Is it legal to fly drones? Here are the answers.
Is it legal to fly drones?
I have been asked that question a lot lately. I have had family members ask. I have had business associates ask. I have had potential clients and competitors ask. Very few know the actual answer. Yes it is legal to fly drones but not everyone can do it commercially. This article will help the would be drone flyer know what is legal and what is not.
Is it legal to fly drones, as a hobby?
Yes. When it comes to obeying regulations and rules of the air, flying drones as a hobby is the easiest legal route. It is completely legal to fly drones as a hobby or for recreation. There are still guidelines though that any hobby flier should follow for safety reasons but also to avoid fines or having a drone confiscated.
Those guidelines include not flying within 5 miles of an airport, not flying over 400 feet above the ground, and no drones are allowed to fly over land maintained by the National Parks service. A full list of the do’s and do not’s with hobby and recreational drone use is available on the FAA website at http://www.faa.gov/uas/model_aircraft/ and http://www.nps.gov/dena/learn/news/drones-prohibited.htm.
Is it legal to fly drones, commercially?
Yes and no. More and more drones are taking to the sky and more and more people are trying to make money using a drone. Those businesses include individual photographers looking to add a new perspective to their photos to billion dollar construction firms employing drones for surveying and analysis. Here is the tough part, the FAA is extremely vague as to who can operate commercially.
If you look at the FAA backed website http://knowbeforeyoufly.org/ and compare their examples of business and recreational use of drones, you would come to the conclusion that as long as you are not paying someone else for drone services, you are good to go and can operate as a hobby.
But here is the catch, if you read further into the actual regulation regarding drone operations you will find that it is not legal to fly drones as a business, “Any operation not conducted strictly for hobby or recreation purposes could not be operated under the special rule for model aircraft. Clearly, commercial operations would not be hobby or recreation flights. Likewise, flights that are in furtherance of a business, or incidental to a person’s business, would not be a hobby or recreation flight.” (http://www.faa.gov/uas/media/model_aircraft_spec_rule.pdf). This regulation goes further in stating, “The statute requires model aircraft to be flown strictly for hobby or recreational purposes…A definition of “hobby” is a “pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, available at www.merriam-webster.com (last accessed June 9, 2014). A definition of recreation is “refreshment of strength and spirits after work; a means of refreshment or diversion.””
What this is saying is that it is illegal for a business to operate a drone to further their own business – even if they are not selling services or products via work performed by the drone – for the simple fact that flying the drone is not meant as a hobby or recreational activity. Without prior FAA approval, it is illegal for farmer Joe to fly a drone to check out his crops or herds. Without prior FAA approval, it is illegal for XYZ Construction to fly a drone for aerial photography or surveying. Without prior FAA approval, it is illegal for Sally Smith to film her home and link that YouTube video to her “sell by owner” website for her own home.
Does that make sense? If not, let me know in the comments and I will provide more references and explain in greater detail the definition of hobby and recreation and how that applies to commercial or business related drone operations. I like to look at it like this, in order to drive the car you bought and own on city, county, state, or federal roads you have to have your car registered because the government owns the road. Well, the government owns the air. So if you are going to operate in their air for anything other than “refreshment of strength and spirits after work” you are going to have to play by their rules and have their permission.
If it is legal to fly drones as a business, how do I do it?
Well if you are a large enough firm with lobbyists in Washington and money in campaign contribution funds, then you are likely flying drones commercially already and the FAA, being backed by Washington and the recipients of the campaign contributions, is likely going to turn a blind eye to your operations. But if you are like everyone else in the country you are going to need to apply for a Section 333 exemption (see here: http://www.faa.gov/uas/legislative_programs/section_333/).
What this exemption does is provides you with a legal waiver from the FAA to operate a drone as a business. The exemption makes it legal to fly drones as a business. It is between a 2 to 4 month process to receive your exemption and then you must register your drone, receive a COA for your commercial activities, log 25 hours flying drones including 15 in the specific drone you will be flying commercially, and get at minimum a sport pilot license and medical certificate or State issued drivers license. Easy process right? Plan to spend at least a year all together getting an exemption, completing flight time for your pilot license, and around $10,000. Then of course you still have to buy a drone, camera, software, start a business, apply for an EIN, register with the State and City, etc. etc. etc., you get the point. But there are businesses that have gone through this process and are operating commercially and legally at this very moment. To date the FAA has processed 1,149 exemptions and here at AirVidTech we are expecting our exemption any day now.
Is it legal to fly drones, the conclusion.
Yes and no. If you just want to fly for fun then you are legal to go and I wish you happy and safe flying. If you want to use drones as part of your business, start working on your exemption now so that when the time comes you are ready to fly.