Be Safe and Responsible – Or Don’t Fly a Drone

Drones are a lot of fun to fly.

But a 10-pound object falling from 100 feet can damage property or seriously injure an innocent bystander.

This page lists a slew of practical advice for new drone operators. It also provides links to the latest FAA and other government regulations that define how citizens may legally operate a drone in public airspace. Be aware that in the US, the rules are not yet clear.

Technically, you may be able to operate freely in your town without breaking any laws. But that doesn’t mean you can do anything you want.

If you’re going to operate a drone, then you must accept the responsibilities that go along with it.

Or just don’t fly one.

Know The Rules – And The Law

The FAA & various state and local authorities currently control US skies, but the NTSB and FAA rules for drone operation and piloting are still being developed.

Nevertheless, you are responsible for understanding the current laws and rules governing local drone use.

In addition to federal guidelines, each state has its own rules.

The legal space is changing all the time, so use Google to know where you stand.

US States with drone legislation

NEW FAA Regulations (Part 107)

FAA finally released their rules & guidelines for operating small commercial unmanned aircraft (drones weighing less than 55 pounds). These are detailed in FAA Regulation Part 107, which was released in June, 2016.

Here’s a quick summary of the new rules:

  • a COA/pilot’s license is no longer required (HUGE!)
  • operators must be 16 yrs or older
  • you must obtain a remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating, or be under the direct supervision of a person who holds such a certificate.
  • always avoid manned aircraft
  • never fly near airports
  • all drones must operate under 400 feet; if flying over tall buildings, they may not fly higher than 400 feet above the building
  • maximum speed allowed is 100 mph (87 knots)
  • always fly via line-of-sight (no flying behind buildings or out of your clear eye site, EVER)
  • if you use First Person View (FPV) technology, you must also have a seperate visual observer watching your aircraft with their unaided eyes at all times
  • neither you nor your visual observer can be responsible for more than one unmanned aircraft at a time
  • you may only fly during daylight hours (30 minutes before official sunrise to 30 minutes after official sunset); if flying in twilight, you must have easily visible anti-collision lighting
  • you cannot fly a small UAS over anyone who is not:
    • directly participating in the operation, or
    • under a covered structure, or
    • inside a covered stationary vehicle.
  • you can carry payloads for hire, as long as the combined weight of the drone + payload is less than 55 lbs
  • no operation from a moving vehicle are allowed, unless you are flying over a sparsely populated area.
  • starting on Dec 21, 2015, all drones over 0.55 lbs / 250 grams must be registered with the FAA
  • special UAS classes are coming for freight and smaller drones, which will each have unique regulations and rules
  • you can apply for a waiver of the restrictions above, but you will have to prove to the FAA that your operation is safe without them

For more details on Part 107, visit the FAA website.

For up-to-date interpretation of U.S. drone law, visit Drone Law Journal.

To learn about how new drone laws are impacting business operators and consumers, check out our Roundup of The Best Regulation & Safety Articles of 2016.

How To Get Your FAA Remote Pilot Certificate (RPC)

You can obtain your remote pilot certificate in one of two ways:

  1. Pass a written test given at an FAA-approved testing center; or,
  2. If you already have a Part 61 pilot certificate (not a student pilot certificate), then you must have completed a flight review in the previous 24 months and take a small UAS online training course provided by the FAA.

If you have your Part 61 certificate (non-student), then you’ll get a temporary remote pilot certificate immediately when you apply for a permanent certificate.

Other applicants can get a temporary remote pilot certificate after completing a security background check. The FAA says it will take about 10 business days after receiving a completed application to issue the temporary certificate.

Are You Working Or Playing?

The FAA and the Dept of Transportation makes a clear distinction between hobbyist and commercial drone / UAV operation.

Use this chart to find out where you fit.

Difference between hobby and work drones

If you are operating commercially, make sure you have an operator’s certificate and understand the laws in your state or you could find yourself sued into the poor house – or in jail.

Where Can You Fly?

The FAA has an online no-fly zone map that will help you know the red zones to avoid.

The 3 areas you can never fly a drone in include US Major Airports, military bases and US National Parks.

FAA No-Fly Zones for Drones and UAVs
FAA No-Fly Zones for Drones and UAVs

The FAA has released their B4UFLY app on iOS and on Android. The app offers several features for drone/UAV pilots, including:

  • let you know if you are flying in a restricted zone
  • plan future flights
  • connect users with nearby airports.

Here are some screenshots:

b4ufly FAA app
B4UFLY FAA app

FAA tips for responsible flying

  • Operate under 400 feet.
  • Fly under obstacles – not over them.
  • Contact any airport you’ll be flying within five miles of.
  • Don’t lose sight of your drone.
  • Don’t fly drunk or while using drugs.
  • Respect other people’s privacy.
  • Stay clear of water treatment facilities, power stations, prisons, etc.

Know Before You Fly

Know Before You Fly is an education campaign that gives unmanned aircraft system (UAS) operators guidance and information to help them fly safely and responsibly. The program covers recreational, commercial and public uses.

Know Before You Fly was founded by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), and the Small UAV Coalition in partnership with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Don’t Rely Too Much on GPS Autopilot

AR Parrot Bebop - app waypoint control
AR Parrot Bebop: Waypoint Control

GPS-directed autopilot is a God send for commercial and hobbyist drone operators, but the truth is that GNSS signals are very weak and prone to interference from all sorts of naturally occurring things like solar storms, RF noise, bad weather and tall objects.

