Capturing wildlife shots can be breathtaking and inspirational, whether you’re doing so for personal use or as a professional, but you must still follow the guidelines set out by the FAA to avoid the risk of incurring penalties.
Here are a few pointers, tips and guidelines to ensure that when you’re flying a drone near wildlife – whether with the intention of photographing or filming them, or simply just going near them in passing – that you don’t get into trouble with the authorities, or pose a threat to humans, birds or animals.
Take the time to find out where you can and cannot fly your drone:
- Recreational or professional drone use
Drones may be flown by members of the public for recreational purposes, or by individuals for professional purposes, only when in accordance with FAA model aircraft laws.
- Fly below 400 feet
Drones can only be flown below a height of 400 feet, and you must watch out for surrounding obstacles.
- Watch out for designated wilderness areas
Drones are technically classed as ‘motorized equipment’ and ‘mechanical transport’ and cannot take off, land or be operated from areas that have been legally defined as ‘wilderness areas’. Please check with your state or federal authorities if you’re unsure about the area that you plan to fly your drone in and around.
Areas that have had ‘temporary flight restrictions’ or TFR’s placed upon them, are out of bounds for drones. You can always check with the FAA for up to date information about TFR’s.
Keeping wildlife and wild areas safe from harm:
- Quiet zones
Wilderness or ‘primitive’ areas are usually out of bounds for drone operators, especially as they are often places in which the public seek peace, quiet and solitude.
- Keep a safe distance from wildlife
It may seem obvious, but it can be easy to get carried away when flying a drone and forget how invasive they can be, particularly to wildlife. Flying a drone close to birds or animals can distress them at the very least, and in some cases, the shock can lead to death.
If you are caught intentionally causing distress to wildlife with a drone, such as by flying close to animals when they’re rearing their young to gain footage or images, you get into a lot of trouble with the FAA and local authorities, not to mention local wildlife conservationists.
There are state regulations in place that limit the use of drones to detect wildlife or fish, and you must never go near animals or birds from a vertical position with a drone.
Operating a drone safely when near wildlife:
- Be alert
Always keep your drone within your line of vision, and if you see that you’re flying close to birds or animals, react swiftly, but safely.
- Learn to fly
While many people think that drones are easy to fly and can be operated by anyone, it’s always worth taking a few lessons to learn how to fly one correctly, especially if you want to avoid making mistakes that have the potential to be harmful to wildlife or even humans.
- Avoid airports
Whether you’re flying a drone for recreational purposes, or for professional reasons, you must always stay at least 5 miles away from airports and runways. Failure to comply with this rule could see you facing a stiff penalty.
- Respect certain areas
If the wildlife that you are attempting to track, film or photograph are close to, or directly within a noise sensitive area like a trail head, campground or visitor centre, then you must be respectful and avoid flying your drone there.
- Privacy first
Whatever you are filming and wherever you are flying, you must obey privacy laws, and if you’re uncertain about whether you can operate your drone in a certain area, it’s best to err on the side of caution and stay well away.
Never forget that the FAA have authority over all airspace, and whether filming wildlife or simply flying your drone for fun, you must always comply strictly with their regulations and guidance.