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Preparing for safe and successful drone filming

Updated: Jul 6, 2023

Pilot and astronaut Phillipe Perrin once said,

“It's only when you're flying above it that you realize how incredible the Earth really is”.

Whilst only a privileged few will ever get to fly a plane, drones now allow us to capture footage which translates just a little of the sense of wonder experienced by pilots. Aerial footage gives videos visual impact, and a new, exciting perspective for showcasing places, facilities and events.

Aerial shots have been used in movies for decades and so have a cinematic feel, but due to the development of better drones at lower prices, they are now more widely available for commercial use. So, it’s a great idea to get some drone footage recorded, either to enhance a specific video project, or to set aside for future use across a number of videos.

However, with drone filming, there are a few considerations particular to the use of this kind of equipment. It’s good to know this stuff in advance, lest you encounter unexpected delays, so here is a brief list of things to be aware of:

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1) Preparing for successful drone filming with the recce

As I’ve written before, a recce is almost always a very useful and important thing to do for your video production. However, for drone filming, it’s absolutely essential - everything that follows on this list will be made easier by having done a recce.

It’s important on the recce that you get the right people there. The drone operator and video producer should be in attendance, and the project lead on your side, as well as the person in charge of safety and security at the location. In addition to the sensible stuff, this is a good opportunity to talk to the crew about the type of shots you want, as this can be easier to describe on location.

The drone operator will want to make an assessment of the potential take-off points at the location. If they don’t communicate this to you clearly, ask them, as the take off points themselves can introduce new considerations.

2) Risk assessment

A risk assessment is another essential. Safety is paramount, and without a risk assessment it may be impossible for you, or the crew you are using, to claim insurance if anything were to go wrong. Risk assessments cover things like working at heights and other considerations brought about by the take off points, and cover risks to the general public as well as the crew.

Going through this process will help you remember things you might otherwise have not thought about, like use of hi-vis clothing for the crew. Depending on your organisation, you may have to complete your own risk assessment, but your production company should provide one in any case.

Remember, a good risk assessment should not only identify risks, but specify the control measures to be adopted to mitigate the risk.

3) Health and safety

As a general rule, it’s better that the area you’re filming in is free from people. Drones are not allowed to take off closer than 30 metres of a member of the public. The area around the drone should be cordoned off, and the crew should be wearing high vis. If the drone is heavier than 250g, you must, at all times, fly at least 50m above people and traffic that you're not in control off.

One idea is to plan your filming around times when there won’t be many people around. If filming at a university, for example, you could choose to shoot outside of term time when students are more likely to be away from campus.

Other recommendations would be to have a first aid kit nearby and a first aider on site, as well as someone who is in charge of health and safety at the location to be present when filming is taking place.

Completing a risk assessment and sharing that with all stakeholders is a vital part of the process, as is conducting a recce, so please don’t skip those steps.

For more information on drone safety, try this useful blog post from Heliguy.

4) Permissions

Unless you are on public land, you need the landowner's permission to take off. Many locations around the country have restrictions on drone flying - and if you're near an airport then forget it!

You can see the restrictions live here.

5) Licensing

The regulations are forever changing but as of June 2023. Flights now come under an 'open' category or a 'specific' category. Most flights will be under the Open category.

The very minimum requirement for all drones is that the drone and the operators are registered.

Here are the Open Category rules:

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For drones over 250g, the drone operator must always have a license approved by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), and should have the permission of the CAA to film in a built-up area.

For very-large drones, or flying very close to people not under your control or to fly over crowds your operator will need a special permission from the CAA under their 'specific category'. This is not something that can be got quickly.

Finally, all commercial drone operators must be insured. Don’t be afraid to ask for proof of all this before going ahead with filming.

6) Weather

More than other types of filming, the look of your shots is dependent on the weather. If you are trying to showcase building exteriors, they will look loads better under some lovely blue sky. So, in preparing for drone filming look at the weather forecast, and reschedule filming if the weather is not right.

Your production team should be willing to do the same, at no cost to you, as long as they haven’t already spent money getting to the location. If your provider does need you to cover these expenses, it’s probably worth taking the hit if the alternative is getting your shots on a grey day.

In addition to any aesthetic concerns, drones cannot take off in high winds, and rain and camera lenses don’t tend to mix well either.

7) Interiors

Please be aware that drones flying indoors can suffer from signal interference and loss of GPS lock to hold them in position. Some drones, and indeed some locations, are better than others in this regard.

This is something to ask your production team about, but our advice would be to manage your own expectations around getting footage indoors. As a backup, you could even ask the crew to bring a stabilisation rig such as a Ronin RS3 so that you can at least get floaty shots from any high vantage points, for example where you have an atrium surrounded by open corridors or walkways.

Also, please note that anywhere you fly indoors must be cordoned off with no people near the flight path of the drone.

This all might seem like a lot of faff, and it kind of is, but you can pay a video production company to take care of the vast majority of all of this for you. More and more organisations are using drone footage in their videos, and it’s little wonder - aerial shots can be visually stunning, and add an extra bit of quality to your video. So, we would recommend using drone footage - but please make sure you choose a production team that will follow the relevant laws, rules and regulations, and use a process that is based primarily on safety and getting the required permissions before filming.

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