How to Fly Your Drone Legally and Safely
Last week, I got my very first remote-controlled quadcopter, a Parrot AR Drone 2.0. Usually, when I get a new gadget, my first instinct is to play with it. This time, I had to register it with the government and get approval before I could fly. Here’s how to jump through those hoops if you’re planning to fly a UAV.
Register Your Drone
In December of 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) enacted a new set of rules for owners of small, unmanned aircraft systems. These are officially known to the FAA as UAS devices, but regular people commonly call them drones. So that’s how we’re going to refer to them. Now, if you own a drone that weighs anywhere between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds, you have to register it with the FAA before you’re allowed to fly.
If you’re not sure if your drone falls under the registration requirements, you can find detailed examples in the FAA’s UAS Weight Requirements document here. Wired also has a partial list of drones that require registration here, though it may not be up to date (it’s currently missing the DJI Phantom 4, for example). Finally, if you’re still at a total loss, the FAA states that you must register anything heavier than two sticks of butter. Yes, really. If your drone is any smaller than this (like the plastic copters you find in the toy aisle), you don’t have to register it.
Once you’ve determined that your drone must be registered, follow these steps:
- Go to the FAA’s drone registration site here.
- Create an account. You’ll then be asked to provide basic information like your name, address, and phone number.
- Pay the $5 registration fee to complete the process. Your fee gets you a three-year registration with the FAA..
- You’ll then receive a registration certificate in your email with a registration number on it. Place this number somewhere visible on your drone, or inside the battery compartment if it does not require a tool to open. I taped a piece of paper inside my drone, but you can use a label maker, a sharpie, or even engrave the number if you want. This number helps identify that you own your drone if it gets lost, or causes damage. If you’re not sure how to best display your registration number, check the FAA’s guide on how to display it here.
The process only takes a few minutes to complete, and it’s one of the most painless experiences I’ve ever had dealing with a government web site (please take note, DMV). Unfortunately, the hard part comes next.
Find Somewhere to Fly Legally
Depending on where you live, it can be pretty difficult to find a place to fly legally. According to the FAA’s drone rules, you cannot fly your drone within five miles of an airport without contacting the air traffic control for that facility first (among other limitations). The FAA’s B4UFLY app can show which airports are near you, but unfortunately it can’t actually contact them for you. Finding contact info for those airports can be a challenge, and don’t just try calling their general number and asking to speak to air traffic control.
If you’re not able to find contact information for airports near where you want to fly, try your local Flight Standards District Office. These offices can help you find the information you need to contact airports in your area. Drone enthusiast service AirMap can also help you research the airspace requirements in your area and help find airport phone numbers. However, keep in mind AirMap is not an officially recognized government service. Just because it can’t find any information for your area doesn’t mean that flying is legal, and you won’t get a visit from the police when they spot you on the ground with your controller.
There are also plenty of no-drone or no-fly zones that you’re not allowed to fly in, no matter what the circumstances. Many national parks, federal facilities, and even some entire cities (like the entirety of Washington DC) are off limits. Drone manufacturer DJI has an interactive map of some known no-fly zones, though you should always check the official B4UFLY app as well.
Even if a space isn’t designated a no-fly zone, you still might not be allowed to fly. Sporting events are usually off limits—partly because you’re flying it over other people, and partly because stadium owners don’t allow it. You also definitely shouldn’t be that asshole who flies drones near emergency situations. If you see emergency lights near you, land your drone immediately. Even if you’re in a legal space to fly, getting in the way of emergency vehicles can not only get you in trouble, it could cause harm to others.
If all else fails, you can find a local flight club that can help you with the specifics in your area. You can search the Academy of Model Aeronautics for a local chapter. You may also get lucky and find some active groups on sites like Meetup. Unfortunately, for now finding a place to safely fly is still a bit of a mess until the FAA makes their process for notifying airports easier. In the meantime, if you’re not sure it’s legal to fly (or if you think you might have flown outside a legal fly zone), be courteous and bring your drone down if you’re asked. Especially if that request comes from law enforcement, or from any property owners you may be hovering over.
Fly Safely and Photograph Legally
Once you’re up and flying, make sure you obey a few basic safety rules. Most of them are pretty common sense, but you can never be too careful. From the FAA’s website, here are the basics:
- Fly below 400 feet and remain clear of surrounding obstacles
- Keep the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times
- Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations
- Don’t fly within 5 miles of an airport unless you contact the airport and control tower before flying
- Don’t fly near people or stadiums
- Don’t fly an aircraft that weighs more than 55 lbs
- Don’t be careless or reckless with your unmanned aircraft – you could be fined for endangering people or other aircraft
You should also check your drone manufacturer for guides on how to fly your specific model safely. DJI, one of the leading drone manufacturers has anextensive collection of tutorial videos on YouTube. Parrot has a similar channel for its AR drone line. Each model is different, so get to know your drone before you take it out for your first flight.
One area the FAA does not cover, however, is taking photos or video from your drone. We’ve covered photography rights before, but drones make it a little complicated. For example, the general guideline for street photography is “If you can see it, you can shoot it.” That becomes a problem when you can fly your drone up to the 10th story window of an apartment complex and hover outside a bedroom window.
Since the law hasn’t really caught up with drones, you’ll have to use conservative judgment. Don’t shoot anything on private property, or fromprivate property. If your drone is flying above someone else’s property, anything it can see probably isn’t legal to photograph. Don’t peek inside windows, and don’t record faces. You also can’t make money from any photos or videos you plan to take, as that constitutes commercial use of a drone, which is regulated differently. This guide from Videomaker is a little outdated (it doesn’t consider the new FAA rules), but it can help you understand how photography rights overlap with drone flying regulations.
Of course, this still leaves you with plenty of hazy areas that aren’t fully sorted out yet. For example, Raphael Pirker was fined $10,000 for “commercial use” of a drone after he used one to take a couple shots for a University of Virginia advertisement in exchange for “pocket money.” They later settled for around $1,100. Still, it’s very easy to accidentally veer into dangerous territory. Flying your drone high enough to see into a military base, or through someone’s bedroom window is obviously illegal, even if your drone is technically “in a public space,” but there are other uses that seem benign that can get you in trouble. Since the legality of drone photos and video flights are still very hazy, err on the side of caution.