Above Napa Valley


It really takes very little to become hooked on all this UAV stuff... Of course the learning curve for a complete and utter noob such as myself has been immense, but the payoff has been equally so. Being able to send my stock 3DR soaring above a sun-baked vineyard and have it return with a treasure trove of images including one like this, make all the time, frustration and money completely worth it!

Thanks to all of the developers, testers and enthusiasts that are making this possible. I'm looking forward to my continued education in the world of UAVs and upgrading my gear soon to be able to send my pro gear soaring. 


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  • Several points:

    1. The FAA will haul Jason to court quite easily- they are part of the federal government. Ask someone busted for shining lasers into the cockpits of passing airliners how they feel about the FAA's ability to affect someone without a pilot's license. This issue has been brought up many times before here- trust me, you don't want to "poke the bear". Further, all it's going to take is a couple morons to ruin this hobby for everyone. The first time a hobbyist UAV hits a commercial airliner they'll bring down the hammer. Many FAA regulations are written in blood. If the FAA suspects someone is conducting commercial operations they will either contact local law enforcement or fly down and pay a visit. They will investigate thoroughly and find out exactly where that picture was taken. They take commercial operations very seriously.

    2. Even with a Special Airworthiness Certificate (or under a COA for that matter) you cannot conduct commercial operations such as aerial photography or surveying; it is only valid for research, market survey, or crew training (per FAA Order 8130.34A).

    3. The FAA has jurisdiction over all airspace over the US and within 12 nautical miles of the shore, excluding nonjoint use restricted/prohibited/warning area airspace (various, including 7110.65U I believe). So basically anywhere in the US that you are flying, if it's on land, and not in an area that the military uses to drop bombs, is somewhere that is in the "NAS".

    4. If FREEFLY CINEMA is using an unmanned aircraft commercially for purposes other than research, market survey or crew training, and they do not hold an experimental airworthiness certificate, then they are breaking the law. Per the Interim Operational Approval Guidance 08-01 document the FAA holds a very broad definition for Unmanned Aircraft:

    "A device used or intended to be used for flight in the air that has no onboard pilot. This includes all classes of airplanes, helicopters, airships, and translational lift aircraft that have no onboard pilot. Unmanned aircraft are understood to include only those aircraft controllable in three axes and therefore, exclude traditional balloons".

    So- even R/C aircraft, with no autopilot, operated commercially, are not permitted

  • Thank you Jason for the picture :)

    I'm in awe when I read the comments tho. The question of 'illegal' usage from 10 meters high arose quickly, until Skydog statements. Interesting, but as the situation seems almost impossible/ridiculous, I wondered. Perhaps we can have some more precisions as to my thoughts/findings there?

    First, how could FAA sue Jason for that picture in any ways if he does not advertise that it was taken from his UAV in the first place? The picture could have well been taken from a high vantage point. From a ladder. From a roof. From a tree. From a stick. All those, defined by a common denominator: 'feet' on the ground. Now, onwards: this picture could have been taken by aiming high and toss the (expensive) camera in the air and pray for a good picture (and a shock proof case). Denominator there: not touching the ground anymore.

    The problem is the definition of this 'national airspace'.

    Would everyone then technically be using national airspace just by being on the surface of this (part of) planet? So one cannot take a picture while standing and use it commercially? What if one walks on a grounded UAV and takes a picture? Or does one need to 'fly'? What if one jumps in the air and takes the picture? Would this be illegal?

    I went onwards to FAA website and got a copy of http://www.faa.gov/library/manuals/aviation/instrument_flying_handb...

    Very interesting for nooby me.

    There seem to be this definition of 'national airspace', quite complicated, and ranked in categories. A, B, C, D, E, G ... The figure 8.1 at 8-3 is quite informative but the text before it also...

    Some parts of 'national airspace' do not start however from sea/ground level. I wonder... What category of national airspace was mentionned by the restriction of FAA for the commercial imaging on UAVs usage?

    Is there an exclusive condition as in if 'planes' are not allowed to fly under 100 meters on some zones uavs taking pictures from -100 meters for commercial usage be legal then?

  • Jason,  

    Excellent photo!  Great job on getting your quad up in the air to bring back such beautiful imagery!  Isn’t it such a rewarding feeling to see it in action and then get these results! 


    You are correct in warning Jason of the pitfall that awaits him if he sells any imagery captured with his UAV.  Right now, the FAA sees it as a very black or white line.  If you sell anything that was captured from a UAV (captured with or without the initial intent to sell the imagery) flying in the national airspace, you will fall on the commercial side of the line and it is illegal.  As a result, you can be fined or go to jail.  If you intend to operate as a hobbyist, you can only post pictures or video for other to enjoy, but cannot sell anything that was captured in the air with a UAV.  Then and only then will you fall on the hobby side of the line and be allowed to operate the UAV under the recreational exception and within the limitations of that exception (think AMA rules).


    There is presently only one way for a commercial entity to legally fly a UAV in the national airspace and that is to get a special airworthiness certificate for each airframe they intend to fly.  That is, each individual airframe, not airframe type.  Last I checked, this process cost on the order of $10,000 and you will still have to operate under similar restrictions as Experimental Aircraft do.  There will also be a few additional restrictions added because it is an unmanned vehicle (for example, always within visual range of a qualified observer).


