Unless you are flying your drone in wilderness and conservation areas you will almost certainly come across the situation where you are flying close to highways. I have flown close to many large highways and I’ve always wondered to myself: can you fly a drone over a highway? My immediate gut reaction is that it would be a silly idea since, in my local area, the rules are that you cannot fly above people or cars and within 30 m of them. However, there are some instances where flying over a highway cannot be avoided this includes construction surveying and asset management.
You cannot fly a drone over a highway. The FAA rules clearly state that “No person may operate a small unmanned aircraft over a human being located inside a moving vehicle…” Unless certain conditions are met such as the vehicle being stationary and protecting the passenger from a drone crash.
There are a range of dangers that are associated with flying a drone over a highway and, in this article, we will have a look at the sections of the FAA rules and how they apply to flying your drone over a highway or from a moving vehicle.
Here are all of the rules which have an impact on this question:
This first rule in section 1.7.25 states that you are not able to fly your drone from a moving land vehicle unless it is flown over a sparsely populated area.
Operation from a moving vehicle or aircraft.
No person may operate a small unmanned aircraft system—
(a) From a moving aircraft; or
(b) 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.
I’ve always wanted to get one of those shots where the drone follows my car down a highway as fast as it can. My little DJI Mavic air may not be able to keep up but I always think it will be an awesome shot to get. In this instance, I will have to use an abandoned highway or a very low traffic highway to get the shot of my dreams.
In short, do not operate your drone from a moving vehicle or aircraft.
In this section, the rules state that the pilot must make sure that the drone will not pose any hazards to other people, aircraft, or property. They are worried about the drone pilot losing control of the drone and it falling from the sky and causing damage or injury.
Remote pilot in command.
(a) A remote pilot in command must be designated before or during the flight of the small unmanned aircraft.
(b) The remote pilot in command is directly responsible for and is the final authority as to the operation of the small unmanned aircraft system.
(c) The remote pilot in command must ensure that the small unmanned aircraft will pose no undue hazard to other people, other aircraft, or other property in the event of a loss of control of the small unmanned aircraft for any reason.
(d) The remote pilot in command must ensure that the small UAS operation complies with all applicable regulations of this chapter.
(e) The remote pilot in command must have the ability to direct the small unmanned aircraft to ensure compliance with the applicable provisions of this chapter.
[Docket FAA-2015-0150, Amdt. 107-1, 81 FR 42209, June 28, 2016, as amended by Amdt. No. 107-8, 86 FR 4382, Jan. 15, 2021]
The likelihood of a drone falling out of the sky and landing directly on top of a person or car is increased dramatically over a highway. Therefore, it is best to not fly your drone over a highway as the event of a loss of control of the drone is likely to cause the drone to land on a car and damage to someone else’s property.
There is, however, a part of the code which allows you to fly over human beings.
I have flown my drone near my friends and strangers who have become interested in my drone and what it can do. However, the rules are very clear in that a drone must not operate over human beings unless the human being is located in an unmoving vehicle or inside a structure which will provide protection from a falling drone.
Operation over human beings.
No person may operate a small unmanned aircraft over a human being unless—
(a) That human being is directly participating in the operation of the small unmanned aircraft;
(b) That human being is located under a covered structure or inside a stationary vehicle that can provide reasonable protection from a falling small unmanned aircraft; or
(c) The operation meets the requirements of at least one of the operational categories specified in subpart D of this part.
[Amdt. No. 107-8, 86 FR 4382, Jan. 15, 2021]
I have talked about how flying a drone attracts people in my YouTube video. Even though the rules say that you are not able to operate over human beings a drone causes people to become instantly interested in what you are doing. That said, you need to make sure that during your flight you do not operate the drone over any human beings that are not located under a covered structure.
This section really helps us understand what the FAA wants is to do when it comes to flying our drones over highways. They very clearly state that no person may operate a small unmanned aircraft over a human being located in a moving vehicle. Like most things, there are some caveats and ways to get around this but, I think for a regular hobby user, the answer is clear – do not fly your drone over highways.
