Future Tense

How to Fly a Drone Without Being a Jerk

Be polite, ask permission, and don’t drink.

A DJI employee demonstrates flying a drone at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Jan. 7.
A DJI employee demonstrates flying a drone at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Jan. 7.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Drones are a marvelous new consumer technology, allowing the average person to take aerial photographs, make highly accurate maps and models, and generally have a grand old time—after all, we’re talking about having your very own flying robot. But there is danger here: Because drones are so new, our society has yet to form rules of etiquette and behavior around them.

This means that even the most well-meaning flying robot enthusiast may find themselves making grave etiquette errors—whether it’s flying over your neighbor’s private property without asking nicely first or showing up at someone’s wedding with a drone and assuming the bridal couple will be just as excited about it as you are.

I have compiled this list in the interest of helping drone users avoid behavioral gaffes and social embarrassments. After all, don’t you want you and your drone to get invited to more state dinners? In more-coarse and un-ladylike language: This list will help you avoid being a huge asshole when you’re out flying.

These suggestions are not just good manners. They are the right thing to do and will help ensure the safety of others and the continuing legality of drone technology. To quote the great Emily Post herself: “Etiquette must, if it is to be of more than trifling use, include ethics as well as manners.”

Do Not Fly Close to Disasters Without Explicit Permission

Unless you have been explicitly permitted to do so, you should never fly your drone in even the general vicinity of a disaster. The summer of 2015 saw a number of incidents in which California air crews responding to forest fires claimed to see drones hovering in their flight lines. These emergency aircraft had to be grounded until the airspace could be confirmed clear, delaying response to the fires and angering both state officials and members of the general public.

Nothing does more to harden public opinion against the legal civilian use of drones than news of yet another oaf with a drone mucking up disaster response flights. It’s just not worth it: Your amateur drone video of the forest fire down the road is exceedingly unlikely to result in a world-shaking scoop or a dramatic rescue. If you are very eager to shoot footage of a natural disaster, you absolutely must clear it with the relevant disaster response authorities first—and accept the answer if you are told to stay on the ground.

Ask Whether You Can Bring Your Drone First

There are people who do not want untrained and mud-spattered dogs at their garden parties, and there are people who do not want screaming children at their intimate weddings, and so too are there people who do not actually want you to bring your sweet drone to their event. Do not simply show up on the day of the 15th Annual Scottish Alligator Wrestling Fantasia and launch your drone into the air. People absolutely have the right to get mad at you if you show up at a busy, private event and start swooping a noisy flying robot over their heads. (This goes double for sporting events and busy stadiums; don’t even try to bring a drone to the Super Bowl.)

Instead: Ask whether you can film a drone video or shoot photos in advance with relevant event organizers, and listen carefully to what they say. Work with organizers so that your drone does not become a distraction or a general pain in the butt. Do not assume event organizers will be so compelled by your not-actually-unique piece of consumer technology that they will bend over backward to accommodate you. Accept it without unseemly grumbling on the internet if you are told that it won’t be possible to fly your drone at this time.

Avoid Flying Over Crowds of People

The Federal Aviation Administration discourages hobby and recreational drone pilots from flying over crowds of people, and this is simple common sense: While drones are quite reliable, there is always a chance of a mechanical accident and a crash that could cause injury to someone below. It is likely that the FAA’s final drone rules, which are anticipated later this year, will permit flights over crowds of people in some circumstances. There are certainly legitimate reasons to do this—for highly experienced professionals who aren’t two beers into a six pack, that is.

The average drone hobbyist messing around on a weekend almost certainly does not need to fly over crowds of people, whether at the state fair or on a packed beach on the Fourth of July. Such a hobbyist also likely lacks a comprehensive drone insurance policy, meaning that he or she is exposing some poor person on the ground to injury and subjecting him- or herself to the danger of a truly impressive lawsuit. Don’t try it.

Do Not Fly Over Private Property Without Asking First

While it is usually not illegal to fly a drone over private property, people often do not like it when you fly a drone over their private property (especially at low altitudes) without asking first. Sometimes, these people dislike it so much that they decide to get out a gun and deal with the problem themselves. In other cases, they dislike it so much that they try to pass strict anti-drone laws in your jurisdiction, impacting both you and everyone else who owns a drone. (The FAA contends that it has ultimate authority over airspace and thus drone regulations, instead of state and city lawmakers, but this is an ongoing debate).

“Never fly over private property” is not, I believe, something that should be encoded into law. An actual federal ban on all drone flight over private property would be a huge hindrance to many legitimate and publicly beneficial uses of drones, such as emergency response and mapping, environmental research, and large-scale surveying. But if we as an industry wish to keep homeowners happy and avoid a public push for private property–overflight bans, we need to commit to asking for permission, not forgiveness, when possible.

Actually Read the Manual (and Practice)

Many embarrassing, YouTube-quality drone crashes occur because a certain someone—usually, in my experience, a middle-age dad in tube socks—decided he didn’t have to read his new drone’s manual or spend time learning to fly it. Drone manufacturers include these mysterious little white pamphlets in the boxes of their products for a reason. It is worth at least glancing at it.

Once you have glanced at this manual, it would also behoove you to first practice with your drone, to ensure that you know what the controls are, how the drone generally behaves, and what you can do to bring it home in a hurry if you need to do so. It’s even better if you are able to practice with a very small toy drone (such as the Cheerson Nano) before you begin flying a full-size multirotor. Do not join the legions of Drone Dads who spent last Christmas Day crashing through swamps, neighbor’s backyards, and the tri-state area in search of their missing drone, to the great amusement of children, spouses, and the entire Twitter userbase. (Also, avoid hoverboards.)

