Drone regulations and safe flying restrictions can be difficult to follow. Considering you can order a top of the line quad online and be flying in a few days, many beginners may be completely unaware that they need to follow any regulations at all.
Hopefully we can demystify some of the agencies, restrictions, and general questions when it comes to flying safely and legally. We also included a ton of links to outside references, articles, and threads that may be helpful for additional research.
This post is going to be mostly USA-centric with regards to laws and regulations. If you are from another country and want to add your experiences, feel free to leave us a comment, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
What federal laws do I need to worry about when flying a drone?
There are two main regulatory authorities you need to worry about when flying a drone in the United States: the FAA and the FCC.
FAA compliance for drone pilots
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates all aspects of civic aviation. This is the main regulatory authority when it comes to setting up rules and laws for flying our drones.
The core rules set out by the FAA (as of 10/2017) include:
- Follow community based safety guidelines, such as those developed by the AMA.
- Fly no higher than 400 feet.
- Do not interfere with manned aircraft operations.
- Do not fly within 5 miles of an airport without first making contact.
- Fly within visual line of sight.
Additionally, if you plan to use your drone for any commercial (monetary) use, you must operate under the “Small UAS rule” (Part 107) by getting a Remote Pilot Certificate.
You may have heard that you need to register your drone with the FAA to fly legally. This policy has changed multiple times over 2017. As of December 2017, you once again have to register your drone with the FAA. More details and a discussion on whether to register or not can be found here.
FCC compliance for drone pilots
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates communication by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable. If data is flowing from one point to the next, the FCC is likely involved.
As such, there are very specific licensing requirements to broadcast over certain wireless frequencies. Due to the frequencies our VTXs operate on, and how most video transmitters aren’t Part 15 compliant, you need an amateur radio license to use these components.
Getting an amateur radio license is fairly easy. You only need the first level (technician) license and the test consists of multiple choice questions drawn from a public test bank. If you are interested in learning more about getting FCC amateur radio licensed, check out our guide here.
Even with an amateur license, not all radio equipment is legal to use in the US. Most video transmitters offer channels outside the allocated spectrum for amateur use, including the edges of “E” band and almost everything on the newer “L”, “o”, and “U” bands. Do not use these channels! There are other users of the spectrum in these areas and you may cause harmful interference. The radio spectrum is a shared resource that must be respected by everyone.
Where can I fly my drone?
Numerous app makers have made it extremely easy to spot restricted flight zones using your phone. This is one of the easiest ways to make sure you are not flying in a no-fly zone.
In general, the area surrounding an airport is a no go. If you want to fly within 5 miles of an airport, you must contact them to get permission. Depending on your location, this can be very easy or near impossible. Your best bet is to avoid airports entirely.
Temporary flight restrictions (TFR) are also important to follow. These are temporary restrictions due to proximity of government VIPs, special events, natural disasters, or other unusual events. If there is a high-ranking government official or wildfire going on, you can pretty much bet the area will be a no-fly zone.
Otherwise, you are left with local regulations. Check your city ordinances for more details. If you need help on choosing a safe flying site, check out our article on the subject here!
How do I deal with other people while flying?
I would argue the single most likely way to have a run in with law enforcement is via complaints from the general public. The FCC and FAA aren’t cruising around in panel vans looking for pesky unlicensed pilots. However, local law enforcement will respond to calls from the guy annoyed by your “flying toy”.
When was the last time you heard anything positive about drones in the news? Very few people know about racing quads and by default figure every drone in the sky is recording them.
Your best bet to avoid confrontation is to be respectful to others while flying. Don’t fly in crowded spaces, don’t trespass on private property, etc. If you want to read about how we react to questions or confrontations from random passerby’s, check out this article.
Do I need drone insurance?
By and large, it seems like most pilots rely on insurance provided by the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) membership. With a $2.5MM comprehensive liability protection policy for members, the $75 annual membership is a pretty good deal. This also grants you access to AMA fields, events, and more. Some race organizations even require AMA membership to compete.
