Flying drones in Charleston and the Lowcountry is exciting for photographers of all kinds because it allows us to capture the picturesque landscape without the need for a full-on aircraft. The topography of the Lowcountry is extremely flat with no naturally occurring elevated vantage points making aerial photography especially useful here. The Ravenel Bridge has a great view and is excellent for photography, but many of the other man-made structures and bridges are unsafe for pedestrians, which limits the opportunities for conventional photography.
Drones free us from these location constraints and allow us to capture the landscape from seemingly unlimited angles. The freedom that drones give you isn’t unlimited though. The surge of U.S. drone sales over the last couple years has caused a fragmented government response. There are many special drone rules, regulations and ordinances that are expected to be followed, yet aren’t always clearly defined
The Drone Basics
Drone sales are expected to surpass $1 billion dollars this year which has lead to hasty legal action to regulate them. The main reasons drone regulations are confusing is because most drone rules are vague and there is no central place to find all of the information you need. Some of these ordinances and regulations overlap, where as others are randomly established and not very well documented. Because of this, I thought it would be a good idea to put together this blog which is chock-full of links to resources for flying drones in Charleston.
For pilots flying drones in Charleston, there’s a few places you should always avoid so you don’t mistakenly break the law and get fined, unknowingly disturb wildlife or hurt someone. But first off, let’s review the basic recreational rules established by the FAA.
FAA Drone Rules that always apply (Recreational pilots):
- Do not exceed the 400 feet altitude limit
- Must Register drone if it is over .55 lbs: FAA drone registration
- Do not fly within 5 miles of an airport without notifying airport
- Keep the drone within visual line of sight
- ALWAYS yield right of way to other aircraft
- Do not fly directly over crowds of people
- Daylight hours only
For the full comprehensive list visit the FAA webpage for drone rules: FAA UAS Webpage
Drone Rules Update: There was a recent ruling on May 19th, 2017 in the U.S. Court of Appeals that may change these drone regulations as it pertains to recreational pilots. The ruling can be found here: John A. Taylor vs. FAA. There is also a summary of the ruling in this Washington Post article.
From the FAA website: “We are in the process of considering our response to the decision as well as any registration implications for non-commercial users.” For now, the normal drone rules are in effect until the FAA responds. You can check the status of the FAA’s response on their website: https://www.faa.gov/uas/.
But Wait! There’s more…
The FAA, Air Traffic Control, DNR, NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. National Park service, local town and state governments all have their own stances on regulations concerning drones. For example, even though you’re not breaking any FAA rules, did you know it’s illegal to fly a drone from Mt. Pleasant Waterfront park? Yes, it is a town ordinance established in 2016, but wasn’t really announced and is made up of a small clause buried within a PDF document on the city’s website.
More confusion arises from the Charleston County Parks website. A local news source claimed that flying drones in any Charleston City park is illegal, however there is no mention of drones, sUAS, or UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) on their website. Here’s what it does say:
Firearms, fireworks, remote control airplanes, and any dangerous projectiles are prohibited. Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission does recognize a valid South Carolina Concealed Weapons Permit.
To a layperson, a drone could be interpreted as a remote control airplane, but in reality they operate completely different and are recognized as different by the FAA. I understand that many municipalities are probably just catching up to the notion of drones and how to plan for them, but when they do make a decision, it needs to be announced, clearly defined and easily available.
My goal is to preserve what freedom we have by educating those pilots who are thinking about or already flying drones in Charleston regularly. I expect this to be a learning process for us all as things continue to develop, but here’s some resources I found that will hopefully be useful for people looking for this information online.
Resources For Flying Drones in Charleston
The most straightforward interactive map for checking the basic no-fly drone zones is the Know Before You Fly website (screenshot below). It doesn’t highlight all of the drone no-fly zones in Charleston, but it has a lot of them, including the 5 mile radius’s of the Charleston towered airports in yellow, schools in smaller yellow dots, and designated national parks like Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie in red, which you cannot fly from.
The yellow striped area is showing the area where helicopters commonly operate (heliport present) and serves more as a notice to steer clear if you see one. Please keep in mind there is a helicopter tour that takes off and lands near the Yorktown Aircraft Carrier in Charleston harbor. They routinely fly around the harbor so be aware. They’re website: Holy City Helicopters. There is also the MUSC heliport in downtown Charleston. To see the detailed map, type in “Charleston, SC” and explore the map on the website to familiarize yourself with it, especially if you are flying drones in Charleston frequently.
The map above is actually a dumbed-down version of the more comprehensive interactive map seen here: AIRMAP. It can overlay multiple layers including radar and weather reports, airspace classes, un-towered airports, temporary flight restrictions and NOAA designated areas.
