Interested in learning drone photography? Add yourself to our interest list to be informed of any future drone photography workshops with GPP.
By Sheban Naim
We covered some basic photography tips in Part 1 of this 2-part blog series. In Part 2, we will talk more about the operational side of things and drone regulations for the emirate of Dubai.
1. Drone Operation Tips
● Keep an eye on that battery.
One of the biggest causes of crashed drones is the loss of battery power. Remember, your battery is your fuel, and a quadcopter doesn’t glide very well. Most DJI models have alarms that go off when it’s time to come down. Respect that. A lot of new operators stretch out the alarms to try and get more air-time or the perfect shot, and by the time they bring the drone back home, it’s dangerously low on battery. It’s not worth it - drone batteries don’t like being discharged beyond a certain point, and this behavior can sometimes cause irreversible damage. A safe ballpark figure is to land at 30%, but this depends on the type of drone you have and how far away you are from your home point. Do a bit of research, and stick to the numbers that are recommended for your model. Another important tip is to never leave your battery unattended for long durations while it’s charging - Lithium Polymer batteries are highly volatile and flammable.
● Fly responsibly.
What separates the good drone pilot from the average Joe is the ability to react well in a crisis situation. Having a spot to “ditch” the drone is never a bad idea. It’s better to lose the aircraft than to cause damage to people or property. Also remember, while you may have good intentions, a lot of folks still view drones as a threat to their privacy - as a hobbyist you should ensure you’re not offending anyone around you. As a commercial operator, you need to follow the law and get the permits required before taking off.
● Plan your flight.
Plan your flight so you know where you’re going, what you’ll be shooting, and what you will do should something go wrong. If you’re operating around a lot of obstacles, then do a quick test run before the actual shoot. This way you’ve taken note of any problem areas and can concentrate on the photography/cinematography aspect of things during the actual flight. Planning will improve your workflow and efficiency compared to aimlessly flying around while looking for the “best angle”, which is also a waste of battery time.
● Check for radio & magnetic interference.
Modern commercial drones operate on a mix of 2.4Ghz and 5.8Ghz radio bands. These same bands are also used by WiFi and other devices. In certain conditions, this can cause heavy interference during flight. This may not show up when you’re taking off as you will be in close proximity to your drone and the signal strength will be great at that point. A common example of this is flying indoors or in an area with heavy WiFi usage (an exhibition hall, for example); a quick radio range-check done by putting your drone on the ground and walking a certain distance away can save a lot of headaches later on. Also, be wary when taking off from metallic surfaces; most drones have an internal compass that calibrates itself when you turn the drone on. That calibration can be thrown off near metallic surfaces. Most DJI systems will throw a “Compass Error” to warn you of potential problems.
● Check your propellers.
If you’ve ever driven in a car with unbalanced wheels, you’ll immediately know what I’m talking about. An unbalanced propeller causes vibrations - these vibrations can travel down to your camera and cause all sorts of problems. In extreme cases, it can also affect the performance of your drone. Do not fly with heavily scratched or damaged propellers - they may look structurally sound, but they sometimes come apart mid-air. Depending on your drone type, get a propeller balancer and learn to use it. Well-balanced propellers lead to smooth video footage, sharper photographs, and also have the added bonus of leading to a slightly quieter drone.
● Carry out regular maintenance.
A drone is a complicated machine and doing regular maintenance checks will go a long way in keeping your flights free of incident for a long time. Most manufacturers recommend checking all moving parts from time to time. This includes motors, propellers, and other parts like servo-operated landing gear skids found on larger drones. Powered off, spin the motor by hand and listen for any grinding or rough whine sounds coming from it - these may be signs of failing bearings. This is especially important if you’ve had rough landings on sand before. Other signs to watch out for include stuttering motors, sudden uncommanded changes during flight, and flight instability. If you feel things are “off”, don’t fly.
● Make pre-flight checks a habit.
This is probably the most important tip of all. A lot of pilots turn the drone on, wait for GPS lock, and zoom off. Make pre-flight checks a habit, even if you’re in a hurry and especially if you’re flying in a congested area. Things to check for include:
○ Ensure the take-off area is clear of people and obstacles
○ Battery charge levels on controller and drone are good
○ Drone is level on the ground
○ Propellers are on securely and free from damage
○ Motors spin freely
○ Gimbal is free to move
○ SD card has enough space
○ Radio signal strength is good & free of interference
○ Compass shows no errors
○ GPS has a good lock
○ Home location is set correctly
○ iPad / Android or Ground Station is charged
○ No full-size aircrafts are flying low nearby
As a habit, always hover your drone close to you for a few seconds to ensure it’s behaving correctly before flying off further.
2. Dubai’s Drone Regulations
Now that we have covered drone operation tips, let’s take a look at Dubai’s drone laws. Below is a brief, condensed list taken from Dubai Civil Aviation Authority’s website (as of the writing of this document: June 15, 2017). A lot of the information below can also be found in a handy PDF booklet they have published here. Bear in mind that these laws are only applicable in the emirate of Dubai (more on that below).
● All drone operators in Dubai, hobbyist or professional, need to be licensed by the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority (DCAA).
● The DCAA issues license cards that you must keep with you at all times when operating a drone. Read more about that here.
● In order to acquire the above license card, you need to have an Operator Training Certificate, which can be obtained from SANAD Academy or Exponent . Charges are between 350 AED to 480 AED or more depending on your Drone and the certification required.
● No flights can be conducted more than 400 feet Above Ground Level (AGL).
● No flying within 50m of people, vehicles, or buildings at any height.
● All flights need to be within line of sight. You need to maintain visual contact with your drone at all times.
● Be aware that the images and videos you capture don’t breach UAE privacy laws.
● The minimum age requirement to operate a drone is 16; anyone below that age needs to be accompanied by an adult with a valid Drone License.
● Areas around airports, government buildings, and significant landmarks are strict “No-Fly Zones”. This includes residential locations like Mirdif (which is in the approach path of landing aircrafts at Dubai Airport). This also includes landmark buildings like the Burj Khalifa or locations like Skydive Dubai near The Palm (which has an active airfield). Any flights in these locations require prior written permissions.
● There is a brief list of No-Fly-Zones published in the PDF file above, designated in red and green. However, do not assume that these are the only sensitive locations. When in doubt, always ask the authorities. Dubai has a very busy airspace and emergency flights can take place at fairly low altitudes.
The above is by no means a comprehensive list or the last word on drone regulations and more importantly, these laws are only applicable in Dubai Airspace and may not apply to other emirates . For laws governing other emirates, refer to the GCAA website for details. Each emirate may have its own regulations, and for the purposes of this article, we are referring to Dubai Airspace. The authorities expect drone operators to exercise common sense, to act responsibly, and to contact them for clarifications if there is doubt.
Furthermore, as a drone operator you have to remember that the UAE is a culturally diverse place, and while your intentions may be harmless, a lot of people may not know that. Drones are still viewed skeptically by a lot of people, and with good reason - there are a lot of media articles about people using drones for illicit purposes; it makes for sensational news. A lot of the good work being done using drone technology is often overshadowed by the negative hype. As drone operators, we need to work within all these rules to ensure we are not upsetting anyone with our flights. Drone laws are still a relatively grey area and are changing constantly as authorities try to figure out how to integrate Unmanned Aerial Vehicles into the regulatory and physical airspace, both locally and worldwide.
Guest post by Sheban Naim, a Dubai-based drone specialist. Sheban is one of the masterminds behind Airspectiv, one of Dubai's first drone solutions firms. You can follow on his work on Instagram, and Twitter.