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FAA Drone Laws: Flying Rules And Regulations For Drones And UAVs

Drones are everywhere, whether you want to admit it or not. They’re popping up in the news, popping up in the sky, and soon, they may be popping up at your door. With drones, or small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) as the FAA refers to them, what are the rules and regulations? And how is the FAA going about enforcing these rules and regulations? These are questions hobbyists and businesses are attempting to answer and what we’re going to address here. Let’s start by explaining the difference between consumer and commercial drones.

Consumer vs. Commercial Drone Use

Consumer drones are for recreational use and follow different rules than commercial drones. Currently the FAA does not allow commercial use of drones except under special occasions, but more on that later.

What exactly is the difference then?

If you’re using a drone for personal interest or enjoyment, it falls under consumer use. If you take photographs and use them on your own website or store them on your computer the FAA says that’s fine. The line gets a bit grey with sharing your cinematography elsewhere though. According to Motherboard: “If you fly a drone and post footage on YouTube, you could end up with a letter from the Federal Aviation Administration.”

I think everyone was a little surprised by the FAA’s response to this (seen below). Is it really such a crime to post a video on YouTube? Hanes even says he never got paid. The FAA is saying that because the video has ads on it, it’s been commercialized – but if we consider photography and film ‘art’ then isn’t this breaking the first amendment by telling someone they can’t put it up on the internet? It seems like the FAA is a little over their head with all this drone policy mumbo-jumbo, and we’re just along for the ride.

Here’s a little language from the brief

The federal government has deprived its citizens and a free and independent news media of the opportunity to participate in the rulemaking process required under U.S. law when the government seeks to regulate, restrict, or curtail otherwise proper lawful activity. The federal government, through the FAA and with the NTSB’s encouragement, should move forward with the development of polices that protect, rather than hinder, freedom of speech and of the press.

So, the plot thickens. It again seems that the FAA is in over their head. Let’s look at some specific examples and use what we know so far to assess whether or not these would fall under commercial or consumer businesses.

This one is a bit trickier. Dronestagram is a platform for pilots to post their drone photos/videos to “build a map of our Earth with a bird’s eye view.” The site itself is impressive – take some time to peruse it yourself. Above is a snapshot of where pilots have captured videos around San Diego and Tijuana.

Interesting or not, how does the FAA view this website?

The website itself is monetized, meaning they’re making money off other people’s videos. So who’s at fault – the cinematographers sharing their videos or Dronestagram?

Using Mr. Hanes’ case as reference, I’d put the fault on the photographers – but aren’t they just sharing their work to create an artistic bird’s eye view of the world? Definitely not easy to make a decision on this one and I’ll be reaching out to the FAA to try and find an answer.

Key points in determining commercial vs. consumer use

  • Is anyone (not just you) making money off of it? – This is, in the truest sense, the most necessary question when understanding commercial drone use. Looking at Jayson Hanes tells us that even if someone else is making money and you aren’t, you could still get hit for using your drone commercially.
  • As of right now, you’re only safe if you’ve been cleared by the FAA – Even after the court struck down the FAA’s appeal in FAA v. Raphael Pirker, news corporations must still gain clearance from the FAA.
  • ABC News reports that since September more than 200 commercial cases have been approved by the FAA in industries including, but not excluding, movies, real estate, and infrastructure.

So it seems that commercial drone use has a larger umbrella than most thought….

Consumer Drone Use

You bought a drone, you’re not posting your videos anywhere and you’re just looking to have a great day of flying ahead of you. Nothing to worry about, right?

Well, not so much. You still have to consider that you’re flying a machine that could interfere with other air traffic, disturb wildlife, or anger your neighbors. There are rules and there’s etiquette – and we’ll try to touch on both.

Start by following community-based guidelines, like the ones found here from the Academy of Model Aeronautics. These aren’t laws, but they are guidelines and should be followed to be respectful, responsible, and reasonable with your drone.

Where can I fly my drone?

If you’re asking yourself this question, have no fear, the FAA is working diligently to make sure every pilot understands where it’s okay to fly, and where it’s not. FAA aeronautical maps are awesome for experienced pilots, but without a background in aviation, they’re almost impossible to understand.

The FAA knows this and started a campaign last year culminating in their no-fly zone map. Here are the three big no-no’s:

  • Major Airports
  • U.S. Military Bases
  • U.S. National Parks

They haven’t stopped there though. The FAA is also spending $43,000 to develop an app, known as B4UFly; it will initially be released on iOS and later on Android. It’s scheduled for beta this summer and full release in the fall of 2015.