    In the past, people were able to get away with using hobby helicopters for aerial photography because they were barely a blip on the FAA’s radar (not literally of course).  The FAA use to turn a blind eye to these operations because there were no regulations to govern the use of unmanned vehicles flying in the national airspace and there were relatively few people doing this.  But now that the FAA is deep in the process of creating and releasing these regulations and the number of people that are now able to operate UAV’s for commercial use is on the rise, they are cracking down on any commercial use of UAVs.

    The only people that can legally fly UAV’s in the national airspace with special authorization are public entities such as public universities, police, fire, and many other public organizations.  The best reasoning that I have heard behind only letting public entities fly under a certificate of authorization (COA) and not commercial entities all comes back to liability.  The FAA is willing to allow a public entity to carry the liability of flying a UAV in the national airspace, but is not willing to allow commercial entities to carry that liability yet.  It will be a few years before commercial operations are allowed in the national airspace.  It is the unfortunate situation we must live with short term.


    So Jason, please be careful with the pictures you post and more importantly, the connections you make with your company.  Try not to blur the line between your commercial photographs and those that you are just posting from the hobby side of your life for others to enjoy.  The more clear this separation, the less likely you are to find yourself in a bad situation.


    Again, great job getting your quad up and flying and sharing the successful fruits of your hobby with us!  Keep it flying!



    My guess is guys at Free Fly Cinema are most likely operating illegally.  Unless they have obtained a special airworthiness certificate for each of their airframes, they are not legally allowed to fly in the national airspace for commercial use.  I guess they have just been lucky so far or have operated outside of the US to obtain their commercial footage.  Although I would suggest they watch out over the next few years, as I had stated earlier, things are changing quick and you cannot just get away with doing what you use to do!    




  • Developer

    I like to stay at Indian Springs in Calistoga because the unused Glider Port is an excellent area to fly. I did a 5km Easy Star flight there 2 years ago with the original Ardupilot and IR sensors. Seems like ages since I've been able to fly a plane. 


  • Lukas, 

    I too, have wondered how some of the aerial production companies that are providing commercial work are able to do it. Are they simply tempting fate?! Sounds like it.

    When I was looking into a system to build and learn for the sake of aerial photography, the owner of a US based UAV distributor told me, "Commercial use of these craft is illegal in the US, so instead, charge for your work on the ground and not in the air." 

    Guessing there are folks that don't care or have the bankroll to put up a fight should it show up on their doorstep. 

  • Seth, Looks like I posted just as your reply was in queue so you certainly provided an answer to my questions about selling aerial photos for stock use. I should have perhaps qualified my statement about being "familiar" with the regulation because I'm certainly not as familiar as you are. I sincerely thank you for your insight and willingness to educate me and others within this sphere. You certainly embody the spirit of open source community, so thank you!

    As you can gather, the spirit of my post was that of sheer excitement in being able to realize the fruits of several month's of work. Finally a quasi stable flight, delicious light and one photo to show for it, which, truth be told, is not completely stock worthy for any site; it's something akin to a Maaco paint job - good - but from no less than 15' away :) 

    I truly appreciate learning about yet another facet of this wildly interesting community, and look forward to being well versed one day to provide education in-kind. 

  • Seth, Good insight. Is it difficult to obtain the requisite authorization to fly commercially? For example, I've seen companies like this: http://www.freeflycinema.com/ pop up quite frequently on various video production blogs I read. I assume that they are properly licensed. Hopefully the FAA regs come out soon and are friendly to UAV enthusiasts. 

    Jason, the photo looks amazing! Great work.  You pose an interesting question about defining "commercial use" of the UAV. For example, if you shot some photos from the UAV while enjoying it as a hobby, and then later decided that the photos might be commercially valuable, your operation of the UAV itself wasn't "for hire" and you would not hav received compensation. However, my guess is that if you flew the UAV with the intention of taking commercial photographs, it would probably be more likely to qualify as prohibited (for the time being) commercial use. Of course, this is complete speculation. I'm sure a lot of members of this community have offered more accurate and comprehensive guidance on this. I'm interested to hear what others have to say. 

  • He also states that "clients in the industry" allow him to fly on their properties, and that he is "not a believer in being easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission." He sounds risk averse, so he should know the risks. There's a big need for education in this field right now, and all I'm trying to do is keep the FAA off people's backs, and away from regulating away this hobby.

  • Seth, 

    Thanks for the info. I am familiar with the restriction and I can see how my post may have seemed commercial in nature, especially by tagging on my business info. As Greg clarified, I was just referring to having friends on the inside that let me practice on their property.

    Now the real question is, I also own a stock photo agency - could I sell aerial images I took while flying, even though I wasn't hired to do so by anyone??? My company sells the rights to my pictures for commercial and editorial use. Would that be tempting fate or breaking the law?

    Would love to hear anyone's opinion on this. 



  • He does have a stock photography website with a large number of photos from the Napa Valley. It wouldn't be a stretch of the imagination that some images from a UAS flight would make it on there. That would be illegal, and open him up to legal action from the FAA. If you are familiar with existing FAA regulations regarding commercial operations, common carriage, and "holding out", its not hard to imagine their view of images available for sale and their response. DIYDrones gets a lot of views, some certainly from the FAA.

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