5 things to know
5 aerial photography tips when flying drones in Charleston, SC
Charleston, SC is a beautiful city. The historical architecture and waterfront vistas are one-of-a-kind. But since the entire South Carolina Lowcountry is so flat, you rarely see what the landscape looks like from above. Flying a drone takes your camera to a view that only birds and airplanes can see.
Of course, normal FAA UAS policy applies everywhere in the United States. We do have a few military bases in the area with restricted airspace. Charleston International Airport (CHS) is a Class C airport. FAA licensed UAS pilots may request automated clearance with apps like AirMap. There are a handful of other regional airports. The closest with regular traffic near Charleston are on Johns Island and the northeast side of Mount Pleasant near Awendaw.
Here are five tips for issues unique to flying drones in Charleston. This isn’t intended to be legal advice. But I do keep these drone photography tips in mind every time I fly.
Stay 200 feet from buildings, people, and vehicles in the City of Charleston
There are a few laws and ordinances related to drones in the Charleston area. This one seems to be a privacy concern. You may not fly within 200 feet of a building, person, or vehicle in the City of Charleston.
This may affect launch locations downtown, as it can be difficult to find a spot that far from a building on the lower peninsula. This may also concern real estate photography in the city.
Practically, I’m not sure how this law is enforced, and I have not heard of anyone being charged or ticketed. I assume an annoyed homeowner would get the ball rolling, however.
Watch out for National Parks Service (NPS) sites
The majority of restricted areas around Charleston are NPS sites. Just from memory, I can name a few: Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie, and even the Fort Sumter Visitor Center near the South Carolina Aquarium on Charleston Harbor.
Like all NPS sites, this is restricted airspace. Be sure to consult local airspace regulations to avoid flying where you shouldn’t.
Compared to some the country’s vast national parks, the local NPS sites are tiny and easy to avoid. For example, Fort Moultrie, on Sullivan’s Island, is relatively small. You can probably get your shot by launching from the beach nearby the fort.
Generally, keep up with Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR’s) in your favorite app or from the FAA.
Be aware of security zones around navy ships
Let’s say you’re flying on the Charleston Harbor side of Sullivan’s Island, or maybe by the Pitt Street Bridge in Mt. Pleasant. Both of these sites are great places to watch the ships hum in and out of the Harbor. And the ships are close enough that you can usually maintain line of sight with your drone as they pass.
What many people are unaware of is the security zone around many these ships, which applies to boats and aircraft. Boats are required to maintain 100 yards distance from passenger ships and maintain minimum speed within 500 yards. I always give any ship at least this much clearance when flying.
Specifically, the FAA announced “a stand-off distance for drones of 3,000 feet laterally and 1,000 feet above any U.S. Navy vessel”. If a ship is transiting in or out of port — or even if a ship is tied up to a pier — that’s more than a half-mile radius from the ship.
Don’t fly above the tourists
This one should be a no-brainer for anyone who knows the FAA regulations about flying near and above people.
Maybe you’re flying near any of Charleston’s many landmarks. Unless it’s the crack of dawn and/or poor weather, it’s extremely unlikely you’ll be alone.
As a professional, FAA licensed UAS airman, I’m not going to get into a position where I’m anywhere near those people. The hobbyist drone might not know any better.
There are so many things happening or that could happen while you’re flying, especially if you’re flying as a photographer. Aerial photography requires not only controlling your aircraft but considering all of the variables involved in getting the shot.
Keep it simple and stay well clear of the people below.
Don’t fly from Mount Pleasant Waterfront Park
The park directly underneath the Ravenel Bridge in Mount Pleasant has a pier the reaches out into Charleston Harbor. It’s popular for fishing and strolling. It’s a unique spot to get out onto the water.
You may not, however, launch a drone from the park. It would be tempting to fly from here to get a shot of the Ravenel Bridge. This is strictly prohibited with possible penalties and fines.
Bonus: Operating drones from U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) lands is prohibited, but...
The salt marshes around Charleston are a beauty unique to our coast. Many of these wetlands and islands are property of the USFWS. While tempting, it is illegal to operate a UAS from USFWS lands without a permit.
I'm still uncertain of what constitutes being in the refuge or not. After calling the Sewee Visitors Center line, I'm just as confused. Apparently, their concern is that if the drone goes down, it could cause a fire. I've read on other FWS websites that the concern is harassment of wildlife.
It would seem that being in the refuge would mean operating from their lands. But I'm not sure about that. Since you don't see the refuge as restricted airspace, it would seem that flying over the refuge wouldn't violate FAA regulations. However, I'm still not sure who has jurisdiction in the case of, for example, operating a drone from a position outside the refuge and flying over.
With that in mind, I'm going to say I'm still not sure on this. But I will follow up when I have a more official answer.