The Laws You Need to Know Before Flying Your Drone

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Until now, a convoluted set of rules made it difficult to do business with help from a drone. For example, a realtor who wanted to use a drone to grab aerial footage of a listing, or a farmer who wanted to turn to a remote-controlled aircraft to monitor crops needed to go through a lengthy permitting process and get special permission to use their unmanned aircraft.

But on Tuesday the Federal Aviation Administration released new rules that allow for routine commercial drone use. They stopped short of giving approval to package delivery, though, meaning your next Amazon order won't be dropped off at your doorstep by a drone anytime soon.

Among the FAA rules that stand out in the 624-page document: Commercial drones weighing up to 55 pounds can fly during the day and lower than 400 feet or higher if they are nearby a taller building or tower. The unmanned aircraft must stay within sight of the operator, or an observer who is communicating with the operator. Operators must be at least 16 years old and pass an aeronautics test every two years. They’ll also need to pass a Transportation Security Administration background check.

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The landmark rules announced Tuesday govern commercial use of drones. If you’re a hobbyist, you’ve got your own playbook.

If you’re just flying your drone for fun, the FAA has some firm rules: You must register your aircraft online if it’s more than 0.55 pounds and less than 55 pounds, and then label your drone with your registration number. (If your unmanned aircraft is 55 pounds or heavier, you’ve got to go through a paper registration process, also known as the “N-Number Registration). Drone users also must be 13 years or older and a legal U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident. Visiting foreign nationals must register their drone with the FAA and pay a $5 fee.

Then, there are some safety guidelines the FAA strongly suggests for hobbyists. Don’t drink-and-fly your drone, keep your aircraft at or below 400 feet and within sight, and don’t fly over groups of people.

Additionally, here are some no-fly drone zones. Breaking the rules could land you a ticket (or, in an extreme case, jail, if you’re busted flying your drone around Washington, D.C.). Above all, If you’re uncertain about flight restrictions, check out the FAA's B4UFLY smartphone app.

Washington, D.C. The airspace around the nation’s capitol is more restricted than any other part of the country due to rules put into place after 9/11. Special flight rules don’t allow you to fly your drone within a 30-mile radius of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, which means no flying in the greater D.C. area.

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National Parks. Drones are banned in all National Parks, a rule put into place in July 2014 when the park service became concerned that the unmanned aerial vehicles could disrupt wildlife and annoy other visitors.

Stadiums and sporting events. You can’t fly your drone in or around any major league baseball or football stadiums or NCAA Division 1 football stadiums. The same rule applies at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Indy Car, and Champ Series races. The ban starts one hour before and ends one hour after the scheduled time of any of these events. Drones are prohibited within a three-mile radius of the stadiums or venues.

Near wildfires. It’s illegal to fly your drone in or around a wildfire operation.

Near airports. The rule is you can’t fly your drone within five miles of an airport without giving proper notice to the airport operator and air traffic control tower. But, notice is likely not enough to get your drone near an airport. Most major airports don’t allow recreational drone use near “Class B” airspace, which is the airspace from the surface to 10,000 feet, without coordination and several restrictions. 

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