During autopilot flight, your GPS signal WILL fail from time to time.

The question is, how will your drone deal with the signal loss?  Will it automatically return home or temporarily stop and hover? Or will it continue flying in a straight line until the battery dies, then fall?

Older GPS autopilot systems and ground stations lack sophisticated Emergency Landing, Auto Return Home and Stop and Hover modes for handling GPS signal failure. Preferably, these modes can be activated automatically under certain conditions and via a dedicated button on the controller.

If you’re buying a new drone, then get one that has these features – for everyone’s sake.

Flying Near People? Use Your Prop Guards.

I think it’s safe to say that most drone operators underestimate the damage that small plastic or carbon fiber props spinning at 10,000 RPM can do to a person.

Truth is, unguarded props running near full speed (like when you’re trying to recover) can easily slice through flesh and arteries and seriously injure.

Watch these videos if you don’t believe me.

The bigger the drone and the longer the propeller, the more damage it will do. Carbon fiber props are the worst, due to their strength. If you sharpen your prop edges, you’re adding to the problem.

So use your prop guards whenever flying near crowds or people.

Flying FPV?  You Must Use a Spotter

FPV based piloting – especially using goggles – is not like line-of-sight piloting, in several ways:

  1. you can fly too far away very easily and lose contact with your aircraft
  2. you can’t see behind yourself
  3. your peripheral vision is severely limited
  4. your depth perception is off, because you lose your binocular vision
  5. most video systems have lag in them, meaning your sense of timing is always off

This is why having a second person acting as a spotter is a must.

The FAA requires it, if you are using FPV Goggles.

Use a Black Box Flight Recorder

Flytrex Live 3G Black Box for drones

It may sound counter-intuitive, but recording your flight path is your best defense if you are accused of illegal flight activity. Add a black box flight recorder with GSM/3G transmission capability (in case your drone is confiscated).

A good choice is the Flytrex Live 3G black box module (about $200), available for most popular drones.

Flying Commercially? Register Your Drone With the FAA

On Dec 12, 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced its proposed drone or unmanned aircraft system (UAS) registration rules, including naming who will have to comply with them.

Which was everyone, at that time – hobbyists and commercial fliers.

Later, in May 2017, the FAA updated the ruling so that the following registration requirement now applies to commercial drone operation only.

  • If you own a drone that weighs more than 0.55 pounds, then the new FAA rules require you to register it with them. You’ll pay a fee of $5 for any number of drones you own.
  • If you forget to register your drone, you face a civil fine of up to $27,500 and possibly criminal penalties of up to $250,000 and imprisonment for three years.

Obviously, this registration thing is still in its infancy, and so far there’s no way for the FAA to know whether all existing drones have been registered, or not.

That said, if your unregistered drone injures someone or falls onto someone else’s property after doing a bit of illegal mischief,

You have been warned.

Get A Commercial UAV Operator’s License (US)

You may not need a full-blown UAV Operator’s license to operate your drone. But consider getting one anyway.

It isn’t that hard or expensive to get, and you’ll learn all the reasons why flying in certain areas and conditions is not only unsafe, but could kill someone. It will make you a smarter operator.

Get Drone / UAV Insurance

Contact one of the following providers:

  • American International Group  AIG offers commercial UAS insurance for remotely piloted, semi-autonomous, and fully autonomous aircraft.
  • Costello Insurance Associates  Commercial UAV/drone insurance for businesses in the US.
  • Driessen Assuradeuren  sells Lloyd’s of London policies for third party liability, physical loss and/or damage and premises, products and hanger keepers liability for commercial UAV operators.
  • Coverdrone: drone insurance in the UK.
  • Transport Risk Management, Inc.  UAV Insurance for manufacturers, military, law enforcement, film production, search and rescue, agricultural, and other aerial work uses.
  • Travers and Associates  UAV Insurance for almost any use, including use of leased or rented unmanned aircraft and systems.
  • Unmanned Risk Management  Coverage for individual UAS owner-operators for hull and liability, commercial general liability, and products liability for UAV manufacturers and distributors.

Drone Fails & Crashes

Just in case you need a reminder why safety and insurance are so important, here are some of the finest drone crashes ever, compiled into a single 20-minute video:

  • Ehud Yaniv

    Thank-you for the great article. I am wondering if you can provide some information for non-US (Canadian) drone pilots who would like to fly in the US. I know we needed register with the FAA but have not found out how to do so.

    I live close to the border so visits to the US are both quick and easy.

    Thanks.

  • Mitch Pelletier

    I am now very confused..?? With the drone registration law being recinded, and it no longer being necessary to register your drone…can’t anybody open a drone photography business only setting up a DBA in the location they are operating. I’m in Florida, but my understanding is that drones are now classified as model aircraft which can’t be regulated by the government.

    • Mitch,

      My understanding (not a lawyer) is that the recent court ruling only restricts the FAA’s control over *hobby/recreational use*.

      If you fly drones/UAVs/UASs for money – or for any business purpose at all – then you should still register your drone, until the FAA clarifies their position on commercial use.

      In addition, operators still need to be certified by the FAA to fly ANYTHING commercially – which means you need a Part 107 certificate.