industry, it’ll help improve the public’s perception of drones and their operators.

Images: Kara E. Murphy.


Kara Murphy is a Part 107-certified remote pilot and writer based in Midwest.Follow her on Instagram for her more artistic aerial imagery, find out how to hire her here.

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