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Drone Regulations: What You Need to Know


Drone Regulations: What You Need to Know

If you own a drone, or are planning to buy one, you need to be aware of FAA rules for flying outdoors.

You bought a drone. And you're probably chomping 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 US. And you should also be aware of your rights and the rights of those around you.

Flying for Fun vs. Flying for Money

Before you know exactly what rules apply to your drone, you need to determine how you'll be using it. If you're flying for fun, there are much less strict requirements. But if you plan on making money with your unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), you'll need to pass an FAA test and receive Part 107 certification. Once you're certified you'll be able to use your drone to capture aerial images and video to sell as stock imagery, work on film productions, grab aerial imagery at weddings or for real estate, and the like—pardon the pun, but the sky's the limit.

For the rest of us, flying just for fun and to share videos and images with friends and family, a different set of rules apply.


Up until a few weeks ago, pilots flying for fun were required to register any drone weighing more than 8 ounces with the FAA before taking it outdoors. The cost was nominal, a $5 fee got you three years of registration for an unlimited amount of aircraft. You simply had to apply a sticker with an identiifcaiton number to your UAV to identify it. But a federal appeals court says that the FAA overstepped its bounds with the registration requirement.

At press time, you don't have to register your drone. That can change as the case progresses through the court system, and the FAA still has its registration site up and running. To fill the gap left by the void of government regulation, DJI has added a requirement that you must register and activate your drone using its control app in order for it to be fully functional. Other manufacturers have not yet followed suit.

Rules Still Apply

Even without the need to register with the FAA, there are still guidelines that apply.

The basic rules are:

  • Fly at or below 400 feet
  • Keep your UAS within sight
  • Never fly near other aircraft, especially near airports
  • Never fly over groups of people
  • Never fly over stadiums or sports events
  • Never fly near emergency response efforts such as fires
  • Never fly under the influence
  • Be aware of airspace requirements

If you're concerned about whether you're too close to an airport to fly—you need to be at least five miles away to operate without notifying the control tower of your activity—consider using an app. My choice is AirMap, available for smartphones and on the web, which shows you exactly where you're allowed to fly and where you aren't, with tools for both recreational and commercial pilots.

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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 DC is also restricted.

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 think that it's totally acceptable to shoot a drone out of the air with a gun. So what do you do if 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 is to call the police. But it's best to defuse 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, like 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 opportunity to capture images and video that you wouldn't get from ground level. Following the FAA rules and defusing 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 US 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 do in the harsh light of midday. It requires you to get up early in the morning and get to a location around dawn, but the results will be worth it, and most of the world will still be asleep.

If you know and follow the rules, use a little bit of common sense and you'll certainly get a lot of enjoyment from your drone.

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