Things to Know Before You Fly a Drone
Let’s face it; drones aren’t just cool; they’re plain fun to fly around. Seeing a quadcopter whiz through the sky above your head at 15-20 miles per hour never ceases to bring a small smile to the pilot’s face. Add to this a First Person View (FPV), which is available on many new models, and it can almost feel like you are up there yourself flying.
Over the past couple of years, drones have allowed the masses to own RC model aircraft, which was quite a niche hobby for many years. While RC model aircraft and helicopters often required a great deal of practice, skill, and money, quadcopters are the opposite.
Today’s drones are relatively easy to fly and loaded with great technology like GPS, FPV, auto-return capabilities, high definition camera integration for both still photos and video, and auto flight and navigation. Due to their internal gyroscopes and highly accurate GPS, drones are far easier to fly and control than traditional model aircraft.
Now, this does not mean they don’t require lots of practice and skill to fly – especially when performing more complicated maneuvers. In fact, piloting a drone requires a great deal of skill, especially in places full of obstacles or when trying to shoot smooth video. The new sophisticated electronics in drones make getting them up in the air and doing a basic flying simple – but as with most things, the complexity is in the details, and drones are not different.
Beyond the mechanics of drone flying, drone pilots must also be aware of all the rules, where it’s ok to fly, when it’s safe to fly, be sure they don’t exceed any altitude restrictions, and of course, avoid making people mad. The last one has become pretty important here lately as the news media has the general public on edge about drones and their privacy. Just flying your drone over someone’s house could get your drone shot out of the air or have the police knocking on your front door.
Violating federal and local drone laws can result in a speedy trip to jail and often very steep fines.
Whew… it all seems a bit overwhelming, right? Well, fortunately, it’s not. The sections below will break all of this down for you and give you all the information you need to know before you begin flying drones.
You Must Register Before You Fly
One of the most important things to know before you fly is that your drone must be registered. The registration process is simple and costs $5. Registration is only required per pilot and not for each of your drones. Here’s the rest:
- Failing to register your drone could result in prison time (up to 3 years) and penalties (up to $250,000). While we don’t think this steep of penalties will be enforced, they certainly could be.
- Registration applies to drones “weighing more than 0.55 pounds (250 grams) and less than 55 pounds (approx. 25 kilograms).
- Registration requires your: name, e-mail address, home address, and model of your drone. After you register, you’ll be provided with a unique identification number. This number must be clearly be marked on your drones. As a pilot, you only have to register once, and the same ID can be used for multiple drones that you own.
- Registration is valid for three years, and you must be at least 13 years old.
For more details on the registration process and rules, see FAA’s Drone Registration Guide.
Your Drone Must Be Properly Marked
As mentioned above, when you register your drone, you’ll receive a unique registration ID. This registration ID must be clearly marked on your drone and visible.
You can read more about how to properly label your drone here. The key takeaway from here is that the registration number must be visible from the outside (you can’t put it inside a battery compartment). We also recommend ensuring the registration number is visible from the ground. It will avoid you having to land the quadcopter if you get questioned by police, and in fact, may even prevent questioning all together.
Once you complete the registration process, a certificate of registration will be mailed to you. This certificate contains your information, along with your unique registration ID. You must have this certificate with you when you are flying your drones.
Where Can I Fly My Drone?
Something you need to recognize as a drone owner and pilot, the general public is very skeptical of drones. Unfortunately, the media has caused a great deal of unnecessary concern around drones in general. Major news media would have the general public believe that every drone flying around is for the sole purpose of recording video inside homes and people and kids sunbathing.
The reality is that while there are a few jerks out there doing this, the majority of drone pilots are just out to have fun and enjoy flying their drones around, simple as that.
Answering the question of Where can I fly my drone?, really boils down to two answers: The legal answer and the common sense answer.
Where You Can Legally Fly Your Drone?
Legally, you have to respect prohibited airspace. It includes airports, many government facilities (like the White House), military locations, and nuclear facilities. Most of the national parks now prohibit drone use as well, without a special permit.
Many state and local governments also have certain restrictions on where drones can fly, so you’ll want to research these and be sure you follow them as well.
Private property is also a bit sketchy, especially for corporations. While technically airspace isn’t included in private property concerns, many law enforcement officers and company security aren’t aware of this, so better to avoid it if you can.
As for where you can fly, great locations include:
- Local City/County Parks without restrictions
- Your own property or a friend’s property
- School athletic fields, when school is not in session
- State Parks without restrictions
Where to Fly Your Drone - Use Common Sense
The most crucial part of deciding where you can fly your drone is to use your common sense.
You’ll want to avoid flying your drone above or close to people. Why? Well, most importantly, drones do crash, and you don’t want to risk anyone getting hurt. Second, remember we said people are a little sensitive to drones flying around? You’ll want to be respectful of that. Not doing so can get you questioned by police.
Avoid locations with lots of obstacles, including trees, poles, and power lines.
A popular place to fly drones is along the ocean and beaches. The scenery, especially if your drone is camera-equipped, is stunning. But, be smart. We recommend flying in the early morning and late afternoon when there are only a few if any people around. Be extra sensitive around beaches, as people get a bit skeptical of drones flying around filming them and their kids in bathing suits.
One other major factor to consider when drone flying is the weather. Check out the weather forecast before you head-out. Flying on windy days or days where it will be snowing or raining are not always good options. Depending on your quadcopter, wind conditions can make flying very risky.
One last thing, when you register your drone, you agree to comply with some rules, most of which we’ve gone over already. But, one that’s fairly obvious is that you cannot operate a drone under the influence. Meaning, it’s illegal to fly a drone drunk. Getting caught could get you arrested and/or fined.
When deciding where to fly, choose locations that avoid people and are safe for both you and your drone. If there are people nearby, walk over and talk to them. Explain what you are doing, and even let them take a look at your drone. Communications and common sense can go a long way in allowing you to have a fun and enjoyable flight. Put your safety and the safety of others above all things.
How High Can I Fly New Drone?
Current FAA rules prohibit drones above 400 feet in all areas. Additionally, drones must be kept within the pilot’s physical sight, meaning you cannot use FPV goggles if the drone is out of the line of sight.
Additionally, if you fly within 5 miles of an airport, you must inform and get permission from the airport before flying, even outside of the actual airport property. We also generally recommend keeping your flight altitude as low as possible if flying near an airport or helicopter pad (Hospitals are good examples).
Flying for Commercial Reasons? You’ll Need an Exemption
Lastly, if you fly commercially or even if your buddy who owns a real estate business pays you to take some videos for him, you must get an FAA commercial exemption to operate. Commercially is defined as taking money for your services.
Because of the large number of requests being submitted, the FAA is currently a little behind with approvals, but the approval rates have been surprisingly high for legitimate businesses.
While drones are fun, they come with responsibility. The rules are pretty straightforward and easy to follow, and having a good time out drone flying with upsetting people and the law boils down to respect and some common sense.
While drone control systems are advancing at an incredibly rapid pace, drones can still crash and can yet be unreliable. As a result, safety should be your number one concern. You certainly don’t want yourself or anyone to get hurt while you’re flying. Not to mention, that while some drones are very inexpensive, others can exceed $1,000. Having one of those hit a power line or pole and get damaged or totaled would be costly.
One last resource we’ll share with you is called Know Before You Fly. It is an educational campaign that offers prospective users the guidance and information they require to fly responsibly and safely.
Till then, have fun, be safe, and be respectful!