So, you want to become a drone pilot? There’s plenty of content online to watch and read that will help you build your flying skills, but before you ever get off the ground, there’s one very important question to answer: Is flying a drone legal? Below, you can explore the resources and tips I’ve gathered to help you dive deeper into the subject. Before we proceed, though, know that this article is for educational purposes only; it’s written to give you general information and a basic understanding of the current state of drone regulations, and not to provide specific legal advice. This article should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.
How many aircraft are in this photo?
Steps for Safety
Before we dive into the legal mess that is current drone regulation, let’s set some ground rules for flying. There are a few common sense guidelines that you can follow to make sure you’re flying safely. It’s great to develop or use a pre-flight checklist before you fly. This will help you make sure that you’ve remembered to look at every aspect of your aircraft and your surroundings before you get in the air. There are also great apps like Airmap and Hover that help you read the weather and look out for no-fly zones. Beyond that, the guidelines boil down to these basics:
- Don’t fly over or near people
- Don’t fly over events, like stadiums or parades
- Don’t fly over highways
- Don’t fly at night
- Don’t fly near sensitive infrastructure, like airports, power plants, railroads, or water treatment facilities
- Don’t fly in high winds or other inclement weather
- Don’t fly around young children or animals
- Don’t fly over or near endangered species
- Don’t interfere with marine navigation
- Don’t use your drone for surveillance or to film people against their will
- Maintain a visual on your aircraft at all times
Performing a pre-flight check is critical.
With rules like these, it leaves a lot of people wondering what they can do. Well, it doesn’t end there. Let’s take a deeper look at the legality of flying your drone.
You and the Law
When flying a drone, the first question to ask is whether you’re flying commercially (you’re being paid), or as a hobbyist (you’re flying for fun). Is flying a drone commercially illegal? The short answer is no, but yes. It’s not illegal because there are no formal regulations prohibiting or regulating commercial drone use, but the FAA is pursuing cases against drone operators anyway, using rules already in place that are intended for manned aircraft.
The FAA has implemented the 333 Exemption process to help commercial operations function “legally,” though UAS/UAV attorneys like Peter Sachs, a pilot himself, are now advising that businesses not apply for a 333, as obtaining the exemption may unnecessarily limit their operations by making commercial drone flying “nearly impossible.” Sachs says that “it appears that as long as you operate safely and responsibly — meaning don’t violate FAR 91.13 — you may fly for pleasure or for profit without the threat of FAA enforcement action.” However, FAA actions against companies like SkyPan, which was fined $1.9 million, or the current $55,000 action against Mical Caterina, beg to differ.
With the rate of 333 processing at the FAA seemingly slowing to a grind, Sachs provides attractive advice for those looking to operate commercially sans 333. Many existing full-scale pilots and experienced R/C pilots are growing increasingly frustrated with the FAA because the process to obtain a 333 Exemption is so slow (the FAA advises a 120 day wait, but current wait times may be exceeding even that). Laws preventing drone use are rolling out more quickly than the regulations needed to license professional users. As of this writing, the FAA has granted over 5,000 333 exemptions, but has more than 17,000 pending requests to handle.
A screen grab of the FAA’s 333 portal.
Is flying as a hobbyist illegal? Also, no, but yes, depending on the circumstances. People can fly for fun to their heart’s content, so long as they don’t violate the basic rules set forth by the FAA, and so long as their “intent” is recreational. But that’s not all to say that plenty of people aren’t getting threatened with jail time and hefty fines for doing things they shouldn’t be doing with their drones.
While the FAA’s mandate is to regulate national airspace, the very definition of which is being contested right now, local governments have taken it upon themselves to pass laws of their own. These two drone pilots, for example, were prosecuted under a new Los Angeles ordinance. Again, the legality of these regulations is under fire, because current law states that the FAA is the only organization that regulates airspace. John Taylor, an attorney who is suing the FAA over its registration process (below), says that “if you’re flying for a hobby, then you’re not aircraft, and not covered by anything the FAA would say unless you’re endangering something.” This is all pretty confusing, right?
Though the FAA has pursued legal action in some very high-profile cases, more and more fines, arrests, and jail sentences are being brought under local ordinances, so it’s important that you familiarize yourself with the local rules and regulations. If you don’t, you might be in for an unpleasant surprise next time you’re out flying. For a deep dive into the legality of drone use, see this great article over at Motherboard. The current situation is deeply confusing, and none of it is helped by the fact that enforcement and fines across the country vary widely from place to place. As Taylor says, “it’s all very murky, the more you try to make it all match up and make sense, you realize it can’t be done.”
The timeline below from The Daily Signal sums up the overall progress of the FAA’s move to regulate drone use thus far. The drone community is waiting with bated breath as the FAA is set to introduce Part 107, which may introduce a drone “knowledge test” that commercial operators can take at FAA testing centers to become licensed. This would replace the current 333 requirement that a drone pilot also be a licensed full-scale aircraft pilot.