The app will notify pilots if they’re flying in a restricted zone, allow drone enthusiasts to plan future flights, and connect users with nearby airports to ensure they’re far enough away. Below is the preliminary design.

Another great resource out there is Air Map. The web app allows you to layer flight zones across the United States.

More quick tips from the FAA for responsible flying

  • Keep your drone under 400 feet and fly under obstacles, not over them.
  • Contact the airport before flying within five miles of an airport. You don’t want to be the guy the FAA is hunting down for flying too close to the JFK airport.
  • Don’t let your drone stray out of your eyesight. This is especially important for models with automated GPS flight capabilities.
  • Don’t fly drunk or on drugs.
  • Respect other people’s privacy. We’re not going to feel bad for you if someone shoots your drone down for flying it over houses and recording people in their backyards.
  • Stay clear of water treatment facilities, power stations, prisons, etc.
  • Don’t fly in national parks. As tempting as it may seem because of the opportunity for epic footage, it’s disruptive to other campers and the wildlife.

Overall, use common sense

If you think that your flight could negatively impact someone else, the environment, or other aircraft, you’re probably not in the best area for flight

Be careful in adverse conditions, wind can knock you out of the sky and into the ground faster than you think. You might lose your drone, or worse, you could crash it into something you didn’t mean to. Hopefully everyone learned from the inebriated government employee who crashed his DJI Phantom on the White House lawn. It caused such a ruckus that DJI rolled out a mandatory update for its Phantom 2 drones that blocks any flight within a 15 mile radius of Washington D.C. Wouldn’t want to be that guy, right?

Update: The FAA and NASA are working together to create an sUAS air traffic system from cell-phone towers. The system will be a substantial stride for the industry and allow the FAA to finalize consumer and commercial policy within a year.

Don’t expect anything too soon, there’s a lot of work to do. You can read more about it here.

Commercial Drone Use

So we know what commercial use is defined as (kind of). We also know that the FAA currently authorizes the use of drones on a case-by-case basis and has approved over 600 businesses since last year.

Here’s what constitutes commercial drone use according to the FAA
Selling any photos or videos taken by a drone, i.e. wedding or concert photography

It should also be noted that monetizing on any videos or photos uploaded to the internet is considered commercial use of those photos or videos
Using drones to carry out services, like inspections, farming services, etc.

Examples: mapping land or filming a scene for a movie
Using drones for other professional services, like security or deliveries

On February 23, 2015 the FAA finally released a long-awaited proposal for sUAS policy. Most noteworthy within this document are a few important points:

Businesses must use drones under 55 lbs.

The operator must be within visual line-of-sight of the unmanned aircraft.

All unmanned aircraft must be flown during daylight hours.

UPDATE: The FAA will make their official commercial use policy announcement by summer 2016.

We suggest checking out the summary found here for all the major points from the PDF. If you’re up for some lengthy (and boring) reading you can leisurely peruse the 48-page full proposal here.

Immediately this sparked controversy, especially from major companies like Amazon seeking to break into drone delivery.

Most people condemned the service, saying it wouldn’t work. Even the Amazon vice president Paul Misener said the FAA’s new propositions “wouldn’t allow Prime Air to operate in the United State” (source: USA Today).

We already believed that Amazon delivery was doomed for a number of reasons:

  • Weather – How can a drone navigate through a hurricane or even high winds?
  • Inefficiency – Drones can only carry a few packages at a time. Trucks can carry hundreds to thousands. How can they possibly make drones as efficient as other methods of delivery?
  • Technical Difficulties – The technology is just not quite there yet for long, automated flights. Amazon would have to invest a ton just to get the technology to ensure drones don’t crash on the way to their delivery.

Now there’s reason to believe even Paul Misener was wrong. On April 12th, 2015 Amazon was granted permission to test their drone delivery service within the United States. Again, Misener speaks out on this:

We’re pleased the FAA has granted our petition for this stage of R&D experimentation, and we look forward to working with the agency for permission to deliver Prime Air service to customers in the United States safely and soon.

Too Long; Didn’t Read

  • Don’t try to make money off drones unless approved by the FAA
  • You can still get in trouble if someone else is making money off your drone photos and videos
  • The FAA plans on releasing their official guidelines for commercial use by next summer
  • As of late June, 600 businesses have already been approved for commercial drone use, including Amazon’s delivery service
  • People want to shoot your drones down, so fly them where it’s appropriate and not invading people’s privacy
  • Don’t fly by airports (not even close), national parks, or military bases
  • If you’re drunk you might crash your drone on the White House lawn and have DJI enact a city-wide drone ban
  • The FAA is trying to help you as a consumer, and trying to be fair with businesses
  • Make sure you register your drone and pass the Part 107 exam