UAV Pilots: Rule #1 — Don’t be an Idiot.

photo credit: Jack Freer

Yes, I should explain.

First let me say that this post is mostly for those of you who are not certified pilots, have your hands on a recreational UAV as opposed to the one that shoots missiles and are unaware / confused about the rules and regulations.

Before we get into the thick of things, remember if you are trying to make a buck off your UAV then you are not a recreational user. You are a commercial UAV user and you will need get special permission to fly your machine. That’s a topic for my next post.

The rules are quite simple for hobby UAV users. If you take off the idiot hat, that we all have on sometimes, you’ll see that they make sense.

For simplicity sake, I’ve outlined the essential rules into these 9 ‘Don’t be an idiot’ guidelines:

  1. Do not fly anywhere around fires or closed airspaces
  2. Do not fly near the President or his house
  3. Do not fly past where you cannot see your UAV
  4. Do not fly over 400 feet
  5. Do not fly near an airport
  6. Do not fly near nuclear facilities, power stations & other important places
  7. Do not fly over people or their property without their permission
  8. Do not fly if you are drunk or high
  9. Do not fly in bad weather

There you go. Simple, right?

Let’s get into some of the whys and hows.

Do not fly around fires and closed airspaces

A closed airspace is like your street corner with yellow police tape around it. In this case there’s yellow tape all around the sky over a specific spot. Just as you would not cross this police tape on a street, don’t cross the police tape in the sky.

Who puts this tape in the sky, you ask? It’s the FAA or the nice people who manage the airspace over the United States so that flying objects don’t collide and fall on your head.

Now, the FAA knows that you can’t see this yellow tape in the sky so they came up with a clever way of telling everyone where it is. It’s called a Temporary Flight Restriction or a TFR. A TFR is a notice that they publish that says where and what altitude you are not allowed to fly in. Since it is temporary, it will also specify when that restriction starts and ends.

You can find out where these TFRs are by looking on the FAA Website or by using apps like and Hover app.

Lately, the news has been about drones and fires. Whether you think those reports are accurate or not, it’s best to keep your flying machines out of the air near fire incidents. There’s a lot going on in the air and on the ground around a major fire. In the case of major forest fires, the authorities will close the airspace around it so that they can bring in air tankers, helicopters to aid firefighting and those pilots do not have to worry about dodging other aircraft in the air.

Do not fly near the President and his colleagues

Same deal as before: yellow police tape is around the air over the President at all times. It also covers all the places our legislators ‘work’ so that pretty much covers most of DC. And it’s permanent there. In the DC area, it’s called a Federal Restricted Zone. So, if you in that zone, do yourself a favor and drive out to the country to fly your little quadcopter.

If the Prez is visting your town, that restricted airspace moves with him, like a security cloud. Pretty cool, huh? Yeah, just like you can’t drive your Toyota alongside the presidential limo, you can’t fly your little parrot around Air force One.

How do you know when the Prez is in town, if he doesn’t tell you? Remember FAA’s TFR notices? Well, that’s how you know. The FAA puts out a TFR well before the Prez’s plane touches down. They also doing for the Veep and maybe even others, I don’t know.

Stay out of a TFR and you’ll be good.

Do not fly past where you cannot see your UAV

Yeah, I know it’s cool to send your UAV over the hill and watch the video through your FPV or iPad or iPhone but don’t do it.

You may think you can see well enough through the camera, but you will not have enough peripheral vision to see what’s going on around the UAV. When you can’t see what is around you, the UAV can hit flying stuff and fall out of the sky.

Also, most recreational UAVs use radio waves to communicate with the flight controller in your hands and the communication is strongest when you have clear line of sight to the UAV. So, unless you have your own satellite that’s controlling your UAV, you will most likely lose control of your UAV.

Do not fly over 400 Feet

Yeah, that’s about 400 feet (and very detrimental to your health). Don’t fly over 400 feet above the ground.

Why? The stated reason is that it can interfere with other aircraft. Typically, aircraft do not fly lower than 400 feet unless they are near an airport hence the FAA is not so worried if you are below it.

If you have a preset altitude setting on your UAV, set it to 200 feet above the ground. Yes, that’s less than 400 but it’s not uncommon for helicopters to fly low and it’s better to be safe. Besides, aren’t pictures and videos better when you are lower anyway?

Do not fly near an airport (or airplanes)

Ok, this one is obvious, right? Don’t fly near or over LAX or SFO or JFK or one of the airports you board a flight from.

Technically, you can fly near an airport but you must contact the airport manager or control tower if you are within 5 miles of the airport.

