Everyone who pilots a drone should follow the law and best practices. But just because you have everything in order doesn’t mean someone won’t confront you mid-flight. When someone spots a drone flying nearby, reactions range from mild interest to outrage. They may even contact the authorities, which means you might have to explain your operation to a police officer.

It’s an all-too-common scenario. As I’ve talked with Skyward’s customers, I’ve found that most experienced drone pilots have a story or two about an encounter with the public or law enforcement while flying safe, legal missions. So I met with Skyward Professional Services trainer Rodney Murray to find out his best practices for handling these encounters.

Here are a few tips for diffusing encounters with the public or law enforcement, along with an example from one of Rodney’s own operations.

#1: Build positive public perception and avoid encounters altogether

My coworker Isaac Bruns recently wrote about some best practices for building positive public perception of your drone operation in the field. Some of the tips were very simple: follow federal and local drone laws. Call ahead to alert nearby neighbors you’ll be flying. Others were more tactical: wear a high-visibility vest and use cones. Have physical paperwork on hand.

Just looking professional goes a long way toward reducing people’s fears. If it looks like you’re supposed to be there, people are less likely to call the police about your drone. It’s no guarantee, but it may help reduce difficult encounters.

#2: Always stay in control of your drone and mission

While you’re piloting a drone, having someone engage with you can be distracting. This can be the case when someone is just casually interested in your operation. It’s even more stressful if they’re a law enforcement official telling you to land your drone immediately.

As the pilot in command, your first job is to safely control the drone. Even if you are being approached by an angry member of the public, calmly tell them that you must safely land your drone before engaging with them. Crashing a drone because you get distracted will only make matters worse.

#3: Be courteous and professional

During any encounter, it’s crucial to remain professional and as courteous as possible. Again, make it clear that you’re a licensed professional doing real work. But also consider the observer’s point of view, and don’t try to antagonize them.

It’s also important to be reasonable, especially when encountering law enforcement. Don’t get into an argument. If an officer asks you to land, then land. Address the situation outside the moment, not while attempting to fly.

#4: Be ready to educate your audience and show your compliance

If you’re a licensed drone pilot, you’re likely to be the most knowledgeable person about drone laws during an encounter with the public. You may even know more about airspace rules than local law enforcement. Be prepared to educate your audience and demonstrate your compliance with the rules at every level.

But please remember: it’s crucial to do this in a spirit of courtesy and professionalism. Being argumentative with your knowledge of drone laws won’t get you anywhere fast.

Rodney included a caveat here: sometimes, your audience will simply be unreasonable. People may be upset and unwilling to listen to why you’re allowed to fly there. In these cases it is often better, when possible, to pack up the drone for the day. It may be better to build goodwill and seek agreement at a later time than to get quick results but risk a more serious incident.

As an extreme example, Rodney told me he was once stopped mid-operation by a nearby property owner who let him know he was carrying a weapon. Because Rodney handled the situation professionally, it never escalated, and the property owner was even pleasant about it in the end. If Rodney had handled the situation poorly, it could have resulted in a very different outcome.

How preparation paid off for a Skyward Professional Services consultant

Rodney told me about a recent incident in which he got to put these four best practices to use. He was contracted to perform a facade inspection on a condo with his drone. As he planned the mission, he took all possible factors into consideration. He obtained a LAANC authorization in Skyward to fly in the airspace, got permission from the property owner (who also informed all the tenants when and how the inspection would be happening), coned off his take-off and landing zones, had his paperwork on hand, and wore high-visibility gear.

Despite his preparation, he was approached by a police officer while flying the inspection with the drone no more than 10 feet from the condo. Even though the tenants had been informed of the operation, one of them had seen the drone and called the police.

Rodney asked the officer to wait until he could safely land the drone. He then presented it to the officer for inspection. Rodney explained his mission and introduced the property owner who had given him permission to fly. Once the officer verified that Rodney had everything in order, he allowed him to continue the operation.

Rodney’s success was a direct result of his preparation and professionalism. If he hadn’t taken the necessary steps, he easily could have been shut down that day.

Skyward’s Professional Services prepare corporate drone teams for field operations

As one of Skyward’s Professional Services trainers, Rodney guides large companies through the process of setting up strong drone programs. These best practices, along with many more, are included in Skyward’s package of standard operating procedures for drone programs. It’s one part of Skyward’s Program Start package, an all-in-one solution designed to help companies start flying a high-value drone operation in a few weeks.

Get in contact with a member of Skyward’s Professional Services team today to find out how they can help your drone program.

Skyward Guide to Starting a Drone Program