Do Not Fly Very Close to Innocent Strangers

Innocent strangers have no idea what you are doing with your drone and almost certainly do not care. They mostly care about the fact that an unclaimed flying robot has suddenly appeared a few scant feet above their head, when all they were trying to do was walk to CVS for some deodorant. This does not foster kind feelings toward the drone hobby.

If you must fly drones close to people and are well-practiced enough to do so safely, it is important to warn them in advance to the extent possible. No electronic, camera-carrying surprises. 

Don’t Fly Near Airports

Drones should not be flown within a five-mile radius of airports in the United States. Handy apps like Airmap will show you if a particular area is within this zone. Some consumer drone models, like the DJI Phantom 3 and 4, actually cannot be flown (or only flown at lower altitudes) within these five-mile radiuses, as they ship with geofencing software that prevents them from being operated in certain sensitive areas.

Do not fudge this rule or quietly ignore it because you’re sure it’ll be OK. One of the biggest criticisms of consumer drones centers around the danger they may theoretically present to commercial, manned aircraft. While this threat is likely very small, the last thing the drone industry needs is yet more clueless hobbyists flying too close to the airport.

If you do have a good reason to fly near an airport, you can contact the airport and airport tower and ask for specific permission. 

Don’t Drink and Drone

A 12-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a $1,000-plus drone with a little camera stuck on it—do I really have to tell you that these elements do not mix well? Perhaps there is some universe where slamming four bourbons then attempting to shoot a drone video would work out perfectly well, but that is not the universe we live in. (There are also legal repercussions to drinking and droning, in case you were wondering.)

Beyond the obvious dangers of flying a drone while blitzed off your face on wine coolers, I must also point out that being caught drinking and droning—especially if you fly your drone into something really funny, like a water tower shaped like a giant peach, or a live, annoyed alligator—will cause you to be shamed on the Internet for the next 45 years. Or until you are dead. Whichever comes first.

Do Not Let Dogs, Kids, and Other Clueless Creatures Chase Your Drone

Yes, it is very charming and whimsical to watch your Labrador retriever and your toddler chase your drone, as you bring it to the earth for a landing. Break out the Instagram filter, Grandma! That is, until your dog realizes that the drone is close enough to the ground that it can grab it with his teeth, which she does, and then your toddler just happens to collide with the dog, and suddenly there are just a lot of whirling blades and plastic and screaming.

Do not let this happen. Keep all children and dogs and cats and goats and meddling uncles well away from your drone. (If you are a trained falconer, that may be an exception.) Further: Do not chase or hassle wildlife with your drone. This is distressing to animals and is a generally nasty thing to do. Remember: Wildlife is totally capable of getting revenge on your drone.

Be a Pleasant and Accommodating Drone Ambassador

People are interested in drones, and sometimes scared of them, and usually a bit of one and a bit of the other. If you are flying a drone in a public area and someone comes up to you to inquire about what you are doing, you ought to reply in as friendly and accommodating a tone as humanly possible—especially if the person seems awfully skeptical about this drone business. Drone skeptics are not the enemy. Usually, they merely have not had much to do with real-life consumer drones and have yet to encounter someone who can honestly answer their questions. Congrats, you get to be that someone.

Explain what you’re doing and why. Let them touch and examine your drone when you land it (and turn it off) if possible. Describe some of the good things drones can do, like disaster mapping and search and rescue. Talk about how much fun you have and the various safety protocols you follow. Acknowledge that some of their concerns—such as privacy—are entirely justifiable, and offer some suggestions as to how their fears can be alleviated. Cheerfully answer questions and offer advice on places to go to seek more information. If they do decide to get a drone and you have the spare time, help them get started, and even offer some initial flying lessons. I have had success with this approach, and I think that if every drone pilot adopted it, we could do a lot to address our persistent PR problem.

Avoid Disturbing the Peace

If there are a lot of people standing around at a scenic spot silently enjoying a bucolic sunrise over the mountains—the far-off cry of birds, the rush of wind through the trees, a creek burbling somewhere nearby—and you decide that this is an absolutely fabulous time to launch your buzzing, beeping drone over their heads to get a cool shot of said scenic area for your lovingly maintained Instagram account … perhaps you should consider not doing this. Because it is a jerk move.

Nature is quite large, and there are many places to get beautiful shots that do not also have lots of other people around, trying to enjoy the same pleasant natural landscape. If you are dead set on shooting a drone image of a particular spot, you can always wait for a quieter time or ask people if they are OK with you launching your drone. And don’t bring your drone to national parks.

Exercise General Caution

I freely cop to being a bit of a wimp when it comes to flying a drone in certain situations—but that’s also kept me off of Gawker, at least so far. If you are unsure whether a certain flight is a good idea, find another place to go, or to wait for another time. (I can assure you that 99 percent of sick drone shots you might be inclined to take have already been taken by someone else with a fancier drone and better video editing skills.)

We drone hobbyists ought to keep in mind that we are not in a particularly powerful position. We are early adopters of a technology that many people still find exotic and potentially suspicious. Our actions will have a huge impact on public opinion towards drone technology—which means it’s incumbent upon us to avoid bad press and mishaps if we wish to keep this exciting, indisputably awesome technology legal and widely available. Put down the beer, avoid the dog park, and stay far, far away from forest fires. Don’t be the jerk who ruins it for everyone.

This article is part of the drones installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month from January through June 2016, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Read more from Futurography on drones:

Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. To get the latest from Futurography in your inbox, sign up for the weekly Future Tense newsletter.