If you’ve purchased a drone, you’re probably keen to get out there and start using it. But before you do that, it’s important to understand the laws that govern recreational drone use in the US. There’s a range of requirements and federal laws that you’ll need to be aware of if you want to stay on the right side of the law and away from the police.
Lots of people assume that they can just do pretty much what they like with their drone. That’s because they’re often treated as novelty toys but that’s the wrong way to approach drone use. These laws are taken seriously and regularly enforced, so don’t assume you can ignore them because that’s not the case.
We’re going to cover all of these federal laws and also discuss the variations in state laws that might apply to you when you’re using your drone. Read on and be sure to absorb the information below; failing to do so could cost you big time when you’re out there in the real world flying your drone.
First of all, we’re going to look at the federal laws that outline how you can use your drone in public places. These laws are applied to all states and are considered the baseline, although other laws can be added at the state level and they’ll be explained further on in this guide.
Flying for Fun
The reason you have for buying and using a drone in the US will dictate what you can do to a certain extent. Today, we’re going to talk about recreational drone use. This is when you buy a drone and use it personally for fun. This is the kind of drone usage that applies to most people and the number of recreational drones in the sky is rising steadily at the moment.
However, some of the rules are different and rules will apply that aren’t mentioned here if you want to use a drone for commercial purposes or for your business. Drones are used in many industries from sport and entertainment to agriculture and construction. But the information you find here will not be focused on that kind of drone usage.
Registering Your Drone with the FAA
If you’re a recreational drone pilot, one of the first things you should do upon buying a new drone is to register it with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration). It’s a mandatory requirement for all recreational drones to be registered with the FAA before they’re flown outdoors and you’ll then be assigned an FAA identification number and you can attach this number to your drone.
The registration process costs $5 and it’s a cost that can’t be avoided. If the drone is very small and weighs less than 8.8 ounces or 250g, you don’t need to go through the FAA registration process. It’s also not possible to register a drone weighing more than 55 pounds online; a paper application must be submitted to the FAA instead.
Fly Below 400 Feet
When flying your drone, the first thing you should take into account when deciding how high you should fly it is how far you can see. If it’s a very foggy or overcast day, you’ll need to fly it lower because regulations say that you have to keep your drone within sight at all times when you’re flying it. If it goes so high you can’t see it, it’s time to bring it lower.
The maximum altitude that’s allowable under the law is 400 feet above the ground. And you can go higher than this if you’re within 400 feet of a structure. So take all that into account and ensure your drone is always flying at the correct altitude. You should also pay attention to the speed because the maximum allowable speed for your drone is 100 mph or 87 knots.
Stay the Legal Distance Away From Airports
One of the strictest and most important rules regarding drone flight in the US relates to how far away from an airport you should be. Drones pose a serious threat to the safety of aircraft and if a drone is flying too close to airports where planes are continuously taking off and landing, there’s the potential for serious incidents to occur if people aren’t careful.
That’s why the FAA recommends staying away from aircraft and airports. And if you are flying a drone within five miles of an airport you must contact the airport and inform the air traffic control tower that you’re operating in the area. This is a law and it’s important from a safety perspective. If airport authorities tell you to stop or move away, these commands should be followed.
Flying Near People and Events
Another FAA rule states that you should never fly over groups of people. This is to protect their safety and to ensure the drone doesn’t accidentally hurt someone and cause damage to them. It’s best to use your drone in locations where people are not gathering in large numbers if you want to comply properly with the FAA rules.
Similarly, the FAA rules say that you should never fly a drone over a stadium or sports event. Again, this is an example of an occasion where lots of people are typically gathering in one spot. Drones can cause real damage if something goes wrong and it crashes from the sky so it’s best to simply stay away from those kinds of events.
Always Stay Away From Emergency Service Efforts
It can be tempting to get our your drone and use it to get a better view of an incident when something’s happening. But if there are emergency services on the scene trying to save lives and prevent damage, your drone should be nowhere near them as they carry out their work according to the FAA rules. You could hamper their efforts.
The work of the emergency services when they’re helping people, responding to dangerous incidents or putting out fires should always be treated with respect. Not only is it unethical to capture images and footage of those kinds of incidents, it could make the efforts of emergency services more difficult than they might otherwise be.
