Owning a drone of even flying a friend’s drone is a rush. With a first person view streaming on your phone it’s like you are flying yourself. If you are into photography, you can sudden take photos that you never dreamed of and film sequences that were formerly the realm of Hollywood’s director-elite. Drones are amazing but they are also a responsibility and if you don’t know the rules then the fines and potential punishment can be quite hefty. Today we are going to discuss drone regulations that you definitely need to know if you are going to be flying a personal drone, whether it is yours or it belongs to someone else. Failure to learn the rules can result in losing your drone, your wallet, and possibly your freedom, so let’s take a little time and we’ll teach you how to avoid that.
Do you need a license to fly a drone?
Possibly...everything is going to depend on your city, state, and federal laws. In general you CAN fly a recreational drone outside in most areas and as much as you like indoors. The differences generally tend to come up depending on what is around. For instance, some states don’t let you fly near stadiums. This makes sense, as pay venues can’t have you using your drone to obtain bootleg footage. There are also height limits, such as not flying your drone over 400 feet. This is a very common law, just in case you were wondering. As the laws are many and varied, we are going to start out by advising you on some simple first-time mistakes that you will want to avoid, then we’ll get into some more state-specific items. We are also including a link to a ‘master list’ of laws by state in our references, just in case you are worried. It is always better to be safe than sorry.
Mistakes to avoid when you get started
First things first, aside from the ‘don’t fly over 400 feet up’ rule there are a few basics that you need to keep in mind. Most of them are common sense and so they will be easy to remember:
- Do not fly low over other people. Yes, it’s funny, but it is also actionable and can get you in legal trouble.
- Do not use your drone to get a first-person view of fires or accidents.
- Do not drink and fly.
- Do not fly your drone outside of your line of sight. Even if you can view through your phone you are still unable to realistically assess how safe or unsafe you are flying.
- Airplanes, Air Balloons, Weather balloons… all other aerial vehicles have the right of way so stay clear of them. Kites are an exception but if you want to mess with someone’s kite then that’s an expensive way to potentially trash your drone.
- Stay away from airports. Do not even get close to them (keep a distance of 5 miles). This is a big one. They might not know who is flying the drone at first but you will likely be traced, caught, and prosecuted. Count on it.
Aside from this another big thing to remember is that you MUST register your drone before flying unless it weighs below .55 pounds. If it’s a toy then you might be okay but you should probably weigh it in order to be sure. Failure to register your drone can get you fined so it’s worth a few minutes of your time to weigh it and protect yourself.
The importance of knowing the laws in your state
When it comes to flying a drone the laws can vary enough that it is worth the time to examine your specific state laws. Some states are very lax in what you need to do and others are going to be a lot stricter in their requirements. Once you have obtained your new drone, it’s a good idea to register it and while it is charging you should check out your local city and state laws in regards to drone regulations. We’ve included some links in our references that will help you in this and it won’t take you very long, so no excuses!
The National Conference of State Legislatures
One good page to bookmark is the National Conference of State Legislatures. This site has a lot of good information in regards to drone laws and which states are seeing the most changes. Legislation changes all the time The information which they provide often includes graphical as well as text mediums, making it easy to decipher and understand. Some examples of information which have provided recently:
- In 2019 in Arkansas legislation was passed which made it illegal to operate your drone near Railroad operations. Communication towers were also added to this as areas where a UAS may not be operated.
- In California, it’s a misdemeanor now to invade someone’s private space, specifically their home although the law includes ‘any interior where there exists a reasonable expectation of privacy’
- In Georgia it is illegal to use your drone to take photographs or video of correctional facilities where people are incarcerated.
- In Hawaii if you get footage of a neighbor that you don’t like setting off illegal fireworks then you don’t need other witnesses if you want to report them and get them in trouble.
As you can see, there are some laws that you might think of as common sense and there are some others that might be less intuitive or more of an offense than you expected. We’re going to go into the laws of a few more states just to give you a little more perspective in regards to what is out there and be sure to bookmark the National Conference of State Legislature’s website. They have most useful information, as you can see.