Operations over moving vehicles.
No person may operate a small unmanned aircraft over a human being located inside a moving vehicle unless the following conditions are met:
(a) The operation occurs in accordance with §107.110 for Category 1 operations; §107.115 for Category 2 operations; §107.125 for Category 3 operations; or §107.140 for Category 4 operations.
(b) For an operation under Category 1, Category 2, or Category 3, the small unmanned aircraft, throughout the operation—
(1) Must remain within or over a closed- or restricted-access site, and all human beings located inside a moving vehicle within the closed- or restricted-access site must be on notice that a small unmanned aircraft may fly over them; or
(2) Must not maintain sustained flight over moving vehicles.
(c) For a Category 4 operation, the small unmanned aircraft must—
(1) Have an airworthiness certificate issued under part 21 of this chapter.
(2) Be operated in accordance with the operating limitations specified in the approved Flight Manual or as otherwise specified by the Administrator. The operating limitations must not prohibit operations over human beings located inside moving vehicles.
As we are flying our drones will get very tempted about trying to get the next best shot. I know that I have been tempted to get a few shots looking straight down the highway as I think it would be really awesome.
Becoming a registered drone pilot means that you are not only familiar with all of these rules but you are also able to stick to them even when you really want to get the best shots that you can!
Hazards associate with flying over a highway
There are a number of hazards associated with flying over a highway this includes falling from the sky, becoming distracted by the increased activity, the increased hazard of airborne collisions with birds and the fact that highways also have a larger amount of infrastructure around them.
Let’s take a look at these in more detail and I’ll show you the science that backs it up!
Falling from the sky
If you are flying your drone over a highway it is unlikely that the drone will simply fall out of the sky or fly away uncontrollably. No matter how small the risk, it is important that every risk is accounted for.
My drone has never fallen from the sky and I think that as long as you are a good pilot and you do all of the important pre-flight checks this risk is very small.
That said, if you are unlucky enough to have your drone fall out of the sky you should make sure that is not capable of falling on any people or cars and cause damage or injury. Also, it is important to note that a startled driver travelling at highway speeds can very quickly cause a much bigger accident than the damage that can be caused by a falling drone.
Highways are full of activity and could be a potential source of distraction for the pilot. As you are flying a drone there are many things that you need to take into account. The legality of your flight, staying within the regulations, framing the shot, staying away from hazards, and making sure that you are keeping up-to-date with the real-time information and data that has been streamed to the first person video screen.
A simple lack of concentration for a very small amount of time can cause the pilot to accidentally and inadvertently come into contact with infrastructure or not foresee a potential incident such as a collision with a bird.
There is also good science to support the fact that highways have an increased amount of bird activity which will look at now.
Increased bird activity
Highways have been shown to be a place that offers high availability of accessible food to birds. The fact that there is a high amount of food in these areas demonstrates that there could be a higher amount of bird activity near the highway which can make it more dangerous for drone pilots.
One study, in 2013 surveyed 200 points along the New Zealand InterCity Road carrying out observations for different bird species. For every species, they investigated food preference, the possibility that certain Road features could affect the occurrence of feeding activity, and looked at their foraging selection along the roads.
They found that there was a significant amount of feeding activity with differences between different species and their foraging strategies. For example, sparrows were mainly observed feeding on small items while starlings were shown to have more generalized feeding habits. The fact that there is a wide selection of food along highways for many species of birds is worrying for a drone pilot who wants to avoid mid-air bird collisions. Another study suggested that some species actually favored Road-forest edges resulting in a higher density of birds along highways.
Lastly, another study published in 2004, showed that homing pigeons follow large roses and use landmarks as turning points on the homeward journey.
The scientists tracked 216 GPS recorded pigeons for up to 50 km. They found the experience pigeons release from familiar sites were significantly attracted to highways and railway tracks running towards their home. In many cases there was no obvious reason why they would follow such guides.
Many of the birds flew along the highway until a major junction and then used the junction to go home even if it added a significant detoured to their journey. Significant road following was shown in 40% to 50% of the pigeons that were tracked.
