If you are one of the many that have a brand new drone, welcome to the wide world of flight. Hope you are ready for the excitement of flying, and the magic that is aerial photography.
Before you take to the sky with your new quadcopter, or other multi-rotor flier, there are a few things you might want to know — actually, if you are in Canada, the United States, or many other countries with drone laws, there are things that you need to know. You will, likely, need to register your drone with the FAA before you fly. More info below, but please don’t head outside until you’ve made things legal.
Why trust Drone Rush?
I’ve been a fan of flight since a young age; while I’ve had few opportunities at the helm of manned aircraft, the hours on my fleet of drones continue to grow. I enjoy putting cameras into the sky, silky smooth aerial imagery makes me happy. My goal is to help all pilots enjoy flight legally and safely.
How much does your drone weigh?
If your new flying toy weighs in at a total flight weight less than 0.55 lbs, you need to follow the basic guidelines below, but you are all but ready to step out the door and hit the sky. If your drone weighs more than this, the FAA has jurisdiction over your flight and you will need to register before you fly.
I will outline the main points below, but you can find everything you need at the FAA website for sUAS (small Unmanned Aircraft System.)
First up, for all the drones over 0.55 lbs, you will need to register with the FAA. This includes a $5 application fee and you must be at least 13 years of age to apply. Once your application is complete, you will immediately receive your registration number, which you will need to affix to your drone.
The process is much faster and easier than you might imagine, but you will need to complete it first to fly legally.
In addition to the below guidelines, the FAA provides an app, called B4UFly, that will show you on a map where you can and cannot legally fly. They’ve been fairly lenient about rule breakers in safe situations, but if you fly over crowds or around airports, be prepared to pay some serious fines, or land in jail if you hurt anyone.
If your drone met the requirements that it needed to be registered, you’ll have to affix your drone registration number to your aircraft. You can print a label, affix a sticker, or just use a marker, but your registration number must be visible on the outside of your craft, just like the tail number of any manned aircraft.
Basic drone flight guidelines in the United States
- Fly at or below 400 feet above the ground
- Always fly within line-of-sight. If you can’t see it, bring it in
- Stay away from airports
- Stay away from other aircraft – they have the right of way in the air
- Do not fly over people
- Do not fly over or close to sports events or stadiums
- Do not fly near emergency situations such as car crashes or fires
- Do not fly under the influence
- Be aware of controlled airspace – use the B4UFly app, request airspace authorization before flying in certain areas
The short version of the controlled airspace situation is that you cannot fly within several miles of any airport without first getting authorization.
Learn more: How to get airspace authorization (LAANC)
The United States is broken up into various airspace designations. Some of these areas are free to fly for any pilot, others are strictly limited to only certain aircraft. The majority of us live under what is called Class C airspace, which is everything you can see within the purple outlines on a VFR map. Using one of the LAANC enabled apps, you’ll be able to see what airspace you are in. Within controlled airspace, you’ll see a grid with numbers from 0 – 400, these are the limits for the maximum altitude you can request authorization in that grid. Remember, other aircraft have the right of way. Newer drones are being equipped with ADS-B receivers, as are some apps, that can show you the real-time location of participating manned aircraft. The Remote ID requirements that go into effect after April 21, 2021 will provide situational awareness for other drones in your area.
Those that can read a VFR map, there is a great online version available at vfrmap.com. It is not the official map that you can download from the FAA website, but it’s currently accurate in my area. As you can see, but maybe can’t make sense of, there are many small airports and helipads, and many have their own controlled airspace, but the main airspace that I need to be concerned with are the purple, blue and faded purple outlined areas. Basically, if you are in an area with a solid line surrounding it, other aircraft should be expected in your area, and you will need authorization before you fly.
Be sure to check for further local flight laws, which will not be on a VFR map or indicated in the LAANC apps. For example, the Mt. Hood National Forest just East of Portland, whose boundary is not indicated on the VFR map, is a no-fly zone, plus, most city parks within Portland have prohibited drones. These are ‘ground’ rules, not airspace rules.
Bottom line, be safe out there. Drones may be great fun and come in small packages that seem to offer little threat to people, property, or other aircraft, but the rules in place are due to incident or injury, please don’t add to that list. Now go have some fun!
