The Legal Dramas of Drone Ownership
For many years those of us who enjoy flying radio-controlled aircraft have been left mostly unmolested by the law. There have always been rules that regulate where you can fly, but in general, hobbyists have not had to go through too much in order to get flying.
Then the advance of RC technology and the entrance of quadcopters with automated piloting systems lowered the bar to entry significantly. Someone with very little skill or flight hours can now go to a shop, drop thousands of dollars on a non-toy aircraft, and fly it inexpertly within controlled airspace.
It also doesn’t help that most of these drones now have cameras bolted to them, which has raised the hackles of privacy advocates everywhere.
Inevitably this has lead to increased regulations and, as such, you need to be aware of what the law says about drone ownership and operation.
A fair warning: this is not legal advice. I’m not a lawyer. I’m just a drone enthusiast trying to help others with a general outline of the rules. As always, you should consult official legal sources if you are unsure. It’s also your responsibility to be aware of the laws that pertain to your specific country, state, city, or town. As they say, ignorance of the law is no excuse. This is especially important since it’s becoming clear that some local laws are in fact stricter than federal ones. So you may be legal on a federal level but heading for trouble with local authorities.
In this article I will be concentrating on U.S. FAA regulations. Many of these will probably be used as a template for international regulations on drone use, but again check your local laws – preferably before you buy, and definitely before you fly.
Is It A Drone?
This is a really important question. If the law does not consider something a drone then none of the drone laws apply to it.
It’s also not that straightforward to answer, because plenty of existing RC toys and more serious hobbyist aircraft are no different than what the layman on the street would consider a “drone”.
What does the FAA have to say? Well, at the end of 2015 these were the criteria that legally classified something as a “drone”.
At the most simple level it comes down to two things: weight and purpose.
If your remote or computer-controlled craft weighs less than 250g, or 0.55 lbs., then it is exempt from registration.
If it weighs more than 55 lbs, or about 25kg, you have to use the existing aircraft registry procedure.
It’s important to note that these weight limits apply to the total weight of your drone, so if it goes over the minimum while carrying a camera then it needs to be registered.
The other criterion is what you want to use the drone for. The registration for people who are purely flying for fun as a hobby is quick, cheap, and easily completed online. If, however, you want to use your drone for commercial purposes, you have to register it on paper.
You also have to clearly mark your FAA registration number on all of your drones. For those that qualify for the hobbyist drone certificate you don’t need to have each one individually approved. Each one of your non-commercial drones that fall within the weight range are covered under that single $5 fee. The certification is valid for three years. The penalty for flying your drone unregistered is a hefty $250,000 or jail time. So just pay the $5 already.
The Academy of Model Aeronautics is a private, non-profit body that also provides voluntary regulations and offers insurance to its members. They have been one of the few organizations lobbying the U.S. government on behalf of RC aircraft hobbyists, and have a number of safety rules as well.
The AMA rules are of course not all laws as well, but they are a sensible set of guidelines that will help keep you out of trouble.
First, you should always fly your RC aircraft within your line of sight. Although FPV drones let you see where the drone is going, being out of line of sight may cause radio control interruptions. If you can’t see the drone or it can’t see you, then you are asking for trouble.
You should never fly higher than 400 feet. The FAA will also take a dim view of you entering that airspace. The good news is that most drones aren’t designed for that altitude anyway, but you can still be a moron and get it there somehow.
Which brings us to the next issue: manned aircraft.
You must always yield to manned aircraft. Even a small drone can down an airplane or helicopter or cause another serious incident. Never fly within 5 miles of an airport, since this is where low flying craft are concentrated, obviously.
You should also never fly your drone over private property without permission, preferably in writing.
One of the most important rules is that you should NEVER fly over a place where first responders are working. If you are flying a drone over an accident or forest fire, it means that rescue aircraft can’t get there. You can imagine why this is a problem.
In the EU
If you are an EU resident then the rules are not exactly the same. Most of the regulations are still in the proposal phase and the EU people are working on harmonizing these rules for all member states.
At the moment the EU leaves the regulation of unmanned aerial vehicles under 150 KG (about 330 lbs) to individual member states, but that is set to change with the increase of small-drone use. The EU regulations are set to focus not on the drone itself, but for the purpose for which it is going to be used.
There are three proposed classes: open, specific, and certified. These are in ascending order of risk with increasing levels of strictness. The open category is the one that will apply to most hobbyists and looks a bit like the basic category of the FAA. There will also be sub-categories, it seems, for nano-drones, toy drones, and so on.
There are 33 proposals in total for EU drone regulations, which is way more than I have space for here. They have been published though, so the next time you are bored in a meeting look them up on Google.
Thank You For Your Cooperation
RC flying (whether with a helicopter, plane, or multirotor craft) is one of the most pleasurable hobbies and exciting new commercial opportunities of the modern day, but it’s very important that those of us who are in the RC community, and that includes casual drone fliers, need to be responsible as well.
For now the requirements are actually quite reasonable and the safety guidelines sensible in anyone’s book, but if there is consistent misbehavior or abuse of drones in public spaces we can expect that to change.
Still, if you stick to the basics and just refrain from being a jerk, you’ll have years of trouble-free flying.