Drone Usage in Private Investigate: What Are The Misconceptions and Limitations On Use?

As many Private Investigators will attest to, the drone debate is one that has been a topic of conversation for several years now. All the buzz (no pun intended) has spurred legitimate debates on exactly how they can be used in the world of private investigation.  For Private Investigators, drones are surrounded by misconceptions and limitations on their use.


  • Forbidden Territory –  The idea that private investigators would be utilizing these UASs (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) to finally go “where no man has gone before” is a common misconception.  In other words, the thought that UAS’s could be used to get those money shots of a subject’s activity which was previously made impossible by obstructions and distances was a common belief. This is true for open public places that were once elusive due to their very remote locations.  However, drones are loud and easily detected in more confined locales and most scenarios still require the proverbial “gumshoe” to stay covert. The same limitations apply to the eyes of a drone as to the eyes of a private investigator and in some cases, even more so.
  • Right to Privacy  PI’s are motivated by finding the truth for their clients at all costs.  The reality is, though, each and every citizen has an “expectation of privacy” that must be protected.  Just as private investigators have never been allowed to peer into private homes or hotel rooms to get to the bottom of a case, they cannot peer into a subject’s backyard if it surrounded by a 10-foot-high fence.  Drones are thought to have special exemptions from the laws regarding privacy, however, this is absolutely not the case.
  • Drones vs Humans  The idea that drones would replace the investigative operatives is one of the greatest debates surrounding drone usage.  Some people may ask themselves “who needs to pay a field investigator for their services when I can just send in a drone? The answer is simple.  UAS’s are not an objective third party and certainly cannot testify in court, at least not yet! This means that a drone can of course deliver important information but, as it is a device, there is no way for it to be objective about what it is videotaping or give a verbal or written clarification of what it has viewed.  That’s Humans – 1 and Drones – 0.

So how do you know the exact rules to follow as a private investigator?  Well is it easily summed up. The Federal Aviation Administration has implemented regulations that clearly state what the limitations are when using a drone during private investigative work.  An example of the regulations that limit private investigative drone usage include:

  • UAVs can only fly as high as 400 feet — about the height of an 18-story building
  • UAVs must remain 500 feet from all nonparticipating persons (unless persons are protected, such as under a roof). And they must stay 500 feet from any structure or vehicle unless they have the owner’s permission.
  • UAVs must remain five miles from large airports;
  • UAVs must remain within the pilot’s line of sight; and
  • Only daytime operation is permitted.

So before you reach for that highly specialized toy to spy on a potential fraudulent insurance claim or cheating spouse, contact a professional who knows the limits of drone usage and how to get you the truth you are looking for without violating any laws.

Sources:  FAA, InsuranceFraud