In a survey conducted last April, experts in the field of drone journalism were asked what they saw as the greatest challenges facing the development of their industry today. Not surprisingly, the number one answer was uncertainty about the legal/regulatory framework. Certainly, things have improved with the adoption of Part 107, which opened up a great deal of airspace and removed many barriers to entry faced by those who want to fly drones commercially.
Nevertheless, there are still many pockets of low-altitude controlled airspace all across the country, particularly in large cities. Navigating around those limitations can be time consuming, though with the upcoming release of LAANC, we can expect some improvement. Still, most broadcasters will find it most efficient to apply for longer-lasting airspace authorization in their home cities—this article provides guidance.
With greater clarity as our aim, let’s take a look some of the major media markets in the United States, and what their airspace limitations and restrictions look like.
New York City Drone Airspace
To ensure the safety of air traffic in the airspace surrounding busier airports, federal law establishes control zones that have specific rules and requirements for entry by all aircraft. This is controlled airspace. Of particular interest to drone operators are Class B, C, and D controlled airspace and surface-based Class E airspace associated with an airport.
With three major airports in the vicinity (Laguardia, JFK, and Newark), much of the Big Apple is covered with Class-B controlled airspace. Making matters more challenging are the Hudson River and East River Special Flight Rules Areas (SFRAs), which limit drone flights above the rivers, the consequence of a 2009 midair crash of a sightseeing helicopter and a private aircraft. There are specific requirements for operating in the SFRA that most drones cannot comply with. Special permission from the local FSDO would normally be required to fly a drone within the SFRA.
But even with permission to fly within the New York Area Class B controlled airspace, the presence of a temporary flight restriction (as indicated by a red circle) over the president’s family residence makes the area particularly sensitive to unmanned aviation. As it so happens, this is where many of New York’s media companies are headquartered.
There are a few clear areas, however. Most of Brooklyn is not within the Class B surface area, which provides ample opportunity to document the rapidly growing borough. Want to show the elegant beauty of Prospect Park, or the bustle of Smorgasburg? That is perfectly legal, so long as you don’t fly directly over people. The same is true for Jersey City and Paterson. Make sure you check the Skyward map for VIP TFRs before you fly!
Los Angeles Drone Airspace
The sprawling hills of Los Angeles are home to dozens of film, television, and news companies. As you can see in the view of the Skyward Airspace Map below, the area is also home to many airports surrounded by controlled airspace. Fortunately, most of that airspace is Class-D, which is the most commonly waivered airspace.
Tip: Apply for an airspace waiver from the FAA as soon as possible. It may take as long as 90 days for you to hear back. Consult this article for advice on submitting a successful waiver.
There’s more good news: Thanks to the spread of Los Angeles, there are plenty of areas between the controlled airspace areas that are wide open to commercial drone flights. Most of downtown is available, as are Pasadena, Glendale, Palos Verdes, and some of Manhattan Beach. In a city this large, it is impossible to know where the news will happen, or what stories will need to be told—nevertheless, it’s a good sign that so much of the city’s airspace is available. Check local ordinances but don’t be afraid to fly in the city. Do take special precautions; it’s an inherently challenging environment.
Television and film companies that don’t respond to unfolding events, but are working instead on a well-defined schedule, are in a better position to apply for airspace authorizations or waivers if the shoot happens to be in controlled airspace. Drone technology is a cheaper and more efficient means of achieving high-quality aerial shots, and the creative minds of Hollywood will likely help set the standard for how unmanned aviation captures video.
Chicago Drone Airspace
The Windy City offers drone operators plenty of leeway in its mostly uncontrolled airspace above the city. Besides Midway in the southwest and O’Hare in the northwest, most of the city proper is available to drone operations.
There is plenty of news to be filmed outside of the area near the airports, but know that Chicago has its own municipal drone ordinance: “A drone cannot fly higher than 400 feet, beyond the operator’s line of sight, or between the hours of 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.” The rules prohibit drones from flying within five miles of the city’s airports, or over schools, hospitals, churches, police stations, outdoor stadiums, and “property the operator does not own.”
To a certain extent, these are similar to rules under Part 107, with the exception of the private property clause. As we discussed in our recent piece on navigating Part 107 as a media company, it is wise to avoid flying over private property without permission in the first place.
Philadelphia Drone Airspace
Some might be surprised to find The City of Brotherly Love on this list—it’s less of a surprise when you learn that Philadelphia is home to The Comcast Network. Comcast owns NBC, Telemundo, The Weather Channel, Universal Pictures, and numerous other subsidiaries that are part of the fabric of many Americans’ daily lives. This is besides the dozen-plus local news stations, and the Pulitzer-winning Philadelphia Inquirer, all of which benefit from relatively open airspace in Eastern Pennsylvania, South New Jersey, and Northern Delaware.
If you look at the Skyward Airspace Map, you’ll see a few large chunks carved out by the airports around the city. The one in the center is Philadelphia International Airport, which is Class B airspace, and to the north is Northeast Philadelphia Airport, which is Class D. This means that considerable swaths of downtown Philadelphia are within the Class B surface area, but there is still plenty of room to work in between and around these two zones. Paine’s Park, for example, is roughly adjacent to the Philadelphia Art Museum, the steps of which Rocky climbed during his famous training montage. Dr. Ulysses Wiggins Waterfront Park, Falls Township Lake, and the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk are all outside of the controlled airspace as well.
