What are drone flying laws in the U.S. and what is their purpose?

Published: June 11, 2019


Categories: R/C Drones

Drone UAV 4X-UEC

Drones, which are also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are becoming more popular every day, and they serve a variety of uses – recreation, education, and commercial.

According to an article in Forbes, drone use seems to be consistently expanding, For instance, they may be used for assessing wildfires as well as inspecting tracks and power lines.

The skies are full of various aircraft such as manned planes (private, commercial, and military), helicopters, and of course, drones. As a result, drone operators must adhere to regulations that provide for everyone’s safety.

How are drones controlled?

According to the website DroneZon, drones are built using light composite material to keep their weight as low as possible while enhancing maneuverability. The strength of the materials used permit military drones to fly at altitudes as high as 15,000 feet. Remote ground control systems (GSC) guide this kind of aircraft. In fact, such systems are also known as ground cockpits. But enough of these basics.

Why are drone laws important?

The need for safety of people in the air and on the ground goes without saying as the reason for regulating drones. No one wants an air disaster responsible for deaths or injuries.

The website UAV Coach summarizes the basic drone laws in the United States. There are two categories of regulations for average citizens flying drones.

Photo credit: Witold Wascht
dji F450 NAZA-M V2; Dron; Drone; Quadcopter

Do you fly as a hobbyist?

  1. To begin with, if you register your drone as a recreational flyer, you must fly ONLY recreationally. This means you cannot have any side jobs or do any “in-kind” work when flying your drone.
  2. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that you register your drone with their agency on the FAADroneZone website.
  3. Fly within a visual line-of-sight. This means that the operator must be able to see a drone at all times while flying it unassisted by any devices, except for the use of corrective lenses.
  4. Know and follow your community-based safety guidelines.
  5. Additionally, your flying practices should fit the programming practices established by a nationwide community-based organization (CBO). One such organization is the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA).
  6. Unless your drone gets certified by a community-based organization, it must weigh less than 55 pounds.
  7. Never fly close to emergency response efforts.
  8. Make sure not to fly your drone close to any other aircraft.
  9. If you plan to fly your drone within five miles of any airport, be sure to notify the airport AND air traffic control tower.

Do you fly for work?

If your job requires that you fly a drone, there are a specific set of drone flying laws that apply to you.

  1. Before flying your drone commercially, obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate, which is issued by the FAA.

Here are the prerequisites for obtaining this certificate:

a) Be at least sixteen years old.

b) Be in a physical and mental condition that enables you to safely operate a small unmanned aircraft system (UAS).

c) The ability to speak, read, write and understand English. (If a person has a physical condition, such as a hearing impairment, that prevents them from meeting one of these fluency requirements, they may be able to get an exception.)

d) Commercial drone pilots must undergo a security clearance screening administered by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA).

e) Passing an Aeronautical Knowledge (Part 107) Test at an FAA-approved testing center.Register your drone with the FAA using the FAADroneZone website.

2) Register your drone with the FAA using the FAADroneZone website.

3) The drone must not weigh any more than 55 pounds, which includes the payload at takeoff.

4) Fly your drone only in Class G airspace. Additionally, you may only fly it within your line-of-sight. Class G airspace is the only type of uncontrolled airspace in the United States. This airspace involves using the requirements of Visual Flight Rules. The distances are as follows:

  • This applies to altitudes below 10,000 feet (3.050 meters) mean sea level (MSL), and 1,200 feet above ground level
  • 1 mile (1.6 km) by day
  • 3 miles (5 km) at night

*Commercial pilots desiring to bypass the drone flying laws regarding Class G airspace may apply for and obtain approval from the FAA for special airspace authorization. Additionally, you can obtain a waiver regarding most of the other regulations by submitting a request to the FAA and obtaining a Part 107 waiver. The one exception to this is the weight requirement.Flying from a moving vehicle is prohibited. The exception: sparsely populated areas.

5) Flying from a moving vehicle is prohibited. The exception: flying in a sparsely populated area.

6) Fly only at or below 400 feet.

7) Fly at or under 100 mph.

8) Never fly directly over people.

9) Yield the right-of-way to manned aircraft.

Do any of the states have drone flying laws different from the federal laws?

According to the FindLaw website, there are some states that have drone flying laws in addition to the federal regulations that are based on various other issues surrounding the use of drones. The states that have drone laws amending the federal laws are as follows:

  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Florida
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Oregon
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia

Many of the additional laws within individual states revolve around the use of drones for invading the privacy of individuals. Other states add laws prohibiting the use of drones to harass or interfere with hunting activities, or on the other side of the coin, to locate animals or fish for hunting or fishing purposes. If your state is listed above, click on the FindLaw link to learn about specific additional laws related to drone use.

Photo Credit: Greg Goebel
Shadow 200 Drone, Miramar MCAS, Calif/2012

What does the future hold for drone flying laws?

The Forbes article covered future safety concerns regarding drones in the commercial world, especially in terms of drone size. Commercial drone users will certainly need to build their aircraft to be larger than the current 55-lb. limit if they expect to get any real value out of them. However, public safety issues require that any consideration of loosening the weight regulations must involve the mitigation of risks to people.

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