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Drone Regulations: What You Need to Know

You bought a drone, and you’re probably ready 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.

Drone Registration

Mandatory drone registration for recreational pilots was a requirement, and then there was a court challenge and it wasn’t. Now, after another round of legal proceedings, recreational pilots in the US are required to spend $5 to register with the FAA before flying outdoors.

Your Abraham Lincoln greenback allows you to own and fly as many drones as you fancy for one price, for a period of three years. You’ll be assigned an FAA identification number, which you’ll need to place on your drone. I use printable stickers, but a label maker will come in equally handy for putting the identification number on your aircraft.

Not every quadcopter on the market needs to be registered. If it’s a tiny toy that weighs less than 8.8 ounces (250g), you won’t have go through the process. Conversely, you can’t register a drone that’s heavier than 55 pounds via the online portal. That’s inconsequential for consumers as nothing out there is that heavy, but if you’re working with an industrial aircraft you’ll need to submit a paper registration application.

Know the Rules

In addition to registering your aircraft, you’ll need to follow the rules of the sky.

The basic rules are:

  • Fly at or below 400 feet
  • Keep your drone 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.

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 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 the 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 toward 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.

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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