One of the most strict drone regulations mandated by FAA is the prohibition of flying drones over people.
The official FAA regulation is as follows:
“§ 107.39 Operation over human beings.
No person may operate a small unmanned aircraft over a human being unless that human being is:
- Directly participating in the operation of the small unmanned aircraft; or
- Located under a covered structure or inside a stationary vehicle that can provide reasonable protection from a falling small unmanned aircraft.”
However, drones offer the most utility when it comes to capturing a large crowd and many companies are looking to get this media and data. To date, only three companies have secured a waiver to fly over people-CNN, FLIR, and Project Wing.
So what is a drone pilot to do?
I have been paid to do multiple drone shots where capturing a crowd or an event was the primary goal and I am going to share what I have learned. My experience in working with crowds is chiefly due to my local market of New Orleans, LA.
There are more festivals, parades, and events in New Orleans than there are days of the year! And of course, event, marketing, and media companies are looking for ways to capture these gatherings.
Before going any further here are some general principles to follow when capturing crowds with a drone:
- Ideally, select area/site that is sparsely populated
- Maintain Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) at all times.
- Choosing an appropriate operating distance from nonparticipants
With that being said, the best way to legally capture crowds with a drone is…
Fly Around People but Not Over Them
As stated earlier the FAA prohibits UAV operations directly against people. However, you can easily capture a large crowd just by flying on the perimeter. Not only is it safer, but you will get better content.
What I have noticed when it comes to shooting large crowds is that people are indistinguishable when you’re really high. So if you were to do an eagle eye shot (a drone shot where the camera is at a 90° angle) over people, you would really just see a bunch of unfocused dots.
However, by capturing people at an angle, it gives a better perspective of what’s going on and allows the crowd, the venue or location and the moment to compliment each other.
Utilize Your Local Geography
The main reason why I am able to capture crowds is that I utilize New Orleans precarious geography. New Orleans is surrounded by all types of bodies of water including bayous, canals, waterways, lakes, and The Mighty Mississippi River.
Since many of the events and festivals take place along the different waterfronts it allows me to capture it without risking anybody’s safety.
Sure most places in the country do not share Southeast Louisiana’s precarious geography, but there is some type of topography (mountains, forests, deserts, etc.) in your region where you can capture a crowd with a drone without risking public safety.
Operate Over Buildings and Trees
No matter where you live, I am sure that there is a building or a set of trees in your area. Using these obstructions is a great and safe way to capture crowds, for if the drone fails it will fall on the obstruction and not a person.
In addition, buildings and trees can provide great composition and background for the ongoing event.
Work With People
If you have been booked or contracted to cover an event with your drone, make sure you clearly explain to your client the rules and regulations of flying directly over people. If possible, even layout through writing or verbal that you will be given a clear and uninterrupted space for your drone operations.
While in the field work closely with the organizers and security authorities, because communication will be key in providing a great final product and maintaining safety.
Five years ago the only way to capture an aerial view of a crowd was by using a helicopter. However, with the advancement of commercial and consumer drones, capturing a large crowd has never been easier.The FAA’s regulations for flying over people are fair and just, so it our responsibility to as pilots to deliver quality content while maintaining public safety.
I hope this article provided a good outline for both rookie and veteran pilots to expand their repertoire.
Lastly, check out the two parades I shot during the Mardi Gras season; one was for a boat parade called Krewe de Bilge and the other was of the historical and ritual Mardi Gras Indians.