Highways offer a useful corridor for putting in infrastructure such as electrical cables and underground pipes. The fact that they are easy to run alongside highways means that they are much easier to do regular maintenance on.
The increased amount of infrastructure for a drone pilot means that there is likely to be many more high altitude cables running alongside the highway. This can cause significant issues in terms of collision but also increased electromagnetic noise which can affect the compass and the communication of the drone with the remote control.
These are serious issues for anyone who is flying a drone and, if the drones returned to home is not set appropriately cause the drone to flyaway and potentially crash land on a highway.
Why you may want to fly over a highway
There are many reasons why you may want to fly over a highway – you just have to make sure that you stick to the rules no matter what.
There are many different types of drones which can be used for mapping purposes. These are typically high altitude drones that move very quickly and are likely to be a fixed wing drone.
If you are mapping with a drone you have to make sure you get all of the appropriate checks and licenses so that you are able to fly over a highway. If it is a critical infrastructure check there may be certain exemptions to the FAA rules that may apply to you or that you can apply for.
Some construction companies like to take drone photos and video of their progress to show key stakeholders. This may actually take the drone over a highway. It is best to make sure that you do not fly over a highway unless you have the appropriate licenses. You can also fly over a highway if it is not populated or in use.
Frequently asked questions
Here are some of the more frequently asked questions about flying your drone over highways.
Can you fly drones over cars?
Whether or not you can fly it your drone over a car depends on whether or not it is moving. You are able to fly a drone over a stationary car as long as you have permission from that car’s owner. If there is any risk of your drone falling out of the sky and causing damage to the property of someone else (including a car) you are not allowed to.
Can you fly a drone over a bridge?
Bridges make for excellent drone photography. However, if there are cars on the bridge or people walking across you are not able to fly your drone over the bridge.
Bridges have a habit of concentrating people into a small area which means that it is unlikely the bridge will be quiet enough for you to fly your drone over. Also, some significant government landmarks and buildings are no-fly zones.
Apps can help you
If you’re not sure where you can and cannot fly your drone, I recommend that you download an app which will show you exactly where you can and cannot fly. In the United States of America, they have the before you fly app known as B4UFLY APP – because text language really appeals to the kids… I joke…
if you are a recreational user of drones you can now use the FAA drone app which was developed with the company Aloft (previously known as Kitty Hawk).
This app provides situational awareness to recreational (hobby) flyers and to other drone enthusiasts and pilots. It is available both on the App Store for Apple and on the Google play store for android phones.
Interestingly, it also includes a desktop version which allows you to do some pre-flight planning and research.
The key features of the app, as stated by the FAA, include:
Key features include:
- A clear “status” indicator that informs the operator whether it is safe to fly or not. (For example, it shows flying in the Special Flight Rules Area around Washington, D.C. is prohibited.)
- Informative, interactive maps with filtering options.
- Information about controlled airspace, special use airspace, critical infrastructure, airports, national parks, military training routes and temporary flight restrictions.
- The ability to check whether it is safe to fly in different locations by searching for a location or moving the location pin.
- Links to other FAA drone resources and regulatory information
If you are not in the United States of America there are other options which are just as powerful. My favourite app to use is open sky.
Open sky works in the United States, Australia, and other places in the world. It is a very simple and clean way of viewing drone rules and regulations that you can fly with confidence wherever you are.
It is a free app that supports flight planning for many types of drone users and by typing in a specific address you will be able to understand what the laws and regulations are in that place.
Open sky is an approved provider of real-time access to controlled airspace information from the FAA as well as CASA in Australia.
Drone operators can request an authorisation to flying controlled airspace including the airspace near major cities. It automatically checks airspace rules and regulations and advise you when the airspace is clear for flight.
In this article, we have answered the question can you fly a drone over a highway? Ultimately, for most of us the answer is no. You cannot fly your drone over a highway. However, if you fall within the very specific guidelines stated in various legislation you may be able to get permission to fly over cars and people.
In short, it’s probably a no…