Before You Fly That Drone in the US

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As always there are things to do before you fly that drone. Ensuring your drone’s battery is charged and checking the propellers are securely fastened are important. But, checking that you are allowed to fly that drone with a camera (or any drone) in the area you’ve chosen and that you have the right approvals is a must.

USA Drone Regulations

The following refers to the safety regulations for flying drones in the US (please refer to the Information Sources in case of updates). It is worth noting that no globally-recognized standards for flying drones are in place at the time of this writing. But this may change as peoples privacy issues and concerns about the use of cameras with drones come to light.

A drone is termed an unmanned aircraft system (UAS), which is an aircraft without a human pilot onboard, being controlled remotely by an operator.

If you are flying a drone in the United States you need to understand and abide by certain rules. You should also know that recreational and commercial use regulations differ.

Common Requirements

In all cases, when operating a drone in the USA:

  • It must be in line of sight of the pilot at all times
  • It must give way to manned aircraft
  • Must weigh less than 55 lbs (~ 25 kg)
  • Needs to be registered with the FAA if it weighs over 0.55 lbs (~ 0.25 kg)

Non-Recreational (Commercial) Use of Drone

You can fly a drone for work, business, or other non-recreational reasons under certain provisions.

For these purposes, the pilot must have a remote pilot airman certificate, be at least 16 years old, and must pass Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) vetting.

In terms of the drone itself, it must not weigh more than 55 lbs (25 kg) and you will need to register it if it weighs more than 0.55 lbs (0.25 kg). In addition, it must undergo a pre-flight check for safe operating conditions.

The locations for commercial use includes Class G airspace, which “includes all airspace below 14,500 feet (4,400 m) MSL not otherwise classified as controlled.”

When operating, apart from the common requirements of drones (listed above), the drone must remain under 400 feet (122 m), fly only in the daytime, at or below 100 mph (160 km/h). You must not fly it over humans nor from a moving vehicle.

Details are given in the operational requirements (PDF) from Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulation (14 CFR) Part 107.

Non-citizen Use of Drone for Commercial Reasons

If you are a non-citizen and flying a drone for commercial purposes, the Small UAS rule (Part 107) applies. You need to get a Remote Pilot Certificate (RPC) issued by the FAA. Any certificate or equivalent from another country is not recognized.  More information is available from the US Department of Transportation.

Recreational Use of Drone

If you are looking to buy a drone for your kid or use one yourself for fun, the regulations are somewhat laxer.

For one, there are no pilot requirements (as at the time of writing this article). If you fly the drone indoors, there’s no requirement for a remote pilot’s license and if you fly it outdoors there’s still no requirement for this as long as your actions are within certain conditions (outlined below).

In terms of location, you need to make sure you fly your drone no closer than five miles (8 km) of an airport. Otherwise, you must give prior notification to airport and traffic controllers when flying within 5 miles (8 km) of an airport. There’s an app called AirMap that you can use to check for this.

When operating the drone you need to abide by the common requirements mentioned at the beginning of this article as well as follow community-based safety guidelines.

These include the following:

  1. Keep your drone in eyesight, and have someone assist if needed
  2. Remain at least 25 feet from individuals and susceptible property
  3. Do not fly in adverse weather conditions (high winds, reduced visibility, and similar poor conditions).
  4. Do not fly near or over sensitive infrastructure or property (power stations, water treatment facilities, correctional facilities, heavily traveled roadways, government facilities, and the like).
  5. Do not conduct surveillance or photograph individuals or groups in areas where there is an expectation of privacy without their permission.

There is no requirement for a pre-flight safety certification, but the drone does need to be registered with the FAA if it weighs over 0.55 lbs (0.25 kg)  — unless used exclusively in compliance with a special rule for model aircraft.

As an alternative to these conditions, you can fly your drone for recreational purposes if you or someone overseeing you hold a remote pilot license, in which case, you must register your drone and adhere to the operational requirements (PDF) of Part 107.

National Parks Ban on Drones

There is a ban on flying drones launched and/or landed within national parks in the US with fairly hefty fines. You can find out more about this here.

Other Restricted Places to Fly Drones

There are temporary flight restrictions that get imposes. You need to check those that are active via the FAA site.

There is also a handy website that shows where you can and cannot fly at any given time.

Other Information Sources

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Hi, I’m Jeff Madden. I’m an enthusiast of the wide open spaces. I’ve had over 15 years experience in presenting spatial data and I find it valuable to research and compare the latest technology available. I hope you find my comparisons on the performance of technology useful for exploring and capturing visuals of the outdoors.