US Drone Laws: How the FAA Stacks Up

Above: Informal chart comparing the regulatory policies that different countries have applied to commercial sUAS (drone) operation.

Correction: This chart isn’t 3DR’s; it’s an informal guide provided by the Small UAV Coalition. The rules for Canada (you can’t fly commercially within 5 miles of a “built-up area”) and Australia aren’t 100% accurate. Please refer to each country’s aviation agency’s website for the most up-to-date information.

A little hazy on what America’s drone laws actually are? You’re not alone. But there’s good news: We can help.

The above chart is really useful — as long as you don’t live in the US. As you can tell from this conspicuous absence of a “US” column, the FAA is lagging far behind other countries in integrating commercial drones (i.e., flying drones for profit) into the national airspace. So while we’d like to add that column ourselves, we can’t. And like just about anyone else, we’d like to see this change ASAP.

What about you?

As for your personal use, there aren’t yet any laws outside the existing rules that have historically governed the use of model aircraft in the US. In other words, all the regulations specific to personal drone use are still being written, which means we’ll have new and concrete laws soon — well, hopefully soon.

But you just want to know if you can fly your drone and get cool aerial pictures and video, right? Bottom line: Yes, you can.

This doesn’t mean you can fly anything anywhere. For instance, as was recently brought to national attention following the White House drone crash, you can’t fly a drone in DC airspace, even recreationally. National parks are also off limits. If you’re wondering exactly where you can and can’t fly, here’s a helpful and continually updated map of “no-fly zones” in the US.

Know Before You Fly

Last December, the FAA partnered with a few collective industry entities to draw up some “Know Before You Fly” guidelines. The website offers guidelines for personal, commercial and public use of drones — but although the FAA sponsors the project, it apparently doesn’t officially endorse it.

Here are their guidelines for flying your drone for fun:

model-aircraft-infographic
  • Follow community-based safety guidelines, as developed by organizations such as the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA).
  • Fly no higher than 400 feet and remain below any surrounding obstacles when possible.
  • Keep your drone within eyesight at all times, and use an observer to assist if needed.
  • Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations, and you must see and avoid other aircraft and obstacles at all times.
  • Do not intentionally fly over unprotected persons or moving vehicles, and remain at least 25 feet away from individuals and vulnerable property.
  • Contact the airport or control tower before flying within five miles of an airport.
  • Do not fly in adverse weather conditions such as in high winds or reduced visibility.
  • Do not fly under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • Ensure the operating environment is safe and that the operator is competent and proficient in the operation of the drone.
  • Do not fly near or over sensitive infrastructure or property such as power stations, water treatment facilities, correctional facilities, heavily traveled roadways, government facilities, etc.
  • Check and follow all local laws and ordinances before flying over private property.
  • Don’t conduct surveillance or photograph persons in areas where there is an expectation of privacy without the individual’s permission (see AMA’s privacy policy).

What about commercial use?

Bottom line: You’re not allowed to fly a drone for profit in the US without special clearance from the FAA. It’s a little absurd: A farmer can make a detailed high-res map of her fields for “personal enjoyment,” but she can’t use that very same image to make an informed business decision. If you want to apply for a commercial exemption from the FAA, go here. Otherwise, be prepared to shell out some cash.

We hope this page is helpful to you today, but obsolete tomorrow. We can dream, right?

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