Drone Regulations: What You Need to Know

If you own a drone or are planning to buy one, make sure you’re familiar with FAA rules for flying outdoors.

By Jim Fisher

You bought a drone. And you’re probably champing at the bit to get the battery charged and take it out for the first test flight. But before you do, you need to be aware of the rules and regulations that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has put in place for flying drones in the U.S. And you should also be aware of your rights and the rights of those around you.


The first thing a new drone owner needs to do is to register it with the government. If that sound a bit Big Brotherish, it is. But after a swath of crashes and violations of the basic rules of the air that were trumpeted on the nightly news and blogosphere, the FAA instituted the registration system.

Registration costs $5 a year. If you’re caught flying a drone that’s unregistered, civil penalties of up to $27,500 may be assessed.

Aircraft lighter than 0.5 pounds are exempt, although remote-controlled aircraft that light generally aren’t drones — they tend to lack GPS stabilization and automated flight features. The FAA has published a guide as to what common models weigh. But even small, low-altitude models like the Parrot Bebop require registration. Online registration can be used for any drone that a consumer is likely to buy, but if you own an unmanned aircraft that’s heavier than 55 pounds, you’ll need to fill out a paper form.

Once registered, you’ll receive a unique identification number. It can be used for all the aircraft you own — so even if you have a fleet at your disposal, you’re only out five bucks — and is valid for three years. Each of your aircraft must be physically marked with the number. The FAA says that placing an identification sticker on the removable battery is acceptable, but you could also use a sharpie to write on the hull. For more information, refer to the FAA FAQs on the subject.

The Basics

The FAA refers to drones by the more proper term: unmanned aircraft systems. It outlines its policies for use in the U.S. in detail — you should read the entire document before flying, but pay special attention to the section on Model Aircraft, the category under which drones fall.

The basic rules are:

  • Fly below 400 feet and remain clear of surrounding obstacles.
  • Keep the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times.
  • Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations.
  • Don’t fly within 5 miles of an airport unless you contact the airport and control tower before flying.
  • Don’t fly near people or stadiums.
  • Don’t fly an aircraft that weighs more than 55 pounds.
  • Don’t be careless or reckless with your unmanned aircraft; you could be fined for endangering people or other aircraft.

A lot of these are simply common sense. And that’s something you need to use when flying. In addition to the FAA rules, remember that National Parks have banned the use of drones within their confines. It’s a shame, because aerial footage of beautiful locations like Yellowstone and Yosemite is a compelling reason to own a drone. But on the other hand, some places should be free of technological distractions. The airspace around Washington D.C. is also restricted. The FAA is currently working on a smartphone app, cutely titled B4UFLY, for iOS and Android devices. Once available, it will let you know if there are any restrictions in place in the area in which you wish to fly.

All of these rules are for noncommercial use. If you’re using a drone as a realtor, wedding videographer, or for similar for-profit purposes, you’ll need to apply for an exemption under Section 333.

Dealing With Conflict

If you fly your drone in public, there’s a chance that, eventually, you’re going to run into some sort of conflict with another human. Some people, for example, think that it’s totally acceptable to shoot a drone out of the air with a gun. So what do you do when someone takes exception to your flying a drone around them?

Well, if they decide to use your quadcopter for target practice or otherwise damage it, the first order of business it to call the police. But it’s best to diffuse the situation before it gets to that. So, in the immortal words of Patrick Swayze, “be nice.” Have a conversation about what you’re doing. Maybe even show the person the video feed from the drone camera that’s streaming to your phone or tablet. Some folks are under the impression that a drone flying 100 feet in the air is spying on them — show them just how wide-angle the video is from that altitude

Of course, not everyone you meet is reasonable. In those cases, you should be aware of where you’re standing. As with photography, it has a lot to do with your rights to fly. If you’re on your own property, or public property, you are completely within your rights. But if you’re on private property, the situation isn’t in your favor. A property owner (or representative of one, such as a security guard) can ask you to land your drone and leave the premises. If that’s the situation, you should comply. If they demand your memory card or attempt to detain you, however, that’s another ball of wax. Print out and carry a copy of The Photographer’s Right with you — it’s a helpful resource to have whenever you’re capturing images or video.

Don’t Be Stupid

Flying a quadcopter is a lot of fun, and it gives you the opportunity to capture images and video that you would never be able to get from ground level. Following the FAA rules and diffusing conflict with others will go a long way to making it a more enjoyable (and legal) experience. Common sense dictates that you should avoid flying your copter over crowded spaces — leave the aerial shots of the U.S. Open and Super Bowl to the Goodyear Blimp people.

Choosing the right time of day to fly can also help to minimize interaction with other people and improve the quality of your video footage. If you fly right after sunrise — magic hour — you’ll find that landscapes are bathed in golden light and look much better than they would in the harsh light of midday. It requires you to get up early and get to a location around dawn, but the results will be worth it, and most of the world will still be asleep.

When you know and follow the rules, use a little bit of common sense, and know how to deal with conflict when it arises, you’ll certainly get a lot of enjoyment from your drone.

Originally published at www.pcmag.com.

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