Visit with DJI at CES 2020
A huge thank you again to Brendan Shulman and DJI for visiting us at the Android Authority booth at CES 2017, 2019 and 2020. We learned a lot from Brendan, and we hope you did too. DJI also has great drone safety info, check it out at www.dji.com/flysafe
How to fly
If the next thing you are wondering about is how to actually fly, not just the legal before you get to the air, I invite you to check out the following resources, the first is a getting started guide, of sorts, and the next is a few things we highly recommend you avoid doing.
It’s important to understand the difference between a hobby flight and a commercial operation. In the most simple terms, a commercial operation is only different in that you are being paid to fly, which includes selling your aerial photos and video, or even for making ad money from a YouTube video. If you are truly flying for fun, you fall under the hobby rules. If there is a chance you might want be compensated for anything relating to a drone flight, we recommend getting your commercial license and operate all of your flights under that guidance.
Did you know: Only certified Part 107 pilots may fly at night!
Money – are you being paid to fly?
Allow me to say again, and make this very, very clear, if you are being paid to fly, or in any way being compensated for the images and video you capture from the sky, you need a commercial license. We call this the Part 107 license, but it is officially the FAA’s Remote Pilot Certificate with a sUAS rating. There is a different set of rules to follow, and you should consider insurance on your operations, but you’ll be able to make money with your drone.
We’ve decided to partner with Drone Pilot Ground School for their full FAA Part 107 commercial license test prep course. We’ll cover much of the training in smaller chunks as we go, but if you are ready to dive in, check out our drone pilot training guide to get started.
Learn more: Do I need Part 107?
Drone Remote ID is required before you fly
Beginning in April 2021, drones in the United States are required to have a Remote ID broadcast. This transmits a unique ID, as well as the GPS location of your drone and controller. Manufacturers have a few months before new drones must be outfitted before sale, and pilots have until October 21, 2023 to upgrade or replace their current drones.
Learn more: Drone Remote ID
I don’t live in the United States
The majority of countries around the globe have adopted similar flight rules for drones. The process may be a little different, and the licensing may cover different things, but almost all countries with drone laws limit flight to under 400 feet (120 meters,) do not let you fly over top of people, and do not let you fly near airports.
Learn more: International drone laws
Frequently Asked Questions
Are there any drones we can fly without needing registration and to follow all these rules?
Sort of. Any drone that weighs less than 0.55lbs, 250 grams, does not need to be registered in the United States for hobby flight, but as long as you plan to fly outdoors, you will have to follow the rules of the sky — which is true in most countries, actually. The only way to fly without having to follow airspace rules is to fly indoors. Nano drones in the living room are good fun and practice, but maybe you can get some time in a gymnasium somewhere.
What should be my first drone, or the first drone for my child?
We always recommend that your first drone be a very inexpensive toy-class machine. Most of us can afford to invest $20 – $30 into a small craft that will be the tool to learn how to fly. When you’re ready to step it up, you’ll want to budget about $300 for a racing drone, $400 for an entry-level drone with a smartphone-caliber camera, $800 or more for a good 4K camera, $1500 for a great 4K camera, and then $2000 and up for cinema cameras and commercial drones.
Can I get a guest license to fly my drone in a country I don’t live?
Great question. Most countries have provisions for you to register without having to be a resident. For these, you are still required to register, and the same terms and rules apply. In other countries, we recommend contacting a local hobby club, see if they have a authorized flying field that you can fly at. Better yet, talk to that hobby club, or a drone rental agency, about renting a registered drone while you are in the country. Save yourself the hassle of traveling with your drone.
How old do I have to be to fly a drone?
The FAA has an age restriction for drone registration, you must be 13 year old to register for hobby flight, and 16 to register for the Part 107 commercial certification. However, once the craft is registered, the registered pilot may allow anyone to fly. Remember, flight safety and legal operation is the responsibility of the person registered to the drone, you may register a drone and then let your child or younger siblings or friends fly, but if anything bad happens, you may lose your certification.
What is drone Remote ID?
The FAA’s drone Remote ID rules say that practically every drone will have to broadcast some information, including a unique ID number, (like a license plate,) plus some telemetry information. Personal information is as protected as your car’s license plate, but consumer apps will be able to see location info. We do not yet know what the tech is that will enable compliance, nor do we have an actual effective date, but when the time comes, your drone will either need an upgrade, to have an external broadcast module attached, or you’ll have to retire the machine. Stay tuned for more info.