Big airports have protected airspace around them. This airspace is shaped like an upside down wedding cake with the airport in the middle.

The lowest part is 5 miles wide on each side of the airport. Each layer above will be wider. The idea, of course, is to make sure that planes descending to the airport and taking off from the airport are doing so without running into each other.

So, even if you are more than five miles from a major airport, if you fly over 1200 feet, you could enter restricted airspace. But then, you are not going to go over 400 feet anyway, right?

Now, there are smaller airports that do not have an upside down wedding cake. They have a cylinder of protected airspace around them. Same deal, call them before you fly near.

There are also a lot of tiny airports sprinkled around the country and there may be one close to you that you are not even aware of.

Yes, that’s a runway at a small airport with no control tower. At these airports, planes can come and go as they please. Usually, at such airports, pilots talk to each other over the radio to make sure they don’t bump planes in the air.

So, don’t fly within 5 miles of an airport. If you have to, then contact the airport. You can find contact information online or tools like seem to provide an easy way to find the contact number.

It may seem like a pain to go through all these hoops of finding the airport, calling a number etc. but it’s a lot better than having a 4 seater cessna with a family of 4 crashing because it struck your UAV.

Do not fly over nuclear installations, power stations and other important structures

If you have one of these near you, don’t fly over it.

Yes, yes, they really would think you are trying to attack a concrete and steel structure with your 10 pound plastic and metal flying toy. And they really don’t like it. Stay away.

If you don’t know what this picture is, it is a water treatment facility and you are not supposed to be flying around it either. You know, just in case you are a wierdo terrorist type looking to do something bad to the water. Stay away.

This is a prison and you should not be flying over or near it, unless of course you are looking for such government subsidized housing for yourself in the immediate future.

Besides these installations, you should also avoid power stations, government facilities and heavily travelled roadways.

Do not fly over people or property without permission

People don’t normally react with happiness and wide smiles when they hear and see a buzzing flying object over their heads. They get pissed.

If your UAV takes a dive for some reason, do you really want to drop a hunk of plastic and metal from few hundred feet on to little Timmy’s head? Answer: No.

In the aviation community, there’s a program called ‘Fly Neighborly’. Essentially, it is about NOT being a pain in the ass to the people around you. It makes sense here too. Remember people get spooked quick and it doesn’t take much legislators get called and laws to come down.

So, do everyone a favor and don’t fly over people or their homes or property if you don’t have their permission.

Do not fly if you are drunk or high

Just leave that to the Pros, please.

Seriously, the FAA rule for certified pilots is to be below 0.04 BAC when operating an aircraft. “8 hrs from bottle to throttle” is common saying. Sure, you are not a certified pilot but you are flying a machine through the air, so it’s best if you are not buzzed and / or high.

Fly sober.

Do not fly in bad weather

Beautiful right? It’s not going to be any better from the air. Leave your UAV in its case and watch nature from the ground.

It’s not just a major electrical storm that you should avoid. You should not be flying your UAV when it is very windy, cloudy, foggy or generally when you have low visibility.

Now, you may think you have an awesome flying machine with state of the art wind correction and GPS stabilization but you are no match for nature. Your UAV is floating in air in the same way that a submarine is in water. When there’s high winds, the entire air mass moves and takes everything with it. Most recreational UAVs do not have the mass or the power to counter strong wind gusts.

Every certified pilot has a healthy respect for winds and weather before, during and after flying regardless of the size of the aircraft. It takes substantial aircraft power and piloting skill to operate an aircraft in high winds.

I have a personal ‘idiot’ story in this regard. Recently, I was showing off a Phantom to some friends and family. It was sunny day with calm air. I was flying the craft around without incident and landed it about 30 feet away. After a few cries of ‘encore’ from the kids, I lifted it off to hover at 20 feet. To my shock, instead of lifting straight up as it had done before, the UAV veered, swung around and swept horizontally at 7 to 8 feet towards my friends. Not sure, what I did with the controls in those 1.5 seconds, but the Phantom finally crashed barely a few feet from the kids.

In my post-crash investigation, I determined that the spot that I took off from was in a wind funnel created by the trees that bordered the area. Even with calm winds, there was a funnel of air that was strong enough to swat away the Phantom.

So, don’t fly in sketchy weather and know the wind and weather conditions around where you are operating. Also, be aware that winds can be different at different altitudes than the ground. Look around at the tops of trees to see what’s going above the ground. I found the Hover app to be an intuitive way to find the wind conditions in the area.

Fly Safe & Don’t kill anyone

That’s about it. I’m sure I’ve left several things on the cutting room floor so read more online. There are lots of good resources out there. The most comprehensive one is the Know before you fly.

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