Flying over a commercial ship leaving Port? Legal or not in US?

Nov 14, 2014
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I called the local port authority today to make sure I would not get in any trouble if I flew my Phantom 2 Vision over and around a commercial ship that will be leaving Port. I was VERY surprised when they told me that I cannot do this without the express, written consent of the owner of the ship and the captain. They told me that it is a homeland security issue and communications issue. He said that the Port Authority wanted to do this last year, but were told they could not.

Is this true? Can anyone provide me with PROOF one way or another?

I would like to think the guy is misinformed, but I am not willing to take the chance and have Homeland Security tackle me!
I would be surprised if this is true but have no knowledge of it either way. I think NO is standard answer. If you are not in a no fly zone it would seem to me that those public waters are just as much yours as the ships from a citizen standpoint.
Thanks to all for the replies! @maxwell smart very nice video and YES, exactly like that. I am in the same camp as @Bluethundr and @rrmccabe - Public area, public waters, public (non-restricted) airspace.

As an update, I heard from another person at the Port. He was not at all sure there were ANY rules about flying over a commercial ship as it leaves port and suggested I call the US Coast Guard. I think I am going to let it go. I will ask for forgiveness, instead of permission.

Only other concern is if there are any rules for flying from a public park, like in this story: [URL='']Drone seized by police at Los Angeles park [/URL]

Happy Flying!
Since people need twic cards, background checks from tsa and homeland security to enter ports I would think they won't like a phantom flying around. Now I'm assuming you talking about container ships? I know people fly over cruise ship all the time, not sure how cruise ship ports work....
Yes, I am talking about container ships - last 3 in Port: 1. Dry Bulk cement, 2. Diesel Fuel, 3. High Fusion Coal

Now you have me re-thinking my stance....Anyone else?
I'd go with your gut.

It started with you asking in the first place so it seems you had doubts.

Move on or look for new places to image them from.
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It's legal. No one can quote you this as it's simply that there are no laws restricting it. Homeland security is code for, it's not illegal we just don't want people to do it. The only law that would apply is flying in a reckless manner. Personally of just stay above and a little to the side of the boat so you'd not drop onto it.

Keep in mind that you can also fly over restricted airspace such as National Parks, you just can't take off or land there.
Keep in mind that you can also fly over restricted airspace such as National Parks, you just can't take off or land there.

It is good to be precise when discussing these issues. There is generally no "restricted airspace" over NPS land. Restricted airspace is a very particular type of airspace defined by the FAA and I would take great pains to avoid it.

The deal with NPS land is they can tell you that you cannot fly FROM the park land, but they cannot tell you that you cannot fly OVER the park.

This is a great resource to help understand the NAS - chapter 14.pdf
Well the port authority has no authority over aircraft of any type.
No, you do not need permission of any kind to take pictures of a commercial ship..
No, the DHS has no authority either.

As for the LA park drone seizure, yes there is a city ordinance that prohibits the use of any RC vehicle in a city park.
That pilot is known as "Tom Zebra" and he is also a known activist and troublemaker within LA county.
He had just bought his quad and flew it over an LA county sheriff's patrol building and got his butt chewed out for doing so.
But that incident led the DA to investigate and he found they couldn't legally prosecute!
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I was VERY surprised when they told me that I cannot do this without the express, written consent of the owner of the ship and the captain.
Three words. Airspace is Federal. He or she may well be the captain of the ship. But he or she has exactly as much authority and power to regulate who or what flys in the airspace surrounding that ship as this guy.

Which is to say, exactly zero authority. Its good that you called and asked all the same. But in the future, whenever you call and ask those types of 'can I fly my drone over x' type questions, be prepared to ask for chapter and verse references when told you can't fly.

'Oh I can't fly? I see. Well that's fine, its why I asked after all. But for my own reference could you please tell which exact document grants so and so the power and authority to keep me from flying my drone over x so that I may study the exact verbiage of it myself in the interest of not wanting to get anywhere near where I shouldn't be flying in the future?'

9 times out of 10 I think you'll find the response will be either 'there is no such document' or 'because I said so' or simply 'click'. Which should tell you all you need to know about whether or not what you were just told is accurate and true.
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I really appreciate all of the input. Here is what I found out today. I called the US Coast Guard. They confirmed that it is NOT illegal to fly over and around commercial ships entering or leaving the harbor. HOWEVER, there is a protocol that suggests any "Suspicious Activity" be reported to the National Response Center. This will set off a string of investigations, likely beginning with the local police. In addition, if reported, the incident report will be referred to DHS and the FBI. Reading between the lines a little, it seems that ships are not required to file and SAR, but there is a protocol for it. Alternatively, they told me that the facilities that supply these ships are REQUIRED to file a "Suspicious Activity Report (SAR)" if they see any activity that could be interpreted as recon.

They told me a story about the SS Badger ( company, a Lake Michigan carferry. According to the story, the company was taking UAV footage of their ship entering port. There is a government facility of some kind near by. As they were taking footage of their ship, they inadvertently filmed the government facility. As such, the facility filed a SAR (as required) and the company was told to shut down the drone activity. Not sure if this is fact or myth.

Bottom line is IF it gets reported, I may be in for several interviews with law enforcement types. With that said, I am planning to do this, but only when a ship carrying something inert is travelling through. I think the Dry Cement ship or Coal would have been a good, but not the diesel fuel.
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Well in order to interview you, they'd first had to find you. Given that you're in the air for all of 20 minutes. Given that whoever sees it is going to report it to someone who will then have to pass it on to the local PD (but first figure out who that even is) who will then have to figure out where the drone was being flown from before they can come looking for you for said interview... Well you do the math.

And keep in mind, even if they do find you and interview you, you're doing NOTHING illegal.
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While it might be against port regulations (mostly a safety thing) to get close in amongst the action in port, it's obvious that it's not illegal to photograph ships coming and going or from a safe vantage point across the harbour regardless of their cargo.
I wouldn't worry about what the ship was carrying. The ship is out in the open on public display.
People take photos of ships from the shore or a boat and no-one cares - because there's nothing to care about.

Lots of people photograph ships and why not - they can make very interesting subjects.
Here's a website with 1.7 million photos of ships all over the world ..
The Phantom would really open up some great photo possibilities.
My only opportunity to shoot ships nearby is difficult because the shipping channel is a mile offshore but I'm looking forward to using the range of the P3 to grab some soon.
A photo like this would look a lot better from 100 feet up
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Bottom line is IF it gets reported, I may be in for several interviews with law enforcement types. With that said, I am planning to do this, but only when a ship carrying something inert is travelling through.

They also cannot detain you (for questioning) unless they suspect you of a crime or you volunteer to be detained and answer questions. Point I'm making is that someone _may_ asking you once what you are doing but they won't conduct several interviews.
A lot of people go way beyond their authority and imagine all kinds of restrictions that don't actually exist.
I was photographing ships across the river from our local port and was bailed up by a security person who went on about it being illegal to do what I was doing. She referred to a non-existant law from her imagination. It was in an open public area where anyone could go to fish, canoe, walk their dog or ride their trail bikes. Next time I went there I was again bailed up by another security person who told me to leave as I had been warned not to photograph there.
I had a good laugh when I showed him the port authority website and the part that said it wasn't permitted to photograph in the active port area without permission, BUT the site across the river (where we were) was recommended for anyone interested in photography.
I've never had any more problems there but got plenty of great pix like this.

The pix would look better with a bit of elevation but unfortunately it's within the NFZ for the airport or I'd fly there too.

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