Quadcopter / UAV / Drone Laws in the US
With the massive increase in the popularity of drones in recent years, there has been plenty of media attention over the rules and legality of flying these impressive machines in public. We have seen a number of court cases and fines where everyday drone users have been penalised for flying – and perhaps it’s no surprise when we look at the multitude of guidance and recommendations made over the past year by the FAA.
Things haven’t been simple – there have been contradictory messages from the FAA and vastly different rules emerging for commercial users and hobbyists. Is it any wonder that many drone users are confused?
Fortunately, some clarity is now developing over what recreational drone users can and can’t do. We’ve collected the basic guidelines in this article to help you fly safely and legally, for maximum enjoyment and without the risk of legal trouble or causing harm to anyone else in public.
Before you start flying
Before you start flying your quadcopter you must read all of its safety guidelines then register the unit with the FAA if it weighs more than 0.55 lbs or less than 55 lbs. You will need an email address, physical address and credit card details to do this and it will cost you $5. Your drone should be marked with this registration number once you’re finished.
You also need to be a US citizen and at least 13 years old to fly a drone in public in the US. Foreign nationals are allowed but they must register their drone with the FAA upon arrival in the country.
The FAA guidelines state that you should keep your drone at no higher than 400 feet when flying. You should also be wary of any surrounding obstacles and be careful that you do not collide with them. This is particularly important around airports – see below for more information.
On top of this, you should not intentionally fly over moving cars or other vehicles, or unprotected bystanders. You should be cautious and keep at least 25 feet away from any people or property that could potentially be at risk of damage.
The FAA also makes special mention of sensitive buildings or infrastructure. These include busy roads and highways, Government buildings and facilities, jails or other correctional facilities, water treatment sites and power stations. You should not fly your drone near any of these – there are not strict boundaries but you should use your common sense and be overly cautious when in doubt.
Keep your eyes on your drone
Despite the impressive auto-return features found on most modern units, you should keep your quadcopter within eyesight at all times. If you are flying high up or over long distances, it is recommended that you enlist the help of a friend or family member to act as an observer.
Avoid airports and aircraft
Although it may fall under the banner of common sense, you should keep your drone away from airports and other aircraft. You should ensure you do not interfere with manned aircraft operations or you could face a heavy fine or legal penalty. If you are planning to fly your quadcopter within five miles of an airport, you will first need to contact the airport control tower and seek permission.
Don’t fly in bad weather
Most of us prefer to stay indoors when it is rainy or windy outside, but if you want to fly your drone you should make sure the conditions aren’t too strong. If visibility is reduced you should avoid flying altogether. Not only can this be dangerous, it could be very costly if you damage your drone or someone else’s property.
Make sure you’re fit to fly
Before flying a drone in public, the FAA suggests that you make sure you are a competent and proficient pilot. Of course everyone has to start somewhere, so it may be worth visiting quieter and more wide-open spaces when you first begin flying your drone – so that you can develop your skills without the risk of damage or injury. It perhaps goes without saying, but you should also not fly a quadcopter if you have been drinking alcohol or are under the influence of drugs.
Be wary of private property
You should check local laws and guidelines before flying a drone over private property. You should also avoid using your drone’s built-in camera over or near private property, and always respect people’s privacy when flying. If you are in doubt, you should seek permission before flying or capturing images near private property.
The distinction between hobbyists and commercial drone users
Along with all of the above rules, the FAA have also made particular distinctions between everyday recreational drone flying and flying for commercial usage. Even if you are only flying for fun, it may be worth reviewing the differences to minimise the possibility of getting into trouble.
For example, flying your UAV at a local model aircraft club is perfectly acceptable – but you cannot receive money for it. Similarly, you are allowed to take photographs and videos with your drone’s built-in camera but you cannot sell these images or use them for any other commercial reason (such as to advertise a product or real estate). You are also allowed to use your drone for functional reasons, such as moving boxes or heavy items from one place to another with ease. However, you cannot receive payment from other people for helping them in this way.