Commercial Drone Jobs – Risk, and the Pressure to say Yes when you need to say NO

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If you are operating your drone for hire, the FAA designates you, the holder of the Remote Pilot certificate, as the Pilot in Command of the aircraft, which means you are directly responsible for and have the final authority over the operation of the drone (FAR 107.19 (b)). This can have serious legal ramifications down the road if your drove is involved in an accident, which is why you need to learn how to recognize when you are being pushed beyond your comfort level or abilities by a paying client.

The pressure to fly in a dangerous or risky manner can be huge, and it can be easy to cave in to that pressure. When someone is offering to pay you hundreds, or even thousands of dollars to fly your drone around, how can you possibly say no? If you tell them you are not comfortable with the situation, will they reconsider hiring you and call up your competitor? If they are a repeat client, will this cause them to discontinue using your services?

It gets even harder to draw the line when you have already arrived on location and have to tell them it might not work out. Will they be upset that they have used their previous resources in vain to set up the shoot? Will they hold you responsible for money they spent to arrange the shoot?

Think like a Lawyer, then like a Pilot, and finally like a Business Person

Welcome to the life of a commercial aviator! Time to think like a lawyer, and then like a pilot, and finally, like a business man or woman.

Whether I am the Remote Pilot in Command of my DJI Inspire or the Pilot in Command of a real airplane, at the end of the day, it’s my name that is on the line. If the FAA catches you, or something is damaged or someone gets hurt, the FAA will look to the person whose name is on the certificate, and they could penalize you. If anyone takes you to court, the court will also reference that law you will be held responsible.

(Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer! You should probably speak to a lawyer before breathing, eating, moving, or talking these days)

So, what are some examples of situations in which a client might try to get you to do something dangerous or illegal?

  • You don’t have an FAA Remote Pilot certificate (learn about it here)
  • The client wants you to fly higher than 400 feet AGL above a corn field
  • The client wants you to fly near the end of a runway at a small, untowered airport
  • The client wants you to fly 2-3 feet over the heads of a group of people at a wedding or concert, and everyone attending has given consent saying it is OK to do so
  • The client wants you to film a speedboat cruising fast down a wide river while you are controling the drone from an adjacent, fast-moving speedboat
  • The client wants you to fly the drone a mile and a half away to inspect a structure
  • The client wants you to fly at night above a rural area
  • The client wants you to fly 50 feet above the freeway while flying in the direction of traffic

Notice that some of these examples are illegal, of these examples ARE legal. The FAA say that it is legal for me to take off from an airport in the middle of the night in a tiny Cessna 172 when fog is so thick that I can’t see my hand in front of my face. Just because something is legal DOES NOT mean it is smart or safe to do it.

Recall what I said about how it is time to think like a pilot. When you learn to fly an airplane, a major emphasis is placed expecting emergencies to happen and doing everything you can, to a reasonable extent, to be prepared for them. This means that we always leave an out. Flying above an ocean or a large lake? Fly high enough so that if your engine fails, you can glide to shore. Flying across the state to visit family? Carry enough fuel on board to reach your pre-determined alternate airport in case the weather at your destination deteriorates. Ever wonder why almost every commercial airliner has at least 2 engines?

Expect failures, so when they occur, you are ready. Something to consider: when the pilots flying you and your family on vacation are zooming down the runway on take off, just moments before, they reviewed their actions for WHEN an unexpected failure occurs on takeoff and they are practically just waiting for it to happen. Their plan A is respond to an emergency; their plan B is a regular, uneventful takeoff. Thankfully they almost always get to go with plan B!

Not IF, but WHEN

If you take nothing else away from this article, I hope it is this mindset that all safe and responsible aviators share: It is not IF something is going to go wrong, but WHEN. 