The next interactive map, called Hivemapper, highlights military installations which you cannot fly a drone near. These are not listed or highlighted on the AIRMAP above. These FAA regulations went into effect on April 14th, 2017 and cover 133 military installations around the country. For example, flying drones near the Charleston Shipyard in North Charleston or the Coast Guard station (screenshot) on the Charleston peninsula is now prohibited:
Other Drone Rules by Organization:
South Carolina DNR drone rules: As of June, 2017 there is no mention of drones on the South Carolina DNR website, but that could change.
NOAA Fisheries drone rules: Harassing marine mammals is prohibited. Changing their behavior by disturbing them with a drone is considered a violation of federal law.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife drone rules: It’s illegal to operate a drone from National Wildlife Refuge System property. Fines can also be levied if you fly your drone over wildlife refuge property or disturb wildlife on the refuge.
National Park Service drone rules: “Launching, landing, or operating an unmanned aircraft from or on lands and waters administered by the National Park Service within the NPS boundaries is prohibited except as approved in writing by the superintendent.”
U.S Forest Service drone rules: Currently does not have any additional regulations. They treat drones (UAS) the same as manned aircraft and fall back on FAA rules. As long as you abide by the FAA rules while flying from U.S. Forest Service land, you should be in the clear.
Dont’ Forget About TFR’s and NOTAM’s
Every once in a while a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) will be issued via a Notice To Airmen (NOTAM) by an aviation authority. Basically, these are special notices that are issued in unique circumstances that restrict the movement of ALL aircraft in a given area. This means no drones or ANY other aircraft at all may enter the airspace without specific permission. Certain TFR’s are not temporary, like those around Wasington, D.C. However, most are temporary and can be issued for a natural disaster area, special event or government VIP movement.
For example, when president Trump visited Boeing in North Charleston earlier this year, there was a massive TFR placed over Charleston. The entire area was covered, making it illegal to fly a drone, let alone an aircraft. Sometimes TFR’s can be issued within a couple of hours of taking affect, so it’s always a good habit to check before flying your drone.
Violating a TFR is a big deal. If you are caught knowingly violating a TFR you can be criminally prosecuted and face up to a year in federal prison and a $100,000 fine. Also, if you plan on flying a drone right after a hurricane you may want to check for TFR’s just to be sure you’re not interfering with recovery aircraft. To see a constantly updated list of all national TFR’s visit the FAA TFR list website .
Drone Privacy Laws in South Carolina
As of right now, the state of South Carolina has no specific rules regarding drones and private property. As long as you are not using the drone to intentionally invade someone’s privacy without their consent you should be fine. The FAA is pretty vague on this because there is no defined area where private property starts and FAA airspace begins. However, I was able to find how the Mount Pleasant police department defines drones and invasion of privacy:
“If something is below your tree line in your yard or over your home or near a window buzzing, that is something that you need to call us and let us take care of.” – Inspector Chip Googe, Mt. Pleasant Police Department
Basically, use common sense and try to avoid flying a drone over private property at low altitudes. If you are using your drone in low altitude scenarios, such as for real estate photography, consider letting the neighbors know what’s going on.
So Where Can We Fly Drones in Charleston?
It might seem like a lot but if you checkout Canadian drone laws, you can be relieved that there’s worse places to be stuck as a drone pilot than in Charleston. At the end of the day it’s all about safety and that should be your first priority always. Having said that, there are plenty of safe places for flying drones in Charleston.
In general, the absolute safest bets in my opinion are any ocean, marshes, rivers or creeks that are 5 miles away from airports. Any nice wide open places where there are few people or obstacles. Specifically though, all of Mount Pleasant south of the IOP connector, Daniel Island, the Charleston peninsula, and most of West Ashley are far enough away airports for safe flight. During the summer weekends Charleston beaches can get crowded. If you do fly during these times, consider flying during low tide when there is more beach and more room to work with. In the off-season, when it’s cooler, the beaches are less crowded and can be a great spot for safely flying drones in Charleston.
If you have to fly near a congested or busy area like downtown Charleston, consider flying during off-peak hours such as early in the morning or after rush hour to minimize safety risks. Avoid flying directly over busy roads or highways and never fly over major sporting events or large crowds of people.
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About The Author: My name is Nicholas Skylar Holzworth and I am a photographer and owner of 5th Spark Web Design & Photography. I am a FAA Part 107 licensed commercial drone operator and native of Charleston, South Carolina. I don’t claim to know all of the drone rules (This probably isn’t all of them) and am not perfect myself, but I hope this will help those looking for this information.