OK, so maybe you didn’t get an official Red Ryder carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time. That’s OK. You did, however, get a new drone for Christmas, which is much safer and cooler than a 1940s BB gun.
Yes, we know you’re excited. You want to rip the thing right out of the box and get to flying. Before you do, however, here’s our gift to you—a few helpful tips before you ascend to the heavens:
Register your drone
It’s the law (in the U.S.). Whether for commercial or recreational purpose (more on that below), you must register your drone with the FAA. Fortunately, the process is easy. Just visit the FAA registration page, create an account, pay $5, mark your drone with the provided registration number and carry proof of registration with you. You can print proof of registration and the label online. You can also engrave the number on your drone or write it with a marker.
Commercial or Recreational?
Do you plan to use your drone to capture stunning, evocative imagery – video or photo – for your own enjoyment? How about just because you like flying drones as hobby? If so, you’re a recreational drone user. That means, you’re not planning to use the drone for commercial purposes. FAA regulations for recreational drones are not as complicated as commercial status; but they are still strict and must be followed.
If you plan to make money with your drone, it doesn’t matter if you’re launching surveying startup or just freelancing as an occasional videographer – your drone is commercial and you must follow stricter rules.
Whether you’re flying a drone to capture some awesome fall foliage or just flying it around your yard for fun – keep in mind that you are subject to FAA rules and must abide by its safety guidelines. As the FAA states:
- Fly your drone at or below 400 feet above the ground when in uncontrolled (Class G) airspace.
- Obtain authorization before flying in controlled airspace (Class B, C, D, and E). You can obtain authorization in three ways:
- Keep your drone within your visual line of sight, or within the visual line-of-sight of a visual observer who is co-located (physically next to) and in direct communication with you.
- Do not fly at night unless your drone has lighting that allows you to know its location and orientation at all times.
- Give way to and do not interfere with manned aircraft.
- Never fly over any person or moving vehicle.
- Never interfere with emergency response activities such as disaster relief, any type of accident response, law enforcement activities, firefighting, or hurricane recovery efforts.
- Never fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Many over-the-counter medications have side effects that could impact your ability to safely operate your drone.
- Do not operate your drone in a careless or reckless manner. Recreational flyers should know that if they intentionally violate any of these safety requirements, and/or operate in a careless or reckless manner, they could be liable for criminal and/or civil penalties.
A note for recreational users: “The Special Rule for Model Aircraft, Section 336 of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act, requires that
“the aircraft is operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization” (CBO).
To fully satisfy Section 336, pilots must follow the guidelines and operate within the programming of a CBO.”
The Academy of Model Aeronautics programming and guidelines require members to “affirm and sign that they have read and understand the AMA Safety Code, will receive TFR/NOTAMs through AMA’s notification system, have access to modeling clubs, receive news and information through printed publications like Model Aviation magazine, have access to education material, comply with our evolving safety program, and be provided a two-way communication to AMA Headquarters. AMA membership also fosters responsible operations through member-only benefits such as a $2.5 million dollar insurance policy. Nonmembers do not have access to these resources and therefore cannot operate within our safety programming.” Check it out!
If you plan to make money with your drone, you must be certified as a drone pilot under the FAA’s Part 107 rules.
- To operate the controls of a drone under Part 107, you need a remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating or be under the direct supervision of a person who holds such a certificate.
- You must be at least 16 years old to qualify for a remote pilot certificate, and you can obtain it in one of two ways.
- You may pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center.
- If you already have a Part 61 pilot certificate, you must have completed a flight review in the previous 24 months and you must take a small UAS online training course provided by the FAA.
- Review a summary of the Part 107 rules
Not sure where you fall in terms of drone legal status? No problem. The FAA offers a handy flowchart.
“Wow. I never knew there were so many drone rules!” Have no fear—as the (now old) iPhone saying goes: “There’s an app for that.” (Can you believe that’s 11 years old!). For recreational flyers, B4UFLY is a free airspace intelligence app, sponsored by the FAA and developed by drone platform company Kittyhawk.io.
Available for Android and iOS, B4UFly provides “situational awareness to recreational flyers and other drone users,” the FAA notes and adds: “It does not allow users to obtain airspace authorizations to fly in controlled airspace, which are only available through the FAA’s Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC).”
- “A clear “status” indicator that informs the operator whether it is safe to fly or not. (For example, it shows flying in the Special Flight Rules Area around Washington, D.C. is prohibited.)
