Let’s continue our journey talking about the rules and laws for drones today. We’re going to talk about half of the FAA rules in the United States, which are similar to, or have been duplicated in many countries around the globe.

In this, part 2 of 2, we’ll continue to explore what the FAA rules mean, and how you can enjoy flight within their scope.

Important Update: December 12, 2017. Despite a May 2017 order blocking the FAA from requiring you to register your drone, registration is back in place. Read about it here.

I know the FAA rules look straight forward, and most are, but just in case you’re not entirely certain, let’s look closer at the rules. We’re not disillusioned here, we’re sure you understand most of these, please share this with any new pilots out there that you think need some help.

Science of Flight series

We have plenty more to read if you are interested in the science of drone flight. We are not physicists, but we know just enough to explain some of the basic concepts of how drones operate, how they fly and how to do so effectively. Be sure to check out our other Science of Flight articles to learn more.


Reminder, if it has a camera, it is camera

Something that very few drone law documents talk about is the camera. Let’s make this simple, there are very strong camera use laws on the books. If your drone has a camera, it is a camera. You can’t look in your neighbor’s window, much less snap photos. It matters not if your camera is in your hand or in the sky, follow your country’s camera and privacy laws. These laws go hand in hand with the FAA flight rules, do not break either.

FAA registration

For a short time in 2017 you were not required to register your drone with the FAA, but the rules still applied. If you are flying a drone over American soil, you must adhere to FAA rules. Sorry.

Important Update: December 12, 2017. Despite a May 2017 order blocking the FAA from requiring you to register your drone, registration is back in place. Read about it here.

FAA RegistrationMy personal opinion, it is still worth registering your drone with the FAA. It’s $5 and a few minutes of your time. There is little doubt the FAA will be back in action soon with new rules, we will have to register again in some form or fashion. Maybe I’m wrong though, please make your own decision on the matter. Of course, if your drone’s total take-off weight is less than 0.55 lbs, you wouldn’t have to register anyway, just don’t forget that the flight rules still apply.

Related reading:
Do I need to register with the FAA?
Get your money back from the FAA
FAA registration suspended

Please note, we are not covering all of the rules in their entirety today. I want you to understand the rules, not bore you with legal speak. I’ll put a link to the full legal rules near the bottom of the article.

This is part two of two of our interpretation of the FAA Rules. We will cover all of the rules not addressed in part one, if you missed that, click the button below.

If you are flying for pay, or any other form of compensation, you must operate under a different set of rules and possess a commercial drone license. We call it the Part 107, it’s not too hard to get, but it will take some time to learn all the rules. We want to help you learn the rules and get your commercial license, check out our drone pilot training material.

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Do not fly over people

This is possibly the most important and most policed rule from the FAA. Safety is their number one concern, and flying over top of people introduces a major risk. Simple enough, the FAA says do not fly over top of people, but it goes deeper than that.

The actual rule specifies that you can not fly over top of people that are not directly involved in your flight operations. So, you can fly over yourself, if you have a spotter on hand, you could fly over them. It’s still not recommended, but it’s legal at least.

The simple answer to “who’s included?” is anyone that is involved in the flight operations that attended the pre-flight briefing that the Pilot In Command hosted before the drone left the ground. Does that make sense? Think of the film industry, the person in charge (theoretically the pilot in command) hosts a quick battle plan before the flight, you should be over there, you over there, I’ll fly the drone here, like this and so forth.

The entire flight crew should know the plan for the drone from take-off to landing. Any person not involved in that process, do not fly over top of them.


Do not fly over or close to sports events or stadiums

This is not just an extension of ‘don’t fly over people,’ or maybe it is, but the FAA instates Temporary Flight Restrictions for all air traffic around a major sporting event. That blimp at the football game on TV, it has an approved special waiver from the FAA to fly there. You can apply for the same waiver for your drone, but you’re not likely to get it.

Beyond the risks of having so many people in one place at one time, once again you need to remember that if your drone has a camera, it is a camera. You cannot sit in the stands with a camcorder and record an NFL game, why would you think putting the camera in the sky would change that rule?

So, the FAA says you can’t fly around stadiums during events to protect the people and the sports from copyright infringements. Not sure if that latter part is within their jurisdiction to police, or if the rule just happens to help out.


Do not fly near emergency situations such as car crashes or fires

Emergency situations, emergency areas, please stay clear. I just heard that a few people in my area snuck into the Mount Hood National Forest to fly drones over the active forest fire restricted areas. First, you are not allowed to fly drones from within national forests. Second, if a water bomber has to divert because of your drone, then property is damaged or lives lost from the fire that didn’t get put out, you’ve done a bad thing.

We can debate the actual damage a small plastic drone can cause a large aircraft, which in most cases is going to be none whatsoever, but that’s not the point. Safety, again, is the name of the game. Your drone is an aircraft, and there is pretty straightforward technique that pilots use, it’s called don’t crash.

