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 the United States, 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.

Things to know before you fly

  • You must register your drone with the FAA before you fly
  • You must acquire your Part 107 certificate if you are to receive any compensation for your flight
  • You must follow all of the FAA’s airspace rules if you are flying outdoors
  • Hobby flights have difference requirements from commercial flights
  • In the eye’s of the FAA, drones are aircraft. Period.

Important updates:

(February 2019) You need to affix your FAA drone registration number to the outside of your craft

(May 2019) Hobby pilots must now acquire airspace authorization from the local ATC before flying in controlled airspace. This replaces the 5-mile airport radius rule. Also, we chat with the FAA at AUVSI Xponential 2019, they had some important stuff to say about who is a hobby pilot and who is Part 107?

Visit with DJI at CES 2019

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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 nd 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.

FAA Register sUAS drone

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.

FAA sUAS “drone” Registration history

If your sUAS weighs 0.55 lbs or more, you must register your drone with the FAA before you fly in the United States.  

The history of this requirement has been shaky, it was enacted only a few years ago, blocked in the courts in early 2017, then re-enacted by presidential intervention at the end of 2017. The FAA has long been working on updating the laws and requirements for drones, expect to see new ideas and rules as time goes on. Which includes a refunding of the FAA in late fall 2018, some changes are on the horizon for hobby flight, fewer changes for commercial operations.

Registration costs $5 and you have to be at least 13 years old. Most important, provided with your FAA registration number is the FAA drone flight laws, we’ll cover those below as well.

Related reading: No Drone Zone! Places you cannot fly

Airmap

Make no mistake, the final authority on drone flight is the FAA, however, Airmap has proven themselves a great resource for identifying safe places to fly. In our opinion, the app is easier to read and understand than the FAA’s B4UFly app, it has powerful functionality for commercial pilot operations and can now even directly control your DJI drone. We highly recommend Airmap as a part of your drone arsenal. 

Read about Airmap in our Best Drone Apps list and our coverage of InterDrone 2018.

Basic drone flight guidelines in the United States

FAA Registration

  • 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 airplanes – 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 building fires
  • Do not fly under the influence
  • Be aware of controlled airspace – use the B4UFly app

The short version of the controlled airspace situation is that you cannot fly within 5 miles of an airport without first calling in to inform the air traffic controller of your exact flight itinerary requesting airspace authorization from the air traffic controller – this is a new rule effective May 2019. You should know your GPS coordinates, your elevation above sea level, your intended maximum flight altitude and the amount of time you plan to be in the air. It used to be that you were just informing ATC, but hobby pilots are now tied into the LAANC automated airspace authorization tool, which is only just being rolled out, it will be available to all in the near future.

Remember, other aircraft have the right of way, tools like Airmap and upcoming other tools will have ADS-B or other air traffic awareness built in. Future DJI drones will have ADS-B receivers, so that will help a lot.

FAA sUAS “drone” flight rules explained:

Drone Pilot Training   |   Drone starter guide 

The B4UFly app is a little overzealous sometimes, marking many small rural airports, or unmanned helipads, as needing permission to fly. Many of these are actually not within restricted airspace, not requiring permission to fly, but it is truly better to be safe than sorry.

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 they all have their own controlled airspace, but the main airspace that I need to be concerned with are the purple, blue and faded purple areas. Basically, if you are in an area with a solid line surrounding it, other aircraft should be expected in your area.

Do check for further local flight laws, however, as they will not be on this VFR map and may not be in the B4UFly FAA app. 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.

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 and 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!

A huge thank you again to Brendan Shulman and DJI for visiting us at the Android Authority booth at CES 2017, we learned a lot and hope you did too. DJI also has great drone safety info, check it out at www.dji.com/flysafe

DJI wants you to pass a test before you can fly

The concept is simple, and I’m not hearing many complaints as yet, DJI has enabled a drone safety knowledge test within the DJI GO 4 app that you must pass before you can fly. The test is live now for pilots in the United States, go try to fly to check it out. 


Money – are you being paid to fly?

Drone Pilot Ground School Part 107 training course commercial drone license drone pilotAllow 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 around here, but it is officially the FAA’s Remote Pilot Certificate with a sUAS rating. There is a different set of rules to follow, you’ll likely need to get proper flight clearance before you can operate 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.

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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.