One of these days, one of your motors is going to fail, or the signal between your controller and the drone is going to cut out unexpectedly. Maybe there is a very small hairline fracture in one of your props (when is the last time you cleaned and went over your props with a microscope?), or maybe your drone’s plastic frame is forming tiny cracks? Perhaps your battery malfunctions, and the drone stops flying? When one of these things happens, you will thank yourself for making sure you were prepared, whether that means you had set your return home point at a safe location, or whether that means the drone is a safe distance away from people or busy streets.

Inevitably, we will always be exposed to some kind of risk. At the very least, taking off and hovering any more than a foot or so off the ground is putting you at the risk of wrecking your drone, which means every job out there that is worth hiring a drone operator for will create this financial risk. Thus, the goal is to do everything we can, to a reasonable extent, to limit risk to our drone only. Experienced and/or arrogant drone or RC pilots out there may be rolling their eyes, but again, we need to think like lawyers, pilots, and prudent business people. Bad things WILL happen, so don’t find yourself in a situation you can’t get out of when they do happen.

“Okay, sure Michael, this all sounds good on paper. But I just checked out your portfolio and you fly over all kinds of structures, roads, and cars all the time, you hypocrite!” Woah! You’re getting ahead of me. I will try to move this along.

Risk Assessment

Yes – there are many applications out there that will take our drones over roads, homes, cars, buildings, and even people (If you must do this, only do this legally! check FAR Part 107.39). This is when you need to do a quick risk assessment. Here is what I ask myself:

  1. Is this Legal as per FAR 107 or do I have a valid waiver for it? If you get that funny feeling that what you are being asked to do might put others in danger, just refer to FAR 107.39 which states that no person may operate a drone in a careless or reckless manner that endangers life or property.
  2. Am I insured? Does my insurance cover this kind of operation? (remember, insurance companies aren’t likely to pay out a claim if you were not operating legally, so confirm question #1)
  3. If my drone suddenly dies in midair and drops like a rock (or like a projectile if I was just hauling at 40mph), what is the worst that can happen? Will my lifeless drone slam into the windshield of a car on the freeway, causing a mass accident? Will my drone splinter into bits as it lands on the rocks or sidewalk? Will it hit someone in the head?
  4. How much am I being compensated? If I completely wreck my drone, was it in an effort to make $1,000 or $150? In other words, is there enough hazard pay at the end of the tunnel to make it worth the risk? Be sure to consider upcoming work, and how losing your drone might cause you to lose out on revenue in the near future.
  5. Finally, assess the overall situation.  Am I relaxed, or stressed for any reason? Am I choosing to fly this because I feel like I can do it safely, or is my client pushing me beyond my comfort limits? Have I already compromised safety to get the shot, and will this next action compound the risk? Am I being rushed, and possibly overlooking something? If you want to do a risk assessment like we do in airplanes, follow the PAVE model:
    1. P – Pilot: Am I healthy? Have I flown recently? Any alcohol in my body? Am I fatigued?
    2. A – Aircraft: Has it been inspected for flight? Are all components secure? Has everything been double checked? Are batteries charged and in good condition?
    3. V – enVironment: Is the weather nice enough? Are you near an airport, TFR, or a no-fly zone? Any hazardous obstacles nearby, such as power lines or trees?? 
    4. E – External Pressures: Is your client pressuring you?


So, returning to the original list of examples, lets apply what has been discussed:

  • You don’t have an FAA Remote Pilot certificate (learn about it here).
    • NOT LEGAL. Don’t do it.
  • The client wants you to fly higher than 400 feet AGL above a corn field.
    • NOT LEGAL. Don’t do it. (side note: 99% of the jobs I have worked would not have benefited in any significant way if I were allowed to exceed 400 ft AGL. I always reassure my clients that 400 feet is surprisingly high)
  • The client wants you to fly near the end of a runway at a small, untowered airport.
    • POSSIBLY LEGAL (check airspace), but airplanes may be flying very low, and landing or taking off.  Again, this could fall under FAR 107.39. Contrary to what many pro-drone folks think, a pilot will have a hard time seeing and avoiding a drone because drones are very small and pilots are moving (relatively) very fast. And, when taking off or landing, pilots are flying within thin margins: low and slow. The last thing I want to deal with when I am flying my airplane 200 feet above the ground, flying 5 knots above the speed at which I will fall to the earth, is a drone being flown by a someone who ‘didn’t think it was a big deal’ to fly near an airport.
  • The client wants you to fly 2-3 feet over the heads of a group of people at a wedding or concert, and everyone attending has given consent saying it is OK to do so.
    • NOT LEGAL. FAR 107.39 states that if you are flying over anyone who is not under some kind of protection, those people must be directly participating in the operation of the drone. Concert attendees or wedding guests are not directly participating in the operation of the drone. Also, FAR 107.23 states that no person may operate a drone in a careless or reckless manner that endangers life or property. Four to eight 5-inch+ diameter propellor blades spinning at 9,000 RPM just a few feet above people’s heads seems reckless to me!
  • The client wants you to film a speedboat cruising fast down a wide river while you are controling the drone from an adjacent, fast-moving speedboat.
    • LEGAL, but it can be difficult and hazardous. The are A LOT of questions you need to answer beforehand, which may include:
      • How often are you able to pause and assess the new environment into which your boat has driven?
      • Are you able to keep an eye out for bridges, other boats, power lines, and other hazards?
      • Have you established a set of procedures in case your drone has a problem?
      • Have you calculated estimated ground speed based on wind speed and direction and compared it to the planned cruising speed of the boats? Do the boat drivers know and understand this limitation?
  • The client wants you to fly the drone a mile and a half away to inspect a structure
    • NOT LEGAL. You must maintain visual line-of-sight without anything other than glasses, and a drone flying 1.5 miles away will not be visible.
  • The client wants you to fly at night above a rural area
    • NOT LEGAL. Flying at night is prohibited. 
  • The client wants you to fly 50 feet above the freeway while flying in the direction of traffic.
    • Recall FAR 107.23 which states that no person may operate a drone in a careless or reckless manner that endangers life or property. Flying a drone fairly low over a bunch of fast moving cars might violate this rule. Will drivers become distracted? What if your drone’s battery dies and it plummets into traffic? Is there another way to capture the shot – maybe flying parallel to the highway?

(Again, I am not a lawyer, but the rules under Part 107 are pretty self-explanatory. When in doubt, think conservatively – or ask your lawyer!)

Time to wrap this up. Here is a quick recap, and some final things to consider:

  • You are the legal Pilot in Command, and all responsibility falls onto you when things go wrong or if you get caught breaking the rules. The FAA considers your drone an aircraft, and you shouldn’t take that lightly.
  • You are running a business. You need to weigh the possible costs with each decision you make. “If I crash the drone, how much will it cost to replace it? How much additional revenue will I lose because I don’t have equipment available for the job?” Don’t let ego get in the way of making smart decisions.
  • I have seen arrogant drone pilots working on a job and bragging about “pushing the limits” and flying dangerously and recklessly, and even poking fun at people who choose to be safe. That is stupid. Don’t be that guy. You will not gain respect, and it will catch up to you, possibly costing you alot of money. What is worse, it may end up causing harm to others. 
  • You are the expert. Or at least, you should be. Take time to practice and learn as much as you can. People are paying you their hard-earned money and deserve to get what they pay for. There can be a fine line between a difficult shot and a dangerous/reckless shot. Be skilled enough to get the difficult shot and be wise enough to deny your client the reckless shot (just suggest an alternative!)
  • Finally, you need to be the one who calls the shots. If you don’t feel comfortable with something, speak up and do something about it. It is your responsiblity to do so. To make things less awkward or unpleasant between you and your client when this happens, you can reference FARs, company policy, your insurance limitations, or manufacturer’s limitations on your drone. If possible, provide an alternative solution and explain why doing it differently benefits the client.