Can I Legally Fly a Drone from a Moving Vehicle?
The Part 107 regulations were enacted into law on August 2016, establishing a set of rules and restrictions for pilots who engage in drone operations for commercial purposes. According to these regulations, all commercial drone pilots were required to secure a Part 107 remote pilot certificate and comply to all restrictions as set by the FAA. Among other operational limits, Part 107 restricted pilots from operating drones from a moving vehicle.
With commercial drone services ever expanding in scope, this restriction has proved to be a challenge for commercial drone operators. Is there a way for commercial drone pilots to legally fly a drone from a moving vehicle? Read on as we pore over all the details of the relevant regulations and figure out the answer.
Why do you need to fly from a moving vehicle?
One of the fastest growing fields of commercial drone application is drone mapping, surveys, and inspection jobs. These surveys can be requested by clients in the architecture, construction, agriculture, or scientific fields to gather a huge amount of spatial-related data in a short amount of time. Drones have been used to gather data that can be processed to generate 3D maps, detailed topography maps, photogrammetry maps, and crop density maps.
The main challenge in conducting drone mapping surveys is in covering very large areas. Although most high-end drones have a range of at least 4 miles, the Part 107 rules state that the remote pilot-in-command (PIC) or visual observer (VO) must maintain visual line-of-sight with the drone at all times. This severely limits the area that a drone pilot can cover from any single vantage point. Depending on the terrain, the range of visual line-of-sight may only be within 2 miles or less.
Being able to operate a drone from a moving vehicle makes the process of surveying a large area much faster. The range from which visual line-of-sight is still established can be dramatically increased with a provision for drone flight from a moving car or boat. By eliminating the need for drone pilots to establish multiple stationary ground control points, drone surveys can be completed faster and with less effort.
What does the Part 107 regulations say?
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The relevant regulation in this case is 107.25, which states that:
“No person may operate a small unmanned aircraft system
- From a moving aircraft
- From a moving land or water-borne vehicle unless the small unmanned aircraft is flown over a sparsely populated area and is not transporting another person’s property for compensation or hire”
To better understand the restriction, let’s break down the pertinent details and analyze them one by one.
1. Operations from a moving aircraft
Regulation 107.25 expressly prohibits drone operations from a moving aircraft, regardless of the conditions. One of the challenges inherent in trying to operate a drone from any moving vehicles is the ability to maintain visual contact. This difficulty becomes more pronounced when operating from a moving aircraft, which moves much faster than drones or any unmanned aircraft.
Another argument of the FAA for the prohibition of drone operations from a moving aircraft is the general lack of flexibility of a moving aircraft to respond to adverse situations related to the drone operations. Changing course to maintain visual contact with the drone is much more difficult for an aircraft compared to a car or a boat. The risks and potential harm to person or property are also much higher in an aircraft and having any sort of distraction, such as drone operations, only serves to increase the inherent risks of the activity.
2. Definition of “sparsely populated”
Take note that the restriction makes an exception for flight over sparsely populated areas. However, Part 107 does not have a section that defines in concrete terms what constitutes a sparsely populated area. Instead, we will have to rely on precedents set by relevant court rulings.
According to a legal interpretation made in a 2010 court ruling, a population density of twenty people on a ten-acre site can be considered as “sparsely populated”. Considering how big ten acres is, this level of population density can be argued to be barely populated and can probably only be found in highly remote areas. If your target area is a forest or a barren desert, then you probably will not have problems in satisfying this requirement.
In succeeding court rulings, the FAA has asserted that they will only implement a case-per-case analysis of identifying an area as being “sparsely populated”. This leaves drone pilots in a position of ambiguity – whether an area classified as being sparsely populated appears to be a mere judgment call.
3. Land-borne vs. Water-borne applications
The FAA has asserted that the main safety concern of this regulation is the population density of the area over which the drone is flying, and not the terrain. With this line of reasoning, it should follow that drone operations from water-borne vehicles will be more likely to fall within the guidelines of the restriction, as bodies of water are generally unpopulated areas. In the event of a drone crash, there is also a much smaller chance of it leading to harm or damage if it happens over water than on land.
Of course, this is not always the case, as a drone can fly over waterways that are congested with watercraft or people. It is also possible for a drone to fly over land even while the operator is onboard a moving boat or yacht. Conversely, not all land areas are densely populated. Without any context of where the drone will fly over and when the drone operations will commence, it is impossible to declare with any certainty if this restriction will be violated.
The arguments for flying from a moving vehicle
Companies and individuals who offer drone survey and inspection services have argued that operating a drone from a moving vehicle is the most practical way to cover areas that stretch several miles such as pipelines, electrical lines, wind farms, solar farms, shorelines and highways. This is especially true if the area lies within a single corridor, making a survey from a car a relatively simple operation. Drone operations for disaster response and rescue operations can also greatly benefit with a provision for an on-vehicle moving ground station.
Some drone pilots have argued that operating from a moving vehicle can actually result in safer drone operations, as the distance between the drone and the operator is minimized at all times. There is some merit to this argument for as long as all the proper safety measures are implemented. Keeping the drone closer to the controller reduces the chances of communication failure, allows the pilot to see the drone and its immediate environment better, and allows the pilot to react faster to the drone’s immediate circumstances.
