Drone use has taken off for both recreational and commercial purposes. Everyone from the proud parent watching an outdoor match to real estate agents and marketing professionals have found valuable uses for drones. But before your drone takes flight, it's important to know the rules—and there are a lot of them. You'll need to be familiar with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, as well as state and local laws, to avoid violating the law. These rules are important for safety and privacy reasons.
In many cases, yes—but only if you follow the rules. Small drones—also called unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)—might not seem like a serious threat, but they present serious safety concerns, hence the rules. If a drone falls or crashes, its moving parts can seriously injure people or property. A drone that crashes into a moving car can startle a driver and cause an accident. Drones that enter restricted airspace can disrupt flight traffic or interfere with emergency operations. Privacy issues are yet another concern, given that drones contain cameras. People can use drones to harass or spy on others.
While we can't cover all the rules, this article will get you pointed in the right direction.
Figuring out what rules and laws apply to the recreational or commercial flying of drones can be a daunting task. Federal, state, and local laws all interact in this area.
Federal law (the Air Commerce Act) gives the U.S. government exclusive control over navigable airspace, through which the public has a right to travel. Federal law preempts (trumps) state and local laws when it comes to the regulation of airspace, such as restrictions on flight altitude or paths or requirements for aviation training.
State and local officials traditionally have the authority to make laws that protect public health and safety—also known as "police powers." When it comes to drones, states and local governments can generally enforce laws that prohibit criminal acts, such as trespass, privacy invasion, and harassment, or that regulate zoning and land use, without overstepping their bounds into federal preemption areas.
Federal regulations vary depending on the size of the drone and whether it's flown for recreational or