Regardless of the larger legal machinations, one thing is clear (kind of): all drones, both recreational and commercial, must now be registered with the FAA, which is an inexpensive and painless process. Once again, the legality of the registration process itself is being challenged in court, but for the time being, you can find more information on it here. This is a great improvement over the old process, which took hours of back and forth with the FAA HQ offices to accomplish anything.
DJI’s Phantom 4
The industry site Know Before You Fly brings many resources to one location to help new pilots familiarize themselves with different aspects of flying. As mentioned above, be aware that different places have differing laws — for example, the City of Los Angeles and the City of Austin, Texas both have their own drone laws, while countries like Indonesia, China, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand also have their own UAV rules.
In Europe, civil drone use is regulated by a patchwork of regulatory frameworks, with differing rules across the EU. The European Aviation Safety Agency is working to make the regulatory systems for civil drones more comprehensive. A website aptly named “The Best Drone Info” has a great list of regulations by country, which can make for a good starting point when looking for the regulations in your country, though some of their information seems to be out of date. Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority has a lot of great educational material on flying drones in Australia, including information on rules and regulations. Drone flying in China is governed by the Civil Aviation Administration of China, where some classes of drones require special licensing. In general, drone rules throughout the world are fairly similar, with only a few countries pursuing hefty sentences on operators. In the United States, some instances of drone use can be construed as a class D felony, which can mean up to seven years in prison. When flying commercially or recreationally, it makes sense to always follow the ground rules outlined at the beginning of this article.
So, what do you, the aspiring drone pilot, do? Beyond applying common sense, how can you best protect yourself and others while you’re learning to fly? The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) offers a lot of support to new flyers. I grew up learning how to fly remote control airplanes and helicopters on AMA fields; local clubs offer mentorship and community events that help support pilots of all ages. When you fly at an AMA field, you’re flying in a space that’s reserved for flying — a place dedicated to everyone’s safety. As a member of the AMA, you’re also eligible for the various types of insurance coverage they offer, which is important when engaging in high-risk activities like piloting remote-controlled aircraft. The AMA is also one of the primary forces working with the FAA on drone use, so I encourage supporting them whenever possible.
The internet is littered with epic disasters and the really stupid stuff people do with their drones. Due in part to people doing things like flying over forest fires, campaigns like “Don’t Be a Drone Jerk” were launched. Don’t be one of these people. There are copious resources online to help you self-educate, as well as a number of drone academies that promise to show you the ropes, even some enterprising Craigslist types. There are also great Facebook pages, like the UAV Legal News and Discussion group, that offer ongoing conversation about UAVs. Industry conferences like AUVSI and Drone World Expo also offer great places to meet and share ideas.
It’s a really good idea to learn about airspace, too. Below is a hilarious and helpful overview of this topic, and here is a slightly longer, more educational one. Learning about airspace will help you understand why, as a drone pilot, you can’t fly over 400 feet, and will help prep you for the eventual FAA drone test, as this is likely to be a subject. Once you go down the road of starting to learn about commercial flying, you’ll see that it’s a fairly complex system.
If you’re interested in learning more about the space you’re delving into as a drone pilot, I recommend purchasing educational materials like those from Rod Machado, an entertaining flight instructor who’s line of educational materials can help you learn about flying and flight safety. It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with aviation weather. Undoubtedly, the more you know about flying, the better and more responsible you’ll become.
Choosing Your Aircraft
If you don’t know how to fly, start with educating yourself on a small aircraft and work your way up. Nano-sized drones are a great way to start getting acquainted with R/C flight — they’re actually harder to fly than the real thing, and you can fly them indoors, where they bounce harmlessly off walls and furniture. Once you’re ready, graduating onto a platform that has lots of safety features built in, like the DJI Phantom 4, will help ease your transition. Whichever platform you choose, make sure you familiarize yourself with all aspects of the aircraft before your first flight, and start slowly, safely, and possibly with the help of someone knowledgeable.
Accessories like a hard case help keep your aircraft safe.
In addition to following the rules, you’re going to need to keep your aircraft ship-shape, so as to maintain the highest level of safety at all times.
- Take care of your batteries
- Balance your props
- Read forums for tips, like those from Lynh Pham
- Lists like this one can help you find accessories for your platform to help improve flight safety
As the global conversation around drones hits a fever pitch, I expect a few things to happen: Laws and regulations will eventually fall into place, but that process could take years. In the meantime, localities will continue to implement their own rules, which often carry harsh fines, and parks, like the one pictured below in my hometown, will continue to put up “no drone” signs. As with many galvanizing issues, people are going to become increasingly hysterical and chaos will undoubtedly ensue.
San Mateo County, California
Remember that it’s a privilege to fly drones, and the entire drone community depends on everyone flying safely. Have fun wherever you’re flying, but fly within the law and within your abilities. Feel free to share your experiences in the comments!