One of the biggest points of confusion for an aspiring drone pilot is the legality of their activities. As drones have become increasingly popular over the last decade, we've seen numerous horror stories on the news and on social media about people inappropriately flying and getting busted as a result. Here's a short list of transgressions of FAA drone regulations that I've seen in the news over the years:
- Flying over a packed football stadium in the dark
- Scaring a herd of elk into a stampede
- Spooking a horse that injured three people
- Flying into a military Black Hawk helicopter
- Uploading a YouTube video where the drone leaves line-of-sight
- Flying into the White House lawn
And many, many more. If you happen to see any new ones, please send them my way. The FAA has different rules depending on whether you are flying commercially, or just for fun, and has presented these rules in the Code of Federal Regulations Part 107, and Part 101, respectively. In this article I'm going to talk about Part 101. If you are interested in getting a license for Part 107, check out the link to our training page at the top or give us a call at (720) 541-4394.
Hobby Pilots: Part 101
The regulations for hobby pilots are pretty short and straightforward. If you'd like to see them yourself, you can check them out here. It's a short list, but I'll expand on them:
- The aircraft is flown strictly for hobby or recreational use. This means that if you receive any compensation in any way for flying your drone, you are no longer a hobby pilot and you need to check out Part 107.
- The aircraft is operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization. This part essentially means you have to follow the Academy of Model Aeronautics' (AMA) safety code. We'll get into this later, but you can view it here.
- The aircraft is limited to not more than 55 pounds unless otherwise certified through a design, construction, inspection, flight test, and operational safety program administered by a community-based organization. Your drone has to be under 55 pounds, unless you're the military or you're Amazon. Most of us, especially hobbyists, will never have a need for a drone heavier than a sack of Quickrete.
- The aircraft is operated in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to any manned aircraft. I think it should go without saying that flying into planes and helicopters is bad. You will be expected to yield to manned aircraft if the need arises, but a good pilot will make sure there are no planes, para-gliders, helicopters, or UFOs anywhere near their area of flight.
- When flown within 5 miles of an airport, the operator of the aircraft provides the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower (when an air traffic facility is located at the airport) with prior notice of the operation. I don't know why would want to fly near an airport what with the previous rule, but if you must, let air traffic control know first. I would advise steering clear of most major airports because it's unlikely you'll get clearance in class B airspace.
So in a nutshell: stay away from planes and airports, don't fly a drone the size of a car, and don't make money with your drone. The second rule, which says to follow AMA guidelines, is somewhat redundant, but there a few key things from the AMA safety code to keep in mind.
- Stay away from people. Flying over or around unprotected human beings will earn you some serious bad-noodle points, and the cops can write you up for being "reckless and careless." You can fly over areas next to people, but not directly over anyone's head.
- Don't race outside. This is a summary of the "don't fly reckless or carelessly" rule. Sorry racers, I feel your pain and this is totally unfair. However, the FAA is trying really hard to prevent anything cool from happening with drones and careless flying is about the only thing a law enforcement officer can actually write you up for. Going fast and flipping about scaring old ladies is asking for trouble.
- Maintain visual line-of-sight (VLOS). If you can't see your drone with your own, beautiful eyes, you shouldn't be flying. No you can't use binoculars. FPV is totally out of the question. Don't yell at me, I don't make the rules. I'm just as upset about this as you are.
- Don't drink and fly. I shouldn't have to explain this, but downing a fifth of bourbon and then going to the park to pick up girls with your sick drone skills is very against the rules.
And there you have it. These are the rules you have to keep in mind while you are making a sweet drone video of your in-laws' 4th of July party. As long as you follow these, you are free to fly and enjoy yourself unfettered by federal bureaucracy, at least until your YouTube video gets popular enough to make ad revenue and you accidentally violate the first rule and inadvertently become a commercial pilot.