Drone Safety Is Good Business
By K. Daniel Glover
The timing of this week’s inaugural National Drone Safety Awareness Week is perfect from my perspective as a drone pilot. It comes right after my first FAA-approved flight inside what is usually a no-fly zone in controlled airspace.
The operation reinforced to me the agency’s commitment to integrating drones into the national airspace system in ways that help aerial photographers like me, all while still demanding safety as the top priority. I know the rules, appreciate the rationale behind them and willingly follow them because drone safety matters.
My side gig as a drone pilot started slowly in January 2017, partly by choice and partly because of regulatory limitations. I was cautious about flying because I was new to the field, but as a Northern Virginia resident, I also couldn’t fly close to home without getting specific airspace authorizations that weren’t readily available back then.
After getting some flight experience in less congested airspace, I turned my attention to building a business. I landed my first client by happenstance on a visit to a favorite farmer’s market in Winchester, Virginia. Then I created an online portfolio, listed my company on Google My Business and started business accounts on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.
The first unsolicited call came a couple of months later. The team in a local government office wanted a unique retirement gift for a colleague – aerial photographs of her family farm, which at one time had been targeted for development into a commuter parking lot. The property was close to the no-fly zone around Washington, D.C., so I checked the aeronautical charts at SkyVector to confirm that I could fly without an airspace authorization. Then I arranged to fly on a chilly January day when the soon-to-be-retiree wasn’t home.
The client liked the photographs so much that she proposed a follow-up barter deal – aerial photographs of her family’s cabin at Leesville Lake in exchange for a vacation there. We closed that deal in the summer of 2018 and had a splendid summer break on the lake. Life as a part-time drone pilot was sweet!
In between those two jobs, I received my first airspace authorization to fly at pre-determined altitudes in Manassas, Virginia, based on how close I was to the airport. Then in fall 2018, the FAA deployed the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability in our region, automating the process of getting airspace authorizations.
Both the manual and automated systems created a marketing opportunity for me. I started taking aerial photos of our city, posting the snapshots to social media and strategically tagging potential clients in the posts to introduce my brand in the community. This outreach opened the door to new business opportunities.
The first came this past spring after I renewed my pilot certification. Historic Manassas Inc., the nonprofit that runs Manassas Museum, hired me to capture night footage of an arts event called One Love. I had obtained an FAA waiver to fly at night soon after getting my remote pilot certificate, but I had to refresh my knowledge of night illusions and train a visual observer in the same way in order to fly at One Love. I also had to get a new airspace authorization for the Manassas area so I could link my night waiver to it.
The project required multiple safety precautions once on site. To capture footage of people on the lawn of Manassas Museum spelling out the word “Love,” for instance, we had to cordon off a flight zone big enough to keep both the participants and curious onlookers away from the drone. We coordinated with Historic Manassas personnel to provide crowd control so we could focus on flying safely in challenging conditions.
Wind kicked up the day of the event, but it settled enough by evening for us to get video before dusk and photos in both daylight and night conditions. I added some b-roll footage from the city and royalty-free music to produce my first aerial video for a client – another milestone.
By that point, the City of Manassas was a fan of my aerial photography, having liked, shared and retweeted several of my social media posts. This summer, the city’s Parks, Culture and Recreation Division hired me to shoot photos and video of all 16 of its parks.
Most of the parks were far enough away from Manassas Regional Airport that I could fly at least 200 feet high and up to the maximum 400 feet at several locations by using the automated airspace authorization system. But two of the parks were close to the airport and required extra effort to be able to fly.
I researched both sites online and in person before flying at them. I wanted to gauge where they were in relation to airport traffic.
I went to Lee Manor Park first. Although it’s just a few tennis courts surrounded by trees, it is in the airport departure or arrival route, depending on the traffic pattern any given day. I was able to get an automated airspace approval to fly at Lee Manor Park, but ran into a new challenge – unlocking the virtual software boundary my drone manufacturer built around the area.
Once I mastered the unlocking process, I put the drone in the air. Only one airplane flew directly over the park during our operation. My visual observer gave me plenty of warning, and I descended to treetop level to provide an extra cushion of airspace for the plane.
Our subsequent flight at Cannon Branch Park and Earthwork Fort, a Civil War site, required another first for me. The park is in a zero zone on the grid map that underlies LAANC, so I had to go through the FAADroneZone for a manual review. After soliciting advice from other drone pilots on how to frame such a request, I submitted it.
Six days later, the FAA cleared me to fly under the safety mitigations I outlined. Those included flying no higher than 100 feet, keeping the drone within 500 feet of the pilot, and using two visual observers (one to scan the sky for aircraft and one to focus on the drone and terrain). The authorization also required us to alert the air traffic control tower before starting operations and after completing them.
Air traffic wasn’t much of an issue the day we flew. The park is northeast of the runway, and all but one of the planes taking off continued straight past the park or turned west. I descended to treetop level when one plane flew our direction.
Hours after National Drone Safety Awareness Week kicked off on Monday, I met with a local real-estate photographer to discuss a partnership for some of his future projects. His clients have sold properties near Dulles International Airport, one of the nation’s busiest, and inside the Flight Restricted Zone for the Washington, D.C., region. I’ll have to get clearance from not only the FAA but also the Transportation Security Administration for the latter.
That will be my next course in drone safety awareness. I look forward to passing it.
This article originally appeared on the FAA’s internal website as part of National Drone Safety Awareness Week. It was reprinted here with permission.