Drone Flight Over People: What it Means, When it’s Allowed, and the Concept of “Hazardous Operation”

Part of an occasional series, “Things the FAA Wishes More Pilots Knew.”  This article explains what drone flight over people really means, and when it is – and isn’t – allowed.

This fall, DRONELIFE had the privilege of speaking on a panel with representatives from the FAA.  After some discussion, we decided to collaborate on a series of articles pointing out some of the most common mistakes and misconceptions about drone regulations.  We know that the vast majority of drone pilots make an effort to follow the rules: we’re doing our part by getting the word out on some issues that may be unclear.

Things the FAA Wishes More Pilots Knew: What does drone flight over people really mean?  

“In many of my conversations with stakeholders about this topic, I hear people more focused on what EXACTLY constitutes “over” people (107.39), as if they need a laser beam to determine exactly whether the drone is over the person or not: but in doing so they tend to miss the bigger and more general prohibition against hazardous operation (107.23),” says John Meehan, Aviation Safety Analyst with the FAA.

“‘Over’ people means just that, directly over someone,” says Meehan.  “A good way to envision this is to imagine a cylinder of air that extends above a person. This cylinder could change diameter if the person is standing up vs. laying down, or arms extended or not. A drone would not be allowed to pass through that cylinder of air.”

The concept of “Hazardous Operation.”

For the FAA, drone flight over people is directly connected with the concept of “hazardous operation.”  Hazardous operation is endangering the safety of persons or property on the ground by careless or reckless operation of the UAS.

“First and foremost, it’s always good to start with the understanding that the intent behind the flight rules is aviation safety,” says Meehan.  “The fundamental concept is to fly in such a way as to not put people or property at risk of injury or damage.

“Aviators continually evaluate and reassess what could happen if the aircraft fails to perform as expected, and adjust their flight accordingly to fly safely. UAS pilots are aviators, just as manned pilots are aviators.  Using aeronautical decision-making techniques, the aviator flies in a way that mitigates or minimizes risks to other persons or property.

For example, if you are flying in a strong crosswind, fly

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