However, there are a few ‘gotchas’ FPV pilots should be aware of. If you are seriously counting on AMA insurance for flying, you better be well versed on their safety code. Namely, Document 105 (AMA National Model Aircraft Safety Code) and Document 550 (Unmanned Aircraft Operation Utilizing First-Person View).
While you should read the full documents yourself, here are a few standouts some pilots might be surprised by:
- A spotter (who is also an AMA member) is required for all FPV flight (no solo FPV flying) (Doc 105, Section 2.d)
- If you are flying equipment that requires FCC licensing, you must be licensed. (Doc 105, Section 2.l)
- You cannot fly outside visual line of sight of your quad. (Doc 105, Section 2.f)
If you are racing with others, you would likely be covered due to the amount of people at the event. However, if you are planning on practicing solo at a field, that would technically be against the AMA ruleset for FPV. In other words, keep in mind the limitations and restrictions on FPV under the AMA safety code.
Commercial and consumer drone insurance outside the AMA
Over the last two years, the commercial drone insurance industry has grown rapidly. If you plan to use your drone or quad for commercial work, then you should absolutely look into insurance. At minimum, you should have liability insurance to cover any damage you accidentally cause in a crash. A bit of googling around for commercial insurance should bring up a ton of results – both regional and nationwide.
However, personal drone insurance is a much murkier area. Your best bet is to inquire with your homeowner’s insurance policy or claims adjuster. Each insurance company’s policy will be different, so your best bet is to do your own research
Here are a few articles on the matter that might help:
Drone safety and regulation questions summed up: our thoughts
Here’s our breakdown and thoughts on drone licensing, flying restrictions, and insurance.
Regulations you MUST follow:
These are regulations that you need to follow 100% of the time. These are the no brainers – don’t fly next to airports, don’t fly in restricted airspace, etc.
- Follow the general FAA rules (maintain distance from airports, fly less than 400ft high, etc.).
- Use a flight app to avoid flying in restricted airspace.
General rules of thumb:
Follow your local regulations. While you can skirt these, if you anger the wrong person or attract too much attention, you might have to deal with law enforcement.
- Check local regulations and be aware of ordinances.
- Avoid flying over crowded areas around large groups of people (without permission).
- Respect private property – if you get told to leave… leave.
Cover your ass safety regulations:
If you are making money while flying, or flying competitively, you should seriously consider getting proper licenses and taking precautions to protect yourself:
- Making money while flying? Get a Part 107 Waiver (FAA).
- Flying using FPV? Get an amateur (HAM) radio license (FCC).
- Want to utilize AMA benefits / insurance? Have a spotter while you fly FPV and follow AMA rules.
Overall, it comes down to your risk threshold. Are you going to get arrested for flying in a local park that has a “no drones” sign? Probably not. However, knowing the rules and being aware of local and federal regulations can help prevent getting into a bad situation. Similarly, do you need insurance for your quadcopter? If you aren’t flying competitively, probably not. However, if you are attempting dangerous stunts in office parks or earning money flying your quad, you probably should give it some thought to protect yourself.
There are two major factors that most FPV pilots should worry about when flying:
- Trespassing on private property.
- Pissing off someone while flying.
Either of these are likely to escalate into a bad situation more than not having a HAM radio license. Pissing off the wrong person can make for a bad day quicker than anything else. Don’t give the soccer moms at the sports park a reason to call the cops. Don’t dive buildings after a security guard tells you to leave the area. Use some common sense and you will likely have a hassle-free time with the law while flying.
Cops aren’t sweeping the parks for unlawful FPV pilots – they have much better things to do. However, they will respond to a call and enforce the law as needed.
All that said, we aren’t lawyers. Proceed with caution.
On the other hand, for pilots looking to get sponsored, race for compensation, or otherwise take the hobby further than just park flying, you should be much more aware of the umbrella regulations that guide the hobby. Failing to get properly licensed or maintain some form of insurance may restrict you from competing in events.
Have any experience dealing with law enforcement? Definitely let us know your story in the comments.
Additional resources and articles:
AMA Government Relations Blog: A great place to stay up to date on government regulations and how they relate to RC flight.