“Wouldn’t it be great if we could get a drone to take a photo or video of our [you fill in the blank: construction project; outdoor wedding; home for sale; public concert; football game; cell tower; farm field …].” A quick search online finds several local drone operators claiming they are ready, willing, and able to meet your needs. Sounds easy enough, but here are some questions you should be asking before you hire a drone operator:
Is the drone operator’s business legally authorized by the FAA to operate a drone / UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) for commercial purposes? If you plan to pay the operator then he / she is a “commercial” operator, not a hobbyist. Commercial operators need an exemption from certain FAA regulations known as an FAA Section 333 exemption. All issued FAA Section 333 exemptions are available on the FAA’s website so it is smart to search for the document and make sure the operator is on the up and up. These documents are fairly complex but the operator should be able to point you to the sections that provide the authorization to do your project.
Does the drone operator’s company have insurance for operation of the drone? Specifically, coverage for the personnel associated with the operating crew and for potential third party liability claims should something go wrong. An operator should be able to provide a certificate of insurance documenting the nature and extent of the coverages that may apply to your project. Don’t rely on chasing the assets of an LLC in the event of a loss. Consider being included as an additional insured on appropriate policies.
What are the drone operators’ terms and conditions of service? These terms should be in the form of a written scope of service with a mutually agreed commercial basis, including detailed terms covering such concepts as: warranties and remedies for unsatisfactory services; indemnification / limits of liability / insurance; confidentiality; ownership of data; schedule expectations. These are early days for this industry so don’t be hesitant to negotiate where needed to protect your interests but keep in mind the risk / reward balance associated with your individual project. Be wary of any operator who claims to offer 100% protection or similar overreaching guarantees.
Is the person who will actually be operating the drone a certificated aircraft pilot? The current FAA regulations and stipulations in Section 333 exemptions require a certificated aircraft pilot. The pilot is the person in command of the flight operations and should be a different person from the operator of an onboard camera or sensing device. For the best result it is recommended that the pilot operating the drone focus solely on the flight and not be distracted by the task of operating a camera as well.
How does the drone operator obtain the permissions it may need to fly over property that you don’t own or control? Most FAA Section 333 exemptions require that the operator obtain permission to fly a UAV from the property owner / operator before the start of each mission. This can probably be done most easily for property that you own or control as part of your contract terms with the drone operator. However, this requirement extends to neighbors as well. The Section 333 exemptions are not entirely clear what form this permission must take but they do require that the drone operator prove he / she has permission. So written permission from relevant neighbors is probably the best approach.
Best advice: If you are not getting satisfactory answers to these questions then you need to find another drone / UAS operator.