Published February 14, 2017
One of the first things every new drone owner in the US has to do is learn the basics of laws and regulations about unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Since federal regulations have only recently been established and new state laws are being introduced on a regular basis, this can seem like an intimidating prospect. However, those interested in the hobby should not be fearful; getting acquainted is simpler than you might think.
For those looking for immediate advice on what to do before using a drone, here is a TLDR:
- Register your drone with the FAA here.
- Read and follow AMA safety guidelines.
- Check for state or local laws.
Regulations that you should be concerned with fall into two categories: federal laws and state laws.
Federal Drone Laws
A recreational drone is subject to much less stringent regulations than those used for commercial purposes. Take note that the following regulations apply only to recreational drones; as soon as a vehicle is used for professional purposes, entirely separate regulations apply. As long as basic guidelines are followed, no license, training, or membership is legally required for recreational pilots. These guidelines include:
The UAV must be registered
The first step every new drone owner should take is to register their vehicle with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Many nanodrones do not have to be registered — but tf the UAV weighs between .55 to 55 pounds, it must be registered.
It is a simple process and costs $5 to complete. Owners above the age of 13 can register online at the official FAA website, where they will need to provide their name, address, and email address. FAA registration scams are common, so it is important to register at the correct website: https://registermyuas.faa.gov/. Afterwards, applicants will receive a certificate of registration through the mail, which will cover a vehicle for three years. As long as owners label their vehicle with the provided registration number, they are cleared for take-off.
Registration can be a minor nuisance, but it definitely prevents future problems. The FAA cooperates with local law enforcement to ensure that unregistered drones are not permitted to fly. Penalties for failing to register can be harsh. As of February 2016, operators of unregistered UAVs can be fined $250,000 and/or three years in prison.
The pilot must not endanger others
Pilots must abide by the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) National Model Aircraft Safety Code. While the code might look daunting at first glance, it mostly involves the use of some common sense: For example, owners are not allowed to fly in a reckless manner. They should yield the right of way to all aircrafts carrying people. They should not pilot in close proximity to airports. Pilots should obviously not operate UAVs while drunk or otherwise inebriated.
There are other regulations that might not be so obvious to newcomers. Pilots must avoid flying directly over unprotected pedestrians or property. At night, drones can only be flown in well-lit areas (handheld light sources are insufficient). Operators should keep a line of sight with their vehicles at all times, and it should not exceed a height of 500 feet above ground level. Anyone interested in getting into the hobby should give the safety code a read before first launch.
State Drone Laws
There are also state laws to consider. While the FAA asserts authority over drone regulations, state lawmakers have nevertheless passed many pieces of legislation in regards to drones since 2013. This sometimes leads to contradictory or redundant laws, but the FAA has the final say on enforceable regulation. Nevertheless, drone pilots have an obligation to follow state laws to the best of their ability.
While it can be difficult to track changes in legislation, the NCSL regularly publishes updates on the current landscape on state regulations for drones. It is highly recommended for new users to search for any regulations that might apply to them. State laws on UAVs generally cover concerns that fall into three categories: the protection of privacy, preventing unsafe conditions, and prohibiting the use of drones for specific purposes:
State laws protecting privacy
One aspect about drones that some states find problematic is the potential for users to invade the privacy of others. Anti-voyeur laws — also known as “peeping tom laws” — are among the most common state regulations for UAVs. States that have passed such laws include California, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and several others. In these states, it is especially important that operators do not use invade the privacy of others.
State laws preventing endangerment to others
Other state laws are intended to prevent pilots from causing harm to others. This often includes prohibitions on piloting in or near areas of crisis, such as near wildfires or riots. This is largely due to the fear that drones might interfere with efforts by officials. A real-world example of this problem occurred in Kentucky, when drones prevented firefighters from stopping a forest fire. California, Louisiana, and Utah have even made it legal for first responders to damage and remove UAVs that prevent them from doing their job. Drone owners should be sure to avoid piloting near such scenes, and check for state laws that might put their vehicle at risk.
State laws prohibiting use of drones for certain purposes
Many laws exist that prevent UAVs from being used for specific purposes and professions:
- It is illegal to use drones to assist with hunting in Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, West Virginia, and Wisconsin — among others.
- Police forces in several states have either been restricted or outright forbidden from using drones for law enforcement purposes. These states include Maine, Nevada, Virginia, and Vermont.
- UAVs are prohibited in several states from being used as surveillance near critical infrastructure, such as electricity/oil plants, transportation systems, or security services.
As legislators play catch-up with the popularity of drones, more standards and regulations may arise. Conscientious pilots have no reason to be concerned going forward. Following the advice in this guide and keeping a pulse on drone legislation will help new owners pilot with confidence.