drone highly restricted areas

How to fly a drone in highly restrictive areas

Next up in our “Ask Drone Girl” series is about flying drones in highly restrictive areas. If you have a question for Drone Girl, contact her here.

Any good suggestions or insights regarding commercial (Filming, real estate, building surveys) use within highly restrictive areas, like Washington, DC?


Hey Jon,

I’m just going to cut to the chase here. If there are restrictions around flying drones in a certain area, there’s a reason for it. Those restrictions aren’t arbitrary. So, if you want to skirt the rules of flying within highly restricted areas, don’t do it.

However, since you asked, and I want to give you a  more thorough answer than that, let me attempt to impart some wisdom.

Flying in controlled airspace

Since you mentioned Washington, D.C., let’s start there. The airspace around Washington, D.C. is more restricted than in any other part of the country due to airspace rules created after the 9/11 attacks. Violators face stiff fines and criminal penalties.

Flying a drone within a 15-mile radius of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is prohibited without specific FAA authorization. Flying a drone between 15 and 30 miles from Washington, D.C. is allowed under the standard drone operating conditions, including that it must weigh less than 55 lbs., be registered, stay below 400 feet and remain within visual line of sight.

Note though, the key word here. It’s prohibited without authorization. But, you CAN get authorization! You can request airspace authorization via a Part 107 waiver. Use the FAA’s Part 107 online web portal.

LAANC authorization for automated approvals

Or perhaps even easier is — in the case of some flights — requesting LAANC authorization. While all drone pilots need FAA approval prior to flying in controlled airspace, LAANC speeds up that process.

LAANC is an automated system initially created to streamline the process for drone pilots requesting to fly below 400 feet in controlled airspace that wasn’t necessarily high-risk, like around some small airports, or perhaps even some parts of D.C. that aren’t necessarily near protected areas.  Certified drone pilots can also use LAANC to obtain near real-time authorizations to fly drones at night.

To get LAANC authorization, use one of the FAA’s service providers such as Aloft, which offers a smartphone app where you can input your information and likely quickly receive your approval. If you’re flying for fun, considering turning to the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA)’s free LAANC software made in partnership with a company called UASidekick.

Flying in Class G (uncontrolled airspace)

As a drone operator, you are free to fly in Class G airspace, which is uncontrolled airspace. But even still, private property located below Class G airspace has a right to say that you cannot bring a drone onto their property. Just like a college campus can say that you cannot bring alcohol onto campus grounds, they can also say you cannot have drones on campus! (Seriously, Stanford has a whole blog post about it).

That doesn’t mean you can’t ever take a photo from a drone on Stanford campus again. Contact the people who establish those rules, and get their permission. I usually live my life by the mantra that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, but when flying a drone I do NOT recommend that.

Once you have their permission, get it in writing! Print it out. Bring it with you. There is nothing worse than getting to a shoot and having someone of authority tell you that you can’t fly there when you know you can.

I’m reminded of a story that my friend Maria Stefanopoulos frequently tells of a shoot she was trying to do at the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, where endangered rhinos live. She had all the paperwork printed out, but a wildlife guard would not let them shoot there because he didn’t want the drone to harm the animals. She ended up showing him the drone footage live as the drone as flying, and the guard ended up realizing that the drone could help him do his job. The drone footage gave him a closer view at the rhinos, and he noticed one of them had a wound. Because of the drone, he was able to actually tend to the rhino and heal it.

Sometimes a little patience and kindness is the most important part in getting to use your drone in an area you thought would be too restrictive to shoot in.

Hope that helps, and happy flying!

One Comment

  • Be careful flying in restricted areas. You may be able to get FAA authorization but places near wildlife you shouldn’t fly in anyway. Drones hurt and scare animals and you should not do that morally, not just legally.

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