The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) generally prohibits small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) flight operations within 500 feet from all persons, vessels, vehicles, and structures. However, closer-in operations of sUAS been approved in varying degrees depending on whether the person is a direct participant. Typically, the FAA has allowed sUAS operations within 500 feet from direct participants and without minimum distance requirements in the closed-set filming context. However, recent FAA Section 333 exemptions have expanded applications for operations within 500 feet of direct participants.
For example, a California-based ski-videography company, Cape Productions, received a Section 333 exemption to fly its sUAS to record videos of participant skiers in action closer than 500 feet – similar to the motion picture exemptions. However, the FAA held that although the sUAS could fly over those operating the sUAS (such as the Pilot in Command and the visual observer) the ski-drones could not fly over the skiers/participants or operate within 500 feet of non-participants unless barriers or structures were present to protect them from the sUAS and/or debris or hazardous materials in the event of an accident.
Those seeking to obtain similar exemptions for their sUAS should be prepared to identify factors that mitigate any risks posed by sUAS flying closer than 500 feet to participants/non-participants. Specifically, the FAA would be more likely to approve an exemption request to fly sUAS closer than 500 feet to participants and without a minimum distant requirement if, at minimum, the following factors were present:
- Security Briefings and Consent: Everyone associated with the operation must be briefed on the potential risks of the operation and acknowledge/consent to those risks.
- Plan of Activities: At least 24 hours prior to each operation, the company must submit a written plan to the applicable FAA Flight Standards District Office.
- Operations Manual: The manual must include the following—the operator’s contact information, distribution and revision information, persons authorized, plan of activities, permission to operate, security methodology, briefing instructions, flight personnel minimum requirements, communications information, and accident notification plan.
- Separately, with respect to “micro” UAS that weigh less than 250 grams (roughly half a pound) and able to break or yield on impact, given their low risk to safety, an FAA rulemaking committee has recommended that these UAS be allowed to operate over participants and non-participants alike.