Anyway, the folks here in Oregon that flew in the forest, I understand they are facing some hefty fines. Did they actually cause harm? No, I don’t think so, but that is irrelevant, there is a rule, they broke it and now they have fines to pay.

This rule is more understandable in different situations. Many incidents require a helicopter to get involved, either as an ambulance or law enforcement, if there is a drone in the air, they will not fly. If they do not fly, people do not get air lifted to hospitals and criminals do not get hunted down.

Finally, once again, taking a camera to a crime scene or accident is not always lawful.

Different rules apply if you are asked to volunteer your services and drone to the fire department, for example. In this situation, the fire department will have already attained the flight permissions from the FAA to operate their emergency aircraft. In this situation, you become an entity of the fire department and can operate your drone in the restricted area, but only as instructed. Hopefully I can better explain this one to you one day.


Do not fly under the influence

Let’s keep this simple, the FAA does not want you mixing alcohol and drones. The general rule is 8 hours, ensuring that your blood alcohol level is below 0.04%. That’s right, there is more leniency to drive a car than to fly a drone after a drink.

Commercial pilots with their Part 107 license have it a little more strict. The levels are the same, but any violation of the rule will essentially immediately strip you of your license and all but ban you from ever becoming licensed again. If you fly for pay, do not have a drink that day.

The rule is an assumed rule as well, if that’s the right words – if you refuse a breathalyzer or blood test when asked, you are immediately considered guilty, say goodbye to your license.


Do not fly within 5 miles of an airport

I like to better sum this up by calling it: Be aware of controlled airspace – use the B4UFly app. Flying within 5 miles of an airport is more than just a strict rule, national airspace is the name of the game.

Admitting that the area around most airports is going to be controlled airspace, sometime it is not, at least not at the height you will be flying. Working the actual airspace rules is more for commercial operators on the Part 107 license, if you are flying for fun, the 5 mile rule is just easier to manage.

So, the rule is thus: you must contact the air traffic controller of all manned airports, including helipads, within 5 miles of your operations. Know your GPS location, operation range and planned elevation for your mission before you call.

You are not asking for permission to fly, you are informing them of your intent. They may tell you if you cannot fly there, but it is on you to ensure that you are following all other rules in place. For example, many cities have banned flight in city parks. The national airspace may allow you to fly over the parks, and the local airport may have no issued with that either, but local law enforcement can still prevent you and your drone from setting foot in the park. We’ll discuss this more in the future as well.

The easiest thing to do is use the FAA’s B4UFly app. It is wildly restrictive when it comes to telling you that you are within range of an airport, but it provides all the contact info you need and, more important, will tell you if you are in a definite no-fly zone, at least as far as the airspace is concerned.

Apps like AirMap and DroneComplier are great at providing this info as well, but again, they are not fully aware of the municipal laws your city may have in place for parks and such. You have research to do.


Money!!!!!

I want to say this, and you need to listen. Money! I’m not congratulating you on an epic video or photo, I mean it literally, money is what makes the difference between a flight for fun and a commercial operation.

If you are getting paid to fly, or will make money from a flight, including enjoying ad revenue from a YouTube video, you need to be Part 107 certified. If you are paid to fly, you are a business, if you are a business… You get the idea.

Once again, the FAA is not likely to hunt you down for posting that fun vacation video with your family that happens to accrue a few pennies of ad money. They are looking for paid operations more than anything. The greatest example I think we’re seeing today is real estate. There is nothing better than a cool aerial photograph of a property, but if an agent asks you to take that photo, or wants to fly their own drone, there better be a Part 107 license in the hands of the pilot.

Related: A day at a Part 107 training class – what was it like?

Just remember, money! If you will be putting any cash in your pocket as relates directly to a flight, you need to have your Part 107 certification.

We’ll talk about Part 107 certification and the concept of running a drone business, large or small, later.

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Wrap up of FAA drone safety

I wish things were as simple as they used to be. Back in the day when you could just launch your toy from your backyard and enjoy the experience. That said, I totally agree with the need for safety in the air, I am happy to abide these rules to ensure nobody is ever injured while I pilot.

FAA RegistrationThe rules may be scary, and feel restrictive. One thing the director of the FAA said at InterDrone is that they are short on man-power to police the skies. If they see your posted YouTube video of an illegal flight, they’ll get you. If they get reports of a drone in an unlawful place, they’ll track you down. That’s the theory, at least.

Otherwise, safety really is the key. If you are safe, causing no harm or disruption to others, especially other aircraft, the FAA won’t be looking for you. I mean, I will not promote flight in unlawful locations, but if you have a small toy drone in your backyard, literally, never flying higher than your fence/house/trees, do you think the FAA will come looking for you? I don’t know the answer, please fly safe.

There is so much more to the FAA rules than your registration certificate implies. Please keep in touch with the rules, we do not want to see you get in trouble.

For all of the details, the full FAA rules on UAS flight, (UAS means Unmanned Aerial Systems, if you don’t recall,) check out the FAA drone rules here.

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