Flying Over People: Navigating the Regulations Overhead
The regulatory climate around drones used in commercial flights and public safety has been getting more and more permissive as time goes on as regulators see that drones can be flown safely and responsibly. But one thing is still not permitted under most frameworks: flight over people.
When legal commercial drone operation first began, flight over non-participating people on a closed set motion picture was allowed under the 333 exemption with a specific authorization for closed set filming.
With the advent of Part 107 though those specific waivers were revoked, and although Part 107 had a waivable section for flight over non-participating people, very few waivers have been granted. The first was given to CNN for use of their Fotokite over non-participating people, largely because the Fotokite is small, with small rotors that are unlikely to harm anyone, and it’s on a leash.
To date, only three other waivers for flight over people (Part 107.39) have been granted - including one more to CNN, and two others to FLIR Systems.
For this, and many other reasons we go into here, we believe operating under a Certificate of Authorization or COA is a better plan for a public agency.
Under a recent addendum to all COAs is the following language:
A waiver from the requirements of 14 CFR 91.119(b) and (c) is approved as follows:
a. Except for those operations where it is necessary to safeguard human life, no person may operate a small unmanned aircraft over a human being unless that human being is:
i. Directly participating in the operation of the small unmanned aircraft; or
ii. Located under a covered structure or inside a stationary vehicle that can provide reasonable protection from a falling small unmanned aircraft
b. The groundspeed of the small UAS must not exceed 100 mph/87 knots
c. The proponent must comply with 91.119(a).
d. The proponent must report any accident/incident resulting in any human injury
during COA operations over human beings.
Note: People “directly participating in the operation of the small unmanned aircraft” may include qualified non-crewmembers, as defined in 49 USC 40125.
e. For those operations where it is necessary to operate over a human being in order to safeguard human life, the remote pilot in command must not operate any lower or in proximity to human beings necessary to accomplish the operation.
So what does all that mean? It means that you should not fly over people--as with Part 107--but when it comes to protecting human life, the COA gives you permission to fly over non-participating people. The idea being that whatever is happening to said people is far more dangerous than the risks of flying over them with a UAV, and if you could possibly mitigate that danger by using a UAV, you are permitted to do so.
Looking further into the rules, it also confirms that you can fly over people that are participating in the operation, or if they’re not as long as they are under a covered structure or inside of a stationary vehicle that provides reasonable cover from a falling aircraft.
Take for example, an accident on the freeway, where you’ve stopped all traffic. Assuming people have not gotten out of their cars, you’d be permitted to fly over them, even as non-participants. Although, if an argument could be made that human life was in danger, you’d have the ability to do that anyway.