Aerial traffic study drone pilot

How to conduct your work as a drone pilot…and not get arrested (or upset people)

The following guest post about operating drones amidst an audience of people who don’t want that drone flying overhead, as well as handling encounters with police, was written by Aaron Parnell, owner and Chief Pilot of Unmanned Aerial Operations, an aerial imaging, aerial video and drone mapping company based in North Carolina.This is not legal advice.

It’s no secret that the public can be skeptical of drones. Sometimes even the police will come check out what you’re doing — and some scary situations have led to negative interactions with law enforcement. 

Even if you’re certain of your rights, what do you do? One professional drone pilot has plenty of firsthand experience, given his role flying drones for aerial traffic studies — which involves flying drones in busy areas. He shares how to conduct an aerial traffic study without having the police called on you, and if they are called, how to deal with them and how to complete the aerial traffic study.

Aerial traffic studies means people are likely around

Ariel traffic studies often deal with monitoring and recording traffic patterns around a fixed location such as a fast food restaurant, to understand what time of day draws the most customers along with which direction they are coming from. 

There are also situations where you know what time of day and area will be active, such as a school zone. In this case, when classes let in and let out, traffic and queuing will be higher due to parents picking their children up and dropping them off, school buses entering and leaving, or older students coming and going on their own. An example of this type of this study can be found here, as well as the product given to the client shown below:

Aerial traffic studies  are often one of the less intrusive missions a drone pilot can conduct. Suspended in the air, camera in nadir or an oblique view, the drone hovers in one spot while it records traffic patterns for a period of time.

But even still, bystanders, police, and anti-drone enthusiasts are able to identify the location of the drone, and possibly find the pilot. With the new Remote-ID laws, finding the drone pilot will be far easier. 

Even if your drone flight is legal in the eye of the Federal Aviation Administration — and perhaps you even have separate approvals from, say, the city — sometimes people don’t like drones flying overhead. Even police unaware of what’s happening might try to stop you.

Trust me, it’s happened many times — to myself, included.

Handling police interactions as a drone pilot

An aerial traffic study is not as simple as it seems. While it’s true that it is one of the less involved types of drone missions during the flight, don’t rule out the involvement of organizing the aerial traffic study. 

My very first aerial traffic study (and the largest project so far) resulted in the police swarming my vehicle and base of operations, then questioning me on my activities. The job sites were all the elementary schools in a given county, and one of the resource officers had not been informed of my activities that day. While the principal and the vice principal had been contacted by both me and the school board, the message failed to be passed along to the school resources officer. 

If you are confronted by a police officer while conducting an aerial traffic study, follow these steps:

  1. Introduce yourself: Smile and explain your purpose at the site.
  2. If they ask for your ID, provide it. The officer more than likely has reasonable suspicion to demand you to identify yourself. If you are conducting an aerial traffic study, you should be a Part 107 Certified pilot, so it’s not a bad idea to produce your Part 107 card as well.
  3. Comply with requests. However, continue recording unless asked to do otherwise. 
  4. Contact the individual whom you are providing service for / the authority on site. By the way, you should have contacted them before the mission was flown.
  5. Do not be afraid to stand up for yourself. It is not a crime to fly in most types of open airspace, at a height reasonable to not infringe on an individual’s privacy. Make sure you know the local laws, the FAA regulations, and your rights. But remember, your job is to record traffic, not get in an argument with an officer. Defuse the situation with a professional demeanor, politeness, and information.

In my case, the officer speaking to me took a look at my vehicle with the company information on it, my uniform, and my ID and quickly changed his attitude from one of a somewhat hostile curiosity, to one of giddy interest. 

And realize that many  police officers actually endorse the use of drones and are implementing them into their own departments all over the world.

Always remember, although your client may have informed who they thought would be necessary, you need to double check and even brainstorm who else may need to have been contacted. It’s possible that this length may not need to be taken in some situations, such as an aerial traffic study on a college campus, but concerned citizens have every right to be wary of unusual activity around their children. 

An example of a uniform that can help reduce unwanted interactions and add to your professional appearance.

For dealing with concerned citizens and avoiding risks:

Most people won’t be aware of who you are and what you’re doing. It is wise to wear proper attire, such as a reflective, mesh yellow vest, that conveys to the general public that you are certified to operate a drone commercially by the FAA. You may even want to go the extra mile, presenting a sign explaining that an aerial traffic study is underway. Concerned citizens can be a major distraction and can call the police on you, even if you’ve done everything right. Mitigate the possibility of this happening by following the following tips:

  • Avoid flying over cars: While aerial traffic studies are usually focused on the vehicles on the ground, that doesn’t mean you should be directly above them. If there is a median, a sidewalk, or even a tree that you can place the drone over while still viewing the vehicles on the ground, you should do it. This reduces the likelihood of  your drone crashing into a bystanders vehicle or person and may ease a concerned citizen who’s spotted your drone.
  • Fly high enough to not distract people, but still under 400 feet AGL: Altitude is an important factor as well. You may very well be able to bypass interacting with concerned citizens if the individual never sees the drone. Of course, you’ll need to stay under 400 feet and pay attention to the airspace you’re flying in. 

You also want to remain low enough that vehicles are still easy enough to make out on the screen by the client. Drones like the Mavic 3 Pro with 28x hybrid zoom are an easy solution to that.

Be a good pilot, and be a good person

If a police officer or a concerned citizen takes an interest in, or in the police officer’s case, begins investigating your activities, the best move is to cooperate and explain your purpose at the site, your credentials, and who your client is . In my case, the officer speaking with me was nice but firm, and didn’t infringe on my rights throughout his investigation. Police officers are still people, and if you explain what you’re doing, it’s likely that they will take interest and the entire dynamic of the situation will change for the better.

-By Aaron Parnell

If you’d like to submit a guest post, contact The Drone Girl here.

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