Flying drones in the USA – is it lawful?

Drones have many names – quadcopters, UAs (Unmanned Aircraft), UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), RPVs (Remotely Piloted Vehicles) and so on. However, for the sake of uniformity, in this article I’ll use the word drone.

And, nowadays, drones are ubiquitous and available for easy purchase, both off and online. But can anyone just buy one and fly it where and when he wants?

Drone laws USA


Let’s consider the USA, for example. What is the legal position of a drone owner in this country?

In the USA, the flying of drones is controlled by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and, to a lesser degree, the various state authorities. The FAA classifies drones in three main categories,

Drones for public use, Drones for commercial use and Drones for recreational use.


Public use
This means the use of drones by government organizations for such tasks as firefighting, border control, police operations, rescue, etc. Drones must have a COA (Certificate of Authorisation) from the FAA before they can be flown and this certificate will restrict the flying of the drone to a defined area and include various stipulations regarding safety. These COAs can usually be obtained from the FAA within 60 days, are valid for up to two years and are issued through the COA Online system.


Commercial use (civil/non-government use)
Drones that do not fall into the above public or recreational classifications become commercial-use drones and must obtain authority to fly according to the purpose for which they will be used. For use in environments considered to be low-risk, a Section 333 Exemption and a COA (Certificate of Authority) must be obtained.

Alternatively, a SAC (Special Airworthiness Certificate) must be applied for, with the applicant specifying the drone’s design, construction, and software and providing details of flight management and how and when the flights will be made. At the same time, SACs may also be issued for experimental drones or for drones used for research, but such certificates do not allow the use of drones for hire.


Recreational use (model/hobby aircraft)
The operation of drones or model aircraft for recreation and hobby use comes under the FAA Modernisation and Reform Act of 2012. Providing that the limitations in this Act are followed, any person may fly his drone for non-commercial use. The FAA has issued guidelines through various model aircraft groups that owners of hobby drones should follow. Some of these guidelines are given below:


  1. The drone should be flown at an altitude of not more than 400 feet.
  2. It must be kept in sight of the operator.
  3. It must be flown at least 5 miles away from any airport.
  4. It must not be flown near crowded areas, stadiums, etc.
  5. It must weigh less than 55 lbs.
  6. It must be flown without endangering people, property or aircraft.


Drone Laws


FAA regulation of December 2015
In December 2015, the FAA announced that all drones with a weight in excess of 250 grams and flown for any purpose must be registered with the FAA. This regulation included recreational drones weighing between 250 grams and 55 lbs.

Among the many new conditions set out in this ruling were:

1. Registered owners must be at least 13 years of age.
2. Upon receipt of a registration certificate and number, this number must be marked on the drone.
3. The registration fee is $5.
4. Registration is valid for 3 years and can be renewed for a further 3 years.
5. One registration certificate can cover more than one drone.


Federal versus State regulations
Although the government, through the FAA, controls all US airspace, citizens still have the right to use it. Authority to control traffic, flights and safety resides with the FAA notwithstanding the fact that many states have introduced their own regulations governing the flying of drones.

Although the FAA considers that its regulations preempt those of the states, there have often been conflicts between the two parties, many of which have been settled or are being settled by the courts. However, state regulations that the FAA would likely find acceptable include the use of drones for police surveillance, the prohibition of the use of drones for voyeurism, hunting and fishing, and the carrying of explosives and weapons.

Usually, under state law, a warrant must be obtained before a drone can be employed in law enforcement. States that have introduced laws to control drones include California, Virginia, Florida, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin. At the same time, several towns have passed laws restricting or banning the flying of drones in the areas under their jurisdiction.

The above are only general outlines of the regulations governing the use of drones and would-be drone-owners should obtain detailed information from the FAA and the relevant state authorities. Happy and useful flying!