- Informative, interactive maps with filtering options.
- Information about controlled airspace, special use airspace, critical infrastructure, airports, national parks, military training routes and temporary flight restrictions.
- The ability to check whether it is safe to fly in different locations by searching for a location or moving the location pin.
- Links to other FAA drone resources and regulatory information.”
Kittyhawk recently launched a new version of B4UFLY to address a major challenge for drone operators: local regulations. “Where to safely fly your drone needs to account for your takeoff, landing, and complete area of operations,” says the press release.
“Over the last year, one of the biggest areas of feedback we’ve received has centered around “missing” advisories. Drone pilots are seeking out information — both airspace and local ground rules — to understand where they should operate…. With [the] update, Kittyhawk is addressing this in two ways — crowdsourcing advisories from users combined with publishing new authoritative local data sources.”
Know your airspace
As already mentioned, the FAA keeps a tight rein on where you can and cannot fly your drone. Airports (and the space around them) is an obvious no-no without special authorization. Last year, new rules established restrictions for drone flights over “national security sensitive locations” — 12 additional locations requested by the U.S. Department of Defense.
FAA Airspace Restrictions
- Stadiums and Sporting Events
- Near Airports
- Security Sensitive Airspace Restrictions
- Restricted or Special Use Airspace
- Washington, DC
This should go with saying, but you should NEVER fly a drone over emergency and rescue operations. For example, a few idiot drone users have disrupted firefighting efforts over the past few years. In 2019, Arizona State Forestry officials spotted a drone over the Coldwater fire – a blaze that burned more than 6,000 acres of the Coconino National Forest. The sighting forced officials to temporarily ground a firefighting helicopter.
A word on national parks: When I received my first “big kid” drone – a DJI Mavic Air – I gleefully anticipated capturing gorgeous vistas of sunrises, mountain views and vibrant fall foliage from the Blue Ridge Parkway (a five-minute drive from my home). However, a friend quickly reminded me of something I had conveniently allowed myself to forget— drone flights originating from National Park Service land are prohibited. Unbeknownst to many, federal parkways are often considered national parks. There are good reasons to ban drones over NPS land, of course. Drones can harass wildlife and create noise nuisances for visitors. The moral of the story: know the rules and laws beyond those enforced by the FAA. In my case, I found a low-impact area near the parkway and captured some footage with the permission of the land owner.
Once again, the urge to rip that drone out of the box, peruse the quick-start guide and take off is tempting. However, that’s the kind of temptation that can lead to a crashed and trashed drone within minutes of takeoff. Read the manual. Cover to cover. Get a feel for the app (assuming the drone is compatible with your smart device). Figure out what happens when you engage various flight modes. It’s also a great idea to keep the drone in some kind of beginner’s mode before tackling more sophisticated features. Understand what the drone can and cannot do. Does it have obstacle avoidance? If so, is it front only? Front and back only? YouTube also offers a number of helpful video tutorials.
Consider the extras
While many drones ship as a package with several included accessories, others ship bare bones – a battery, control and drone. Remember, most drone batteries only offer between 20-30 minutes of flight time. Buying 2-3 extra batteries is a no brainer. Some drone companies offer portable chargers as well – a helpful feature if you plan to film away from home for a bit.
- Join a drone community. Meetup alone lists 191 groups.
- Keep up to date. Drone trends, tech, rules and laws can fly at you fast. Drone media sites can equip you to keep abreast of the latest and greatest. There are many amazing resources (<COUGH> – DRONELIFE, <COUGH> — follow us on Twitter and Facebook. <COUGH> — sign up for our newsletter).
Additional FAA Resources
Information about upcoming UAS events the FAA is hosting or participating in is available here. There is also have an archive of select past events.
All regulations, policy, and guidance pertaining to UAS are available here.
Documents and records are available to operators and stakeholders for reference.
Education materials for the drone community, stakeholders, and citizens about the rules to operate safely.
Information about the rules you need to follow if you are visiting the United States and are planning to bring your drone.
Check out FAA’s FREE drone webinar series to help drone pilots understand how to operate in the National Airspace System (NAS), how to start a drone program, and how to fly during an emergency.”
Miriam McNabb contributed to this report.
Jason is a longstanding contributor to DroneLife with an avid interest in all things tech. He focuses on anti-drone technologies and the public safety sector; police, fire, and search and rescue.
Beginning his career as a journalist in 1996, Jason has since written and edited thousands of engaging news articles, blog posts, press releases and online content.
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