Dallas/Fort Worth Drone Airspace
The Dallas/Fort Worth area is crowded with local media, including WFAA, KTVT, and KDFW—that’s not even touching on the Cowboys, which are about as dominant a cultural force as you will find in this country.
Over twenty local stations reach Dallas/Fort Worth’s 7 million-plus residents via video, and there is still plenty of room for even more growth. This spells great opportunity for drone operations to find purchase and portray the city from above.
Looking at the Skyward Airspace Map, however, you’ll notice that much of the city proper is swallowed up by DFW International Airport’s Class B surface area. The good news is that southern Fort Worth is largely available, and the suburbs like Plano, Mesquite, and Garland are unrestricted. Nevertheless, this does pose a bit of a headache for media and news companies that want to expand their drone operations.
San Francisco Bay Area Drone Airspace
The Bay Area and Silicon Valley have enjoyed an explosion of growth and capital over the past couple decades. The influx of money and people to the area has brought with it a burgeoning media market, and there are plenty of established and up-and-coming media companies that are taking advantage of their platform to reach millions of people in Northern California and across the world. Between San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose, there are roughly two dozen local television stations and several reputable newspapers and magazines, including the San Francisco Chronicle.
Glancing at the map, you can see that the half-dozen towered airports in this area are carving up a lot of the airspace in Silicon Valley. On the bright side, San Francisco, Berkeley, and downtown Oakland are wide open—at least for the moment. This area is subject to frequent TFRs, so always make sure to check an updated map before you fly.
In any city, if the location of the flight is within 3 nautical miles (3.45 statute miles) of a major sporting venue, check the schedule to make sure that the Stadium TFR does not apply (learn more here).
Boston Drone Airspace
Boston is home to a proud journalistic tradition that includes the Boston Globe and Boston Herald, in addition to over fifteen local television stations. The city is full of landmarks and fascinating architecture that can benefit from drone photography, which can offer new perspectives on our most time-honored historical sites. The Boston area is also home to top universities (e.g., MIT, Harvard) that have been heavily involved with the development of drone technology.
Unfortunately, most low altitude airspace over Boston is controlled airspace thanks to the presence of Logan International Airport close to the city center. Logan’s Class-B airspace swallows up a gigantic circle that reaches all the way out to the suburbs. Waltham and Newton are nearby cities that are relatively open to drone flight, but smaller airfields in Bedford, Norton, and Beverly surround Boston and further limit the access to airspace.
Washington, D.C. Drone Airspace
As the seat of the federal government, Washington, D.C. has naturally produced a busy news and media industry. Though it will likely come as no surprise to anyone reading this, there are security concerns that conflict with the desire to use drones for purposes of gathering video. By federal statute, there is a 30-nautical mile radius Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) centered on Ronald Reagan International Airport, in which commercial UAS operations are not allowed, subject to specific requirements. But within the SFRA, there is a Flight Restricted Zone roughly 15 nautical miles in radius in which drone use is expressly prohibited.
Atlanta Drone Airspace
Let’s head back down south and round out our list with Atlanta, home to the Turner cable television empire, which includes TNT, TBS, CNN International, and Cartoon Network. Atlanta also hosts 13 full-power local television stations and the Journal-Constitution. Overall, Atlanta is the ninth largest media market in the country, serving a population of roughly 5.7 million.
Glancing at the map, you can see that the downtown area is free and clear, as are the suburbs to the east, including Decatur. Matters get a little choppier as we head south and hit the airspace surrounding Hartfield-Jackson International Airport, which is has a large Class-B surface area.
Then there’s Fulton County Airport to the west, Dobbins to the northwest, and Dekalb-Peachtree to the northeast, all of which are Class-D. It’s a bit of a mixed bag for drone operations in Atlanta, a sprawling metropolis consisting of multiple interconnected suburbs linked together by a web of highways. There’s certainly plenty of traffic to cover.
If you’d like to cover a story that lies within controlled airspace, don’t despair—you can always apply for an airspace authorization or waiver. Unfortunately, due to a major backlog of applications (thanks to an overwhelming interest in commercial drone flight) it can sometimes take a few months to hear back from the FAA. However, news and media companies face unique constraints on time that are not as much a factor in other industries, which makes a lengthy waiver process less accommodating. Thankfully, the FAA is working towards streamlining the process via the upcoming LAANC system.
One way to get around the waiver headache is to apply well in advance for events that you know will occur, such as marathons, parades, rallies, fairs, or any other civic event which is regularly scheduled and could benefit from aerial imaging.
Another useful tip is to plan your flight to avoid violating Part 107. Now, with blanket airspace limitations this is often not possible, but it’s not too difficult to work around flying over people, or at night. Make sure you know the ins and outs of the law, and you can likely find room to operate.
Last but certainly not least, make sure and check out Tariq Rashid’s fantastic piece for more specific advice on how to approach the waiver process. At the very least this information will help you avoid waiting months for a reply, only to find out that you were rejected based on a procedural error with your application.
*Top image not captured via drone