What You Need to Know About Flying Your Drone Over People

Whether you’re a drone pilot in the United States or the United Kingdom, you’ll have your fair share of regulatory limitations from either the FAA or CAA.

You may already know that you’re not able to fly out of your visual line of sight without a waiver. But, did you also know that flying over people requires similar approval?

Unless people are directly involved with the drone operation, located under a covered structure, or protected inside a stationary vehicle, you cannot fly over them.

Let’s start with the “why.”

Why Can't You Fly a Drone Over People?

Quick answer: It’s dangerous.

As with most any other regulation, it’s about safety.

The main concern posed by airspace regulatory agencies is that the drone will fall and cause injury. Many of the most popular drone models, such as DJI’s Phantom 4 Pro, weigh about three pounds.

If an error occurred while the drone was flying at 400 feet (i.e. losing GPS signal), the impact would produce 16,259 Newtons of force. That’s more than enough to kill a person fairly easily.

Additionally, drone rotors spin between 5,000 and 7,000 rpm. At that speed, the propellers become incredibly dangerous to bystanders. A gust of wind at the wrong time could lead to major lacerations.

Now, you might think it’s easy not to lose control of your drone, but that’s not always true. In the video below, you’ll see that an emergency landing was necessary after the device lost GPS signal. Had people been under the drone, the results could have been disastrous.

U.S. FAA Regulation

FAA § 107.39 states that, if you’re flying over any part of a person, even just an extended arm, it’s considered as “Operations Over Human Beings.”


The only exception to the rule is when people are directly participating with drone operation. Examples of that might include the remote pilot, the visual observer, and anyone who might maintain the perimeter to keep others out of the area of operation during flight.


Thankfully, the FAA offer a waiver to that rule. Like all waivers, it helps if an expert is there to assist you in the application process is quite thorough. It also takes about 90 days to get that waiver reviewed and approved/disapproved.

It’s also not easy to obtain. As of Oct. 15, 2020, the FAA has granted only 153 flight over people waivers. The good news is that 64 of those have been approved in 2020.

The increase in approvals this year suggests that with a professional and well-developed application, the FAA is comfortable with trusting qualified operators to fly over people.

Perhaps the most important part of the FAA’s mission is to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world. As flying a drone over people can certainly raise safety concerns, the FAA made sure this was specifically called out as one of the limitations of the Part 107 sUAS license.

How to Get the “Flying Over People” Waiver

The FAA wants you to address two issues when applying for the waiver.

First, they would like to understand the likelihood of an accident occurring as you are flying your drone over people. Second, they would like to know the severity of potential injuries caused by your drone hitting someone should there be a malfunction or operator error.

 

Related Article: BVLOS Waiver – What You Need to Know

 

Likelihood is primarily a review of how safe your operation of UAVs is. As an organization that uses drones for commercial purposes, you have probably established standard operating procedures and training manuals.

In addition to these materials, the FAA would like to see detailed records of any incidents that happen, which shouldn’t normally occur. Examples might include drone malfunctions or pilots crashing drones into people or property.

For incidents such as those mentioned, you should identify any hazards or trends that have been recurring. More importantly, it would be best to show you have developed fixes for aircraft issues and have mitigations in place to prevent human errors.

Severity assumes a situation where a drone does fail will occur. If this situation were to happen, how bad could the potential damage be?

To mitigate the potential damage, the FAA looks for drones to fall into one of three categories.

Category 1 drones are very small, typically less than 0.55 pounds. A UAV of this weight is not likely to cause any damage.

Category 2 drones are considered to cause a minimal amount of injury or damage. The drone’s kinetic impact should not be capable of exceeding 11 ft. pounds of energy transfer.

Category 3 drones can cause more damage, not to exceed 25 ft. pounds of energy transfer.

Likelihood and severity combined help to determine whether or not a waiver is granted. To have the best chance of getting approval to fly over people, most organizations should consult the help of experts in the field.

By some estimates the rejection rate for these waivers is in the high 90% range. A reputable drone consulting firm will be able to access your organization’s needs and prepare you for the application process.

A 107.39 waiver can open a whole new world of opportunities for your UAV operations. Take the time to understand the balance between likelihood and severity for your organization. Develop appropriate mitigation techniques to make your operations safe and submit a waiver application with procedures and data to back up your claims of being a safe and responsible utilizer of UAV technology.

U.K. Regulation

Within the UK, Article 95(2)(d) states that you should never fly your drone or model aircraft closer than the defined legal distances. These are defined within the article as a distance of no less than 50 metres

However, with the introduction of the Drone and Model Aircraft Education and Registration Service (DMARES) last November (2019), and ‘several UAS incidents,’ the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) had to issue a safety notice (Number: SN–2020/002) this past January.

The safety notice was to provide additional guidance to remote pilots in the form of suggested best practice when considering flight over people, in accordance with articles 95(2)(d) or 95(3) of the Air Navigation Order (ANO).

Related: Everything You Need to Know About Upcoming European UAS Regulations

It also served as a reminder to ensure operators were “reasonably satisfied that a flight can be safely made” (Air Navigation Order article 94(2)), as the law states.

When the 50m rule was introduced within the ANO, some ambiguity surrounded it.

Examples such as ‘string attached to the drone,’ or it being referred to as the ‘50m bubble’ rule, have been discussed at length. Where flights that need to be conducted within congested areas, and where careful planning is essential, we’ve seen operators use the Pythagorean theorem to work out the minimum viable distance and heights to stay legal.

Either way, the rules are clear and simple:

  • Never fly closer than 50m to people.
  • Distance can be reduced for take-off and landing to 30m. 

Even though hovering your drone at ‘51m’ directly above an uninvolved person may be legal and, as per Article 95, it’s safer to avoid flying or hovering directly over them, you’re responsible for flying safely whenever you fly (Article 94(2)).

Crowds of more than 1,000 people

If you want to fly near crowds greater than 1000 uninvolved persons, the 50m rule extends to 150m.

The standard states that you can fly above uninvolved persons, but that’s not the case for gatherings of this size. As an operator, you are never to fly above crowds at any height. 

A crowd is defined as any organised, open-air gathering of more than 1,000 people.

This includes:

  • Sporting events
  • Music festivals or concerts
  • Marches or rallies
  • Carnivals

Within the UK, if you want to operate within these restrictions, you will need to apply to the UK’s CAA for an Operating Safety Case (OSC) to reduce these distances. You’ll also need to have deep pockets, and your organisation must have operating experience that clearly demonstrates safe, compliant and competent operations.

Bringing It All Together

No matter where you’re flying, you’ll need some type of clearance to fly over people … or to avoid doing it altogether.

If your job requires drone flights over people to limit shutdowns and disruption, or to capture more compelling footage, then we’re here to help you achieve those goals. The best way to get started is to speak with our team of UAS experts as part of a risk-free drone consultation.

Whether you want the know-how to do it yourself and the waivers to go along with it, or you’d rather us do the work for you, we’ve got you covered.

There’s no reason to put a limit on your innovation. With Consortiq, there’s always a better way. Complete the form below to schedule your consultation, drone training, or drone service today!

David Daly - Contributing Author

David Daly - Contributing Author

David Daly, is an award-winning photographer/writer and licensed (FAA) Commercial sUAS pilot. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, David is a former Marine Corps officer with a BS in Oceanography and has earned his MBA from the University of Redlands. David has worked for Fortune 100 companies and has a background in aerospace, construction, military/defense, real estate, and technology.

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