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So you want to fly drones? Here’s what the law says

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Amazon(s amzn) may have big plans to fill the urban air with drones, but many amateurs have already beaten the company to the punch. This month, my colleague Signe Brewster showed off some beautiful footage of her DJI Phantom 2 Vision quadcopter’s flight around San Francisco, and hundreds of other Americans are using drones for photography, farming or just plain fan.

Want to fly a drone without falling afoul of the law? The good news is that while the FAA will soon have new rules on unmanned aircraft, there are now few restrictions for amateur flying fans. Here’s a very unofficial guide, and some graphics, that reflect the current state of the law.

Class G is a go

Airspace is sliced up into different regulatory layers from the ground unto outer space. The Federal Aviation Administration pays a lot attention to Class A — all U.S. airspace from 18,000 to 60,000 feet — where commercial planes fly. Then are the airspaces around airports, called Class B (big airports), C and D (smaller cities), that look like inverted wedding cakes and stretch up from the ground.

Drone fans, pay attention to Class G: an unregulated space from the ground to 700 or 1,200 feet, where the drones can fly below the airport tiers. Here’s an FAA image (I’ve added the arrows):

FAA Airspace

The 700 to 1,200 feet rule is distance from the ground, not sea level — so if you’re in Denver or another high altitude city, you can fly higher. Here’s a partial view of how a Popular Mechanics explainer chose to show the airspace:

FAA airspace by Popular Mechanics

While the FAA suggested in 1981 that model aircraft operators fly below 400 feet, the document was just an advisory, and two aviation lawyers contacted by Gigaom said the agency has no authority below 700 feet — for now.

“The FAA is already looking at it .. but it’s not going to happen for two years,” said John Todd of Todd & Levi in New York, who noted that the number of amateur drones in the sky is growing quickly.

Here for pleasure, not business

When Amazon announced this month that it’s planning to deliver packages by drone, news outlets pointed out that the plan would have to get FAA approval, even though the drones would be flying at a low level. The reason is because Amazon wants to use the drones for a commercial purposes — an important distinction that, in the view of the FAA, gives it special regulatory authority.

But even this point is under debate. As Wired reported, the first lawsuit pitting the FAA against a civilian drone operator is underway in Virginia, where a photographer got in trouble with the agency for flying a drone over the campus of a university that had paid for his services.

The FAA fined him $10,000 for operating an aircraft in a reckless manner, but the photographer is challenging the ruling on technical grounds; saying the FAA didn’t conduct proper hearings, and that the agency’s regulations over commercial drones are invalid. The outcome of the case has implications not just for commercial photographers, but for a thriving drone industry related to farming, surveillance and other activities.

Finally, while your drone hobby may be beyond the reach of the FAA, there are still city and state laws about invasion of privacy, disturbing the peace and so on. This means that using your drone to snoop on people’s bedrooms or to terrorize the local hot dog vendor is probably a bad idea. Otherwise, drone aficionados appear free to enjoy what is still a largely unregulated activity.

8 Responses to “So you want to fly drones? Here’s what the law says”

  1. Am new to this and planning to buy a DJI phantom for hobby and making some travel videos..Purely personal and not business..will there be any legal issues if I fly that..Am confused now and am not definitely going to fly in Apartment areas and invading personal spaces of people…also pls advise me what is the maximum height that I can fly using this DJI phantom Quadcopter..

    Thanks and waiting for the advise..

  2. There’s one of these things flying near my house now. It sounds like a swarm of mosquito and I feel like I’m being watched in my own back yard. I’m now googling ways to jam drone signals so that I can get rid of this annoying and invasive product. Those hobbyists that love this stuff are going to have their fun ruined by people that use them incorrectly and without thought for others.

    • Mikka – I wouldn’t attempt to “jam” any signals – as these R/C copters operate on radio frequencies no different than many other consumer and industrial electronic devices. Try transmitting signals from that interfere with major frequency bands like 2.4ghz and YOU’LL be the one behind bars while the R/C operator watches from the sky laughing.

  3. Barbara Babb

    I can understand regulation of drones or Unmanned Aircraft, but really based solely on private or commercial use? First, they should use a two or three tier approach to their regulations, if they must regulate.

    1. The weight. If there are concerns of terrorism usage of drones, then make the regulation regarding either the load a drone can carry and/or the total weight of the craft, loaded.

    We all see photos of these huge drones used by the military when drones used for photos by individuals are typically the size of a computer CPU.

    2. Distance. The amount of time/distance a drone can fly without refueling or battery change/charge.

    The larger drones have a vast difference in flight time and payload capacity over, say the Phantom drones used with a small camera.

    If they must have more, then use Tier 3. What is the aircraft made of? Poly plastic type vs metal? If a drone is under 15 pounds with a flight time of less than 15 minutes and made of a plastic it is hard for it to cause damage and harm to too much.

    As far as having a regulation prohibiting someone from charging for photos taken by UAV when the photos, in of themselves would not be not illegal (meaning not spying on someone) isn’t right. Regulate weight vs flight time ONLY vs material composition (of course, all this also means still following the G airspace restrictions.)

  4. I have purchased several drones online as well and one of the sites even posted a bunch of my pics that I took as a Realtor. ( You can see them @ )
    Basically I can’t charge my customers for the photos since using aerial quadcopters for commercial use is still prohibited but I can include them in my portfolio for the customer when I go to list their house. So there are still work arounds but it will be nice once there are specific guidelines.

  5. Eric Bieber

    I’ve been flying RC models since the early 70’s and am aware of the limitations that the FAA has on airspace, so this article is a refresher for an experienced model aircraft hobbyist like myself. In my experience, a ‘drone’ is much simpler to operate than an RC helicopter or fixed wing craft. A small ‘drone’ with its multiple rotor wings is so easy that even a child could master its controls in one day’s lesson’s. I suspect the difficulty in one operating overhead would be losing control of the craft, similar to an RC model flying beyond the radio signal and crashing when out of fuel.