Drone Laws by state
Now that you’ve had a little sampling we thought we’d cover some more laws based on a few very different states so that you know a little better what you can expect if you are flying a drone there. In general places such as parks or the backyard are going to be fine but we urge you look up those local laws. You never know when you might find a legislative surprise and you DO NOT want the kind of fines associated with piloting an aerial vehicle.
They get VERY expensive.
The Austin Film Commission has a few tips when it comes to operating drones in Austin, Texas. For one thing, events with large amounts of people require that you keep your drone a good distance away. Flying close to events is discouraged and flying too close can be actionable. You also are not allowed to interfere with police operations. This MIGHT mean that you can’t film someone being arrested, although if it’s your own drone hovering above you then you might want to check your lawyer to determine if that would be legal in the Lone Star state. You are also not allowed to operate your drone to invade someone’s private property to snoop on or irritate them and government buildings and other
“Code 423 states that it is considered a Class C misdemeanor”
infrastructure that is considered critical is a no-fly zone for your drone. If you do take pictures in this area then Code 423 states that it is considered a Class C misdemeanor, even if you delete the photos, but it also adds that a police officer is NOT ALLOWED to delete the photos from your device once they have already been taken.
Drone Logic has a few tips about California and some other states that we would like to share with the general public. First and foremost, California is very serious about registration. When you register, it costs around $5.00 and you will receive a certificate of ownership which includes a registration number. This number MUST BE displayed on your drone at all times. Failure to comply can carry fines of up to $250,000 dollars so we really cannot stress enough that if you are going to fly in California you’d better register your drone.
In California, flying a drone over private property is a no-no like in most other states but it is also legally considered trespassing and can result in fines of up to $2500 and possible other legal action. San Francisco and Los Angeles have a large number of areas where you are not allowed to fly your drone at all, so if you are considering flying there you will definitely want to do your homework first. Places like Venice beach allow flying, just don’t fly too close to people and/or harass them by hovering over for candid photos and the like. Use your common sense, basically. If you are worried, a quick reference that you can use is knowbeforeyoufly.org. They have information that you can use to quickly check your area if you are worried and in California it might be a good idea. Laws are much like the other states but California has a tendency to get creative with privacy and other laws so it’s well worth a look.
If you live in the Big Apple and are curious about some of the drone laws then this is your lucky day. Well, sort of, we’ll explain. On the good side, New York has a number of spaces that are already designated for flying model aircraft and drones so you can certainly find places to fly there. That said, there is also a very big caveat. Flying drones in places other than the ones that have been designated is generally going to be illegal. You can’t just fly your drone around the city and the legality of flying them in state parks is also very fuzzy and unclear. This means that you are going to need to do a lot of research in your location to see what you can and cannot do. New York is strict and unless you live in New York City then you may want to do a little research before obtaining a drone. Just because your neighbor has one doesn’t mean that it is legal.
If you are flying a drone in Washington, a state park is a great place to do it. You can get some amazing shots and you won’t have to worry about getting in trouble… provided that you get written permission from the director. This is because there may be time and geographical restrictions and very possibly restrictions on the allowed elevations where you may operate the drone. While this is an inconvenience initially, getting that permission is well worth the wait. There are some amazing pictures and flight-films waiting to be taken. Washington parks are a sight to see so just contact the director and ask.
It should also be noted that it is illegal in Washington to fly your drone in the area of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, so even though there are some great pictures that you can get there this is one nature area that you need to keep your drone away from. According to WAC 200-250-030 you also cannot fly an unmanned aerial craft from or on waters or the lands that are within the boundaries of the state capitol campus. There are some exclusions but you will want to check that particular legislation to confirm if you can fly your drone in these areas.
Some final words
Today we have discussed drone regulations as far as basic rules and some state specific ones. While we do not have room for a comprehensive list, we’ve included some useful links in our references and have tried to provide you with some solid examples that we hope will be of some use to you when flying your drone in various states. One key item that recurs in every state is registration and as some states, like California, require that you display a registration number and enforce this with heavy fines you will want to make sure that you do not skip this step. Register, fly responsibly, and enjoy your drone in your home state!
Drone Rush; “First Time Flying a Drone? Don’t make these mistakes!”
UAV Coach; Master List of Laws by State
-The National Conference of State Legislatures; “Current Unmanned State Aircraft Laws”
Drone Logic; "California Drone Laws"