DennisBeaverJune 4, 2016 • By Dennis Beaver

“I am a real estate broker and am considering buying a camera drone for business and entertainment purposes, then posting videos on YouTube,” Peter wrote.

“This gives buyers a realistic view of properties: farms, orchards, commercial buildings, and homes, showing next-door neighbors, the surrounding neighborhood, shopping facilities, streets and highways.

“My entertainment idea is to provide a peek into the lifestyles and residences of some of the very successful people living here in our quaint Northern California town. We have many old, lovely homes with beautiful gardens that are hidden away from sight that I’m sure the public would enjoy seeing.

“We would fly the drone at an elevation of 1,000 feet or more so that no one would be aware of its presence. There are a lot of people who would be fascinated by what goes on in the backyards of some of the wealthiest people in town. I’ve seen similar things on television and online. As I don’t know much about drones and want to stay within the law, your help would be greatly appreciated.”

“It’s a good thing that your reader took the time to write you, Dennis, as what he has in mind could easily land him in hot water with the federal government — and wind up getting sued civilly,” Minneapolis-based attorney Ted Dorenkamp told You and the Law. Considered as one of the nation’s leading experts in drone law, he is concerned about the many incorrect notions regarding these unmanned aircraft.

“A lot of people believe that you can buy a drone, fly it just about anywhere, making and selling videos along the way. That is not at all correct,” he cautions, adding, “So, before buying a drone, you must ask these questions.”

1. Is it for recreational or commercial purposes?

“Using a drone to take videos or photographs for your own personal use is considered recreational. However, if you are being paid, or plan to sell what is depicted in the video-even if the amount of compensation is small, for example, posting on YouTube, this is a commercial use and you would have to apply for a Section 333 Exemption through the FAA. This takes from three to six months for approval, and approval is not automatic” he notes.

“It would even be a commercial use to use a drone to inspect your own crops or any property you have on the market.”

2. Does it weigh more than half a pound? If so, it must be registered with the FAA.

3. Does it have auto return-home capability, so that it will return to you in the event signal is lost or its battery runs down? This is an absolutely essential feature.

4. Does it have automatic obstacle avoidance technology? You don’t want your first crash to be the last one with that expensive drone.

As drones are unmanned aircraft, they are subject to restrictions on where they can be flown. The B4UFLY smartphone app provides information on flight area restrictions. Dorenkamp lists the following limitations:

  • No higher than 400 feet, within your eyesight at all times and only fly during daylight hours.
  • Remain clear of and not interfere with manned aircraft.
  • Not intentionally flown over people or moving vehicles.
  • Without permission from the control tower, do not fly within 5 miles of an airport.
  • Do not fly over power stations, water treatment facilities, prisons or heavily traveled roadways. 
  • Check local rules.

Recall that our Northern California reader wants to fly his drone “at an elevation of 1,000 feet or more,” and is confident that what goes on in the backyards of “some of the wealthiest people in town” would be of real interest to his YouTube viewers.

“It would also be of real interest to the Feds–for flying the drone at an illegal attitude — and the D.A. or city attorney in California and many states as it’s an invasion of privacy to use a camera drone to take pictures of someone under circumstances in which they had a reasonable expectation of privacy,” Dorenkamp points out.

“How much this could cost our reader?” we asked.

“He could face fines or other penalties from the FAA, depending on the nature of the violation. In California, the penalty ranges from $5,000 to $50,000,” he replied.

You and the Law wants readers to understand that if your drone does crash and causes property damage or personal injury, do not assume homeowners insurance will cover you. However, for recreational owners, joining the Academy of Model Aeronautics — $75 a year — provides $2.5 million dollars of general liability protection.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.