Don’t Fly Under the Influence
Just as you wouldn’t drive a car under the influence of drugs or alcohol, you shouldn’t fly a drone under the influence either. Not everyone knows that this is an FAA rule that has to be followed, but it is. It’s illegal under the FAA rules and you can be charged if you’re found to be under the influence while in control of a device like a drone.
When you’re under the influence of drugs or alcohol, you’re more likely to lose control of the drone and potentially cause damage to property or physical harm to a person. You’re also less likely to remember to stick to the other important laws around drone usage, potentially putting yourself at further risk of legal problems.
Can You Fly Your Drone at the Beach?
Lots of people want to know whether they can fly their drone at the beach, and that’s a fair question. Those coastal drone shots look amazing, but are they legal? Well, the answer is it depends. There are different rules in different parts of the country and at different beaches.
It’s legal to fly a drone above some beaches and not others. If you’re looking for a specific answer regarding the beach you’re looking to fly your drone at, you should use the FAA’s official app Before You Fly. This gives you answers as to where you’re allowed to fly and where you’re not allowed to fly your drone, including beaches.
Examples of Where State Laws Vary
Now it’s time to look at the various laws that are applied at the state level. There are variations across the country and any states not mentioned in the section below simply rely on the federal laws and rules we’ve already discussed above.
Act 293 prohibits any use of a drone to invade a person’s privacy while in their private property or to commit video voyeurism. This is treated as a Class B misdemeanor and can become a Class A misdemeanor of the images captured are distributed to another person or online.
Act 1019 makes it illegal to gather information on critical infrastructure without written consent. This covers things like power plants and oil refineries.
The Civil Code Section 1708.8 in California prohibits the use of drones to capture recordings of a person without the consent on private property. But you can record in public spaces. A civil fine can be given of $5,000-$50,000.
Criminal Code Section 934.50 says drones can’t be used for surveillance purposes when a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy in their private property. Legal fees and damaged might be charged if the law is broken.
20 ILCS 5065 is an Illinois state act that created the Unmanned Aerial System Oversight Task Force Act. This regulates private and commercial drone use and should be consulted by anyone using drones in Illinois.
Section 14-301 in Maryland makes it possible for the state authority to enact laws that regulate the use of drones, preempting any local authorities.
Mich. Compiled Laws Sections 324.40112 and 324.40111c prohibit the drone use aimed at interfering with legal hunting and the use of drones to take fish or game.
Minn. Statutes, Chapter 360, Section 360.075 prevents using any aircraft, including drones, in a way that willfully disregards a person’s property or safety. Section 360.59 makes drones costing $10,000 or less exempt from tax requirements if they’re for recreational use.
Miss. Code Section 97-29-61 makes it a felony offence to use drones to spy on another party or to use them for lewd or indecent purposes. This can result in 5 years prison time or double that if the person spied on was under the age of 16.
Amendments 362, 640 and 746 limit the use of drones, prohibiting weapons attached to them and using drones near critical facilities and airports.
RSA 207:57 makes it illegal to use drones to interfere with lawful forms of hunting, trapping and fishing.
In Oregon, a law relating to the State Fish and Wildlife Commission prevents the use of drones for hunting, fishing and trapping, including in the process of locating games. This law also prevents drones being used it interfere with lawful trapping, fishing and hunting by another party.
Tenn. Code Section 39-13-903(a) prohibits the use of drones in a couple of circumstances. First of all, it makes it illegal to use drones over any prison grounds. It also prohibits the use of drones to capture footage or images of open-air events where there are more than 100 people gathered and when that event is ticketed. This is mainly aimed at fireworks events for reasons of safety.
Gov. Code Section 423.002(a) relates to the laws around capturing images of people via a drone and when those images shouldn’t make people identifiable unless their permission has been given. Gov. Code Section 423.0045 makes it illegal for drones to be flown over critical infrastructure facilities such as power plants, chemical plants and dams; this is treated as a Class B misdemeanor.
The Executive Order No. 43 created a commission that regulates the purchase and use of drones in the state of Virginia. This should be researched in more depth if you want to use a drone in this state.
West Va. Code Section 20-2-5 makes it illegal to use a drone for the purpose of hunting, taking or killing any wild animal in the state.
Hopefully, you now understand where and how you can fly your drone and what not to do with it. As stated above, these laws are enforced by the police and you can be prosecuted if you break them, so be very careful when using your drone. None of these laws should stop you enjoying your drone and having fun with it!
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