In this article I will share the rabbit hole of research I went down when trying to buy a DJI brand drone for the purpose of taking small boat pictures and videos over the supposedly restricted waters around Port Townsend, the Strait of Juan De Fuca, and upper Puget Sound. And I will share the solution.
The Need & The Problem
I wanted to take non-commercial drone pictures of small boating adventures, around Port Townsend, and to document some of the coast. I researched what drone would be best for this, and settled on a DJI Mini 2. By all accounts it is a superb little craft, so small you don’t need to register it with the FAA, easy to fly, good camera, and fairly affordable. But….
Before I bought it, a friend told me his DJI would not even start up around Port Townsend shorelines. That was news. Soon I was looking at maps provided by DJI and other zone maps, that showed what areas were restricted. Holy crap, all of the waters around my home town were restricted, right up to the shore, and farther inland. At this point I thought I could not use any drone in those areas. See the screen shot below.
When you click on the red zone over the water you get this message.
NB Kitsap-ZSE 2
Level: Restricted Zones
Type: Military Zone
I learned that every DJI drone has a GPS, it knows where it is in relation to those restricted zones, and it will not take off if you are in one.
But when I researched more, the security warning associated with that area did not seem to limit flying over all of the water, but instead had a rule that you keep 3,000 feet away from Navy and Coast Guard vessels. There are nuclear submarines and naval ships going through here. It makes total sense to not fly anywhere near them. But why was DJI restricting all flight in the area?
NATIONAL SECURITY. See FDC 0/0229. Unmanned Aircraft (UA) operations are prohibited within 3,000 ft. laterally and 1,000 ft. above USN or USCG vessels. Operating in the indicated airspace may result in disruption, seizure, or destruction of UA.
The Research & Digging
First I joined the Seattle Drones Facebook group and asked them what the deal was. Basically they said, yep, very restricted, you can’t fly around there. I was not satisfied.
Next, I contacted Kitsap County, because the warning label said it was a Kitsap-ZSE restriction. Kitsap does have a special page to fill out a form to request flying close to their military assets. They said, nope, we don’t manage anything up in your area, which is Jefferson County (who also does not have anything to do with it).
On some maps there was this message about the restricted zone:
Operators needing to operate in the defined airspace in close proximity to vessels for overriding reasons of public interest or necessity must coordinate and obtain advance authorization from Coast Guard Sector Puget Sound Command Center 206-217-6002
I did not want to fly in close proximity to vessels, but I called the Coast Guard anyway to see if there was a broader restriction on drones over those waters. I talked to a very nice fellow who was also a drone flyer with a 107 license. He said, nope, just stay away from our vessels and Navy. Otherwise the Coast Guard does not regulate drones.
Next I talked to a pilot friend of mine who flies real planes over the area. He said that there is no reason why you can’t fly over those waters, so long as you stay the 3,000 feet away from those vessels, and there are other restrictions around Indian Island Naval Base, and whatever other rules you have to follow in parks, etc.
Next I contacted the FAA, and requested clear instructions about the rules and laws of that restricted area around Port Townsend. I specifically asked, is there any restriction other than keeping 3,000 feet away from those vessels? Here is his actual reply:
The designated airspace is class G with the National Security restrictions as you noted. The airspace around the William R Fairchild International Airport is class E and would require an airspace authorization.
FAA UAS Support Center
844 FLY MY UA | 844-359-6982
What the hell is Class G airspace? Back to the internet and talking more with my pilot friend. Good news, class G airspace is uncontrolled airspace. And the “National Security restrictions as you noted” is the 3,000 foot distance from vessels. That means there are not specific restrictions over where you fly in those areas.
And the airport he mentioned is 35 miles away, as the crow flies, and does have a Class E restricted airspace, 10 miles around it, right down to the ground. Not relevant to my area. Our local Port Townsend airport (JeffCo) does not have the same restriction, my pilot friend said, because there are no instrument approaches in use, and controlled airspace begins at 700 feet.
Confirmation – The Only Problem Is DJI
Now I knew for sure, there was no legal reason why I could not fly in that area. There is no restriction. The only restriction is that DJI has made it so. Sure, I get it. DJI is a big company, and the system is not perfect. But boy would it suck to buy a DJI drone and not be able to use it for my purpose.
I told DJI about all of this, and asked them if there was any way to change it, or to permanently unlock my future drone for this area. They said no. The only option is to request them to unlock it each and every time I want to use it. That process requires paperwork from the FAA that states you have approval to enter that restricted area. But the FAA will not give you special permission because you don’t need it, because it is not restricted. Even the Coast Guard said they have no process for granting drones close access to Coast Guard or Navy vessels. DJI would not budge.
The Solution – Buy Another Brand Of Drone
At least for my immediate area, DJI is not very usable. I may still get one for trips farther up north where there is no geo-fence issue. But locally, my solution is to find a drone by another company that does not enforce a non-existent restriction. Many other drones do not have geo-fences, or if they do there is a way for you to turn them off yourself.
What Did I End Up Buying?
Nothing. At least I did not buy a drone. After careful consideration I decided a drone was not worth the trouble. So many places and parks will not allow you to use them. And there are many other challenges with using them from a small boat.
But, I did buy a new 360 degree camera, that can almost mimic a drone, and I really like it. Read about that here.
I Want To Be A Safe Pilot
I did not go through all of this to get around real safety restrictions. I have no desire to do something stupid or dangerous. In fact I went through all of this, without yet even owning a drone, to make sure that I could operate safely and legally. And because I smelled horseshit, or was it something fishy? Either way, it stunk.
P.S. Kite Aerial Photography – It’s A Thing
In the midst of all of this another friend shared with me how he gets great pictures with a super inexpensive kite and camera system. Kite aerial photography (KAP), it’s an entire world in itself, and an interesting low tech option, with no restrictions.