The challenges of flying from a moving vehicle
Anyone who has ever tried to fly a drone from a moving car or boat will attest that it is a very difficult operation. There are more hazards and more things to pay attention to. If you are planning to embark on such an activity, these are the issues you should be anticipating:
1. Keeping speed with the drone
Maintaining visual contact and radio communication with the drone means having your vehicle move more or less at the same speed as the drone. This is easier said than done. Both your vehicle and your drone can run into hazards in their path which will slow them down. Keeping both at the same speed will also require very good communication between the drone pilot and the vehicle driver.
It is worth noting at this point that the driver of the vehicle needs to be free from any distraction. This means that the driver cannot act as the visual observer, nor should the driver be paying attention to anything but the road.
2. Dynamic environment
You can expect the hazards, terrain, obstacles, and air traffic that your drone will encounter to change over long drives. This means that your drone may have to fly at different altitudes and to weave in and out of obstacles along the way. Without proper planning, you may even run into densely populated areas that your drone technically is not allowed to fly over.
Considering this scenario, it will be invaluable to have a dedicated visual observer to scan the surroundings and anticipate the hazards that the drone may run into. Having a drone with a good collision avoidance system, such as the DJI Mavic Pro 2, can also be a big help to the drone pilot.
3. Launching and landing
This is a problem that is unique to cases where the drone pilot is aiming to launch and land the drone on a boat. The difficulty lies in the fact that a boat is in constant motion, even while it is anchored. This state of constant motion makes it hard for the drone to establish a GPS lock and to calibrate its inertial measurement unit (IMU) sensors. As many drone pilots have experienced, having unstable IMU sensors at launch results in the drone going haywire right at the onset.
The difficulty in landing lies in the fact that both the drone and the boat are moving, making it hard for both the drone and the pilot to find a suitable landing spot. Most of the time, the drone pilot will have to perform the landing in manual mode, a feat that takes an exceptional skill.
Many drone pilots have resorted to hand-launching hand-catching their drones when flying from a moving boat. Effective as this strategy may seem, it is not a practice we can recommend as it is very unsafe.
Has the FAA granted waivers for flight from a moving vehicle?
Fortunately for commercial drone pilots, the FAA has a provision to request waivers for some of the Part 107 restrictions. The restriction against drone flight from a moving vehicle is included in these provisions. However, a cursory look at the FAA’s database of granted waivers show that there have only been 4 approved waivers for resolution 107.25 since the Part 107 regulations were enacted.
This is not a very encouraging result considering more than 2,000 waivers have been granted. This means that the waivers granted specifically for 107.25 constitute less than 0.2% of the total number of waivers that have been granted by the FAA. We may not know how many 107.25 waiver applications have been received by the FAA, but it’s probably safe to assume that a good number of them were rejected.
With this fact in mind, the question we need to ask is this: What does it take to have the FAA grant a 107.25 request? The best way to figure this out is to go over the details of the waivers that they have granted so far.
Of the 4 granted waivers, 2 were awarded to FLIR Unmanned Aerial Systems. Both of their waivers were granted for the use of the Prox Dynamics PD-100 drone, a military-grade nano-drone which weighs just over half an ounce. The PD-100 drones come equipped with night vision capabilities and live transmission of video streams and high-resolution images within a 1-mile range. The waiver document granted by the FAA requires that the driver of the vehicle remains uninvolved from the drone operations.
The most recent 107.25 waiver granted was for a company called TPS at Fort Mac and was specified for use only for closed-set motion picture and television filming. Under the waiver, the people involved in the drone operations must include at least 3 individuals, each with a distinct role: the remote PIC, the visual observer, and the person operating the land-based vehicle. The waiver also specified that all communications between the team members must be done through hands-free devices.
Although there were no details in the waiver document on how big the permitted flight area was, the waiver was very particular that the drone needs to be programmed to fly only within a specified geo-fence. Should it inadvertently fly outside these limits, there must be a safe flight termination sequence programmed into the drone.
These results show that the FAA is very selective about granting waiver requests for flying a drone from a moving vehicle. Out of the 4 waivers they have granted, 2 were for the use of a military-grade nano-drone – a model that costs far outside of what most drone businesses can afford. This does not bode well for small businesses or individuals who would like to undertake similar activities.
Our advice? There’s no harm in trying to apply for a 107.25 waiver request, but don’t bet on it being approved. It will be a more worthwhile effort to try and work around the restriction. After all, a drone survey from a moving vehicle is perfectly legal as long as it is done in sparsely populated areas. This gives you a bit of “wiggle” room. Work with your client, plan a route that does not go through densely populated areas, and make sure to prepare for the dynamic conditions that you will face. Plan well and execute – and you might finish the job even before the 90-day approval period for FAA waiver requests.
Tips for flying from a moving vehicle
Without any waiver, completing a drone survey from a moving vehicle takes a lot of preparation. Your team will need to be exceptionally skilled, the survey area needs to be well-defined, and you will need to have a drone with the right technology. If you are planning to go ahead with a drone flight from a moving car or boat, then these are essential recommendations:
1. Have a team of at least 3 people
This piece of advice is something the FAA recommends even for the companies with granted waivers. A team that is composed of a dedicated vehicle operator, a drone pilot, and a visual observer makes sure that no one’s attention is spread too thin. You may even consider having 2 visual observers: one to focus on the drone, and one to focus on the surroundings.
Keep in mind that when working with a team, communication is key. Have a pre-flight meeting, establish a common language, agree on a common plan of action, and keep communicating all throughout the operations.
2. Plan your route
Before starting with the actual drone flight, take some time to drive down your planned route. Since you will be moving over a large distance, the conditions and environment through which your drone needs to fly may be quite dynamic. Observe how the topography changes, if the road veers away from your target area, or if there are air traffic hazards such as birds or trees on your way.
This will also be your chance to verify if your whole survey area is indeed sparsely populated. If not, then perhaps you will have to consult with the client and reevaluate the survey plan.
3. Learn to fly manual
Although most drones come with an autopilot feature that you can set along a planned route, this may not be advisable to use over a long distance. As mentioned, the conditions that your drone will meet will change significantly over a distance of several miles, and an autopilot feature is not designed to adjust to such a dynamic environment.
Keep in mind that although your drone can travel in a straight line, your car will probably have to make twists and turns along the road. This means that you will probably have to speed up or slow down your drone to keep pace with your vehicle. With this requirement, we have to say that drone flight from a moving vehicle is not for the rookie pilot – you will need a pilot who is comfortable flying a drone even in the most adverse conditions.
4. Power management is key
Keep an eye on your battery levels throughout the operations. Since the drone will be in a constant state of motion, its battery will drain out faster that what you’re probably used to.
Always leave more than enough power for the drone to return to you. Since both the controller and the drone will be constantly moving, it will be difficult for either one to get an accurate GPS fix. This means that you should not rely on the measured distance between the drone and your position – the GPS error can spell the difference between a safe landing and a crash.
5. Disable return-to-home
Make sure to disable the return-to-home function of your drone before you set off. This can be activated either when the battery reaches the critical level, or if the drone loses the remote controller signal. Whether at land or at sea, this could be a big problem since you are no longer at the original take-off point.
In case of remote controller signal loss, you may instruct the drone to automatically hover in place. This is probably the safest option as all you need to do is to move towards it to reestablish the signal.
As for the response to a critical battery level, make sure to set the Home position to Dynamic. This way, the home point is constantly updated as the location of the remote controller. Even if the drone loses the remote controller signal, it will just fly to the last recorded location, which should not be far off.
6. Obstacle avoidance
As we have seen from the newly released DJI Mavic Pro 2, the obstacle avoidance technology of today’s drone has greatly improved. This can be very useful for flying from a moving vehicle, as the drone can automatically avoid obstacles along the flight path.
Although this prevents damage to the drone, it does not mean that the drone can be fully autonomous once you set its flight path. For instance, the Mavic Pro 2 resets once its obstacle avoidance kicks in – it’s not going to resume following the original flight path. This means that the pilot still needs to take over.
What does the future hold for this restriction?
Right now, the FAA seems quite restrictive in granting waivers for drone operations from moving vehicles. However, dialogues between the FAA and drone pilots seem to indicate that the FAA is not entirely closed to the idea of loosening up this restriction.
With the dawn of more sophisticated avoidance technology in new drones, the FAA recognizes that technological innovation may make drone flight from a moving vehicle safer. Perhaps a more advanced “Follow Me” feature or a drone-controller system that provides updated telemetry data may be grounds to grant a waiver.
The waiver granted for the military-grade nano-drone shows that the FAA is willing to allow drone flight over populated areas as long the drone is of a sufficiently small size and weight. Right now, a nano-drone with surveillance technology costs an arm and a leg but improvements in technology may make similar drones more affordable in the future.
So far, no waivers have been granted to allow drone flight from a moving aircraft. Frankly, we don’t see this happening anytime in the near future. The reaction time and skill level needed to safely operate a drone while in a rapidly moving aircraft seems inconceivable.
Operating a drone from a moving vehicle may be one of the most challenging things that a drone pilot can do. With too many things going on at the same time, the chances of running into a hazard are much higher. The FAA has anticipated this and have only allowed drone operations from a moving vehicle for sparsely populated areas where a drone-related accident will not lead to serious harm or damage.
It’s hard to argue with this restriction. In fact, there are probably plenty of good reasons why there is only a very small number of waivers granted to allow drone operations from a moving vehicle. It takes a very skilled drone pilot and a very well-coordinated team to pull something like this off safely and successfully.
However, the FAA seems cognizant of the value of doing drone operations from a moving vehicle in conducting drone surveys and inspection jobs. With the provision to conduct the activity only over sparsely populated areas, these types of drone surveys can still be completed with just a little bit of planning. It takes a great deal of preparation, flight experience, and technical know-how, but the opportunity to do long-distance drone mapping for several industries need not be wasted.
Note: This is not legal advice. It is for informational purposes only. Consult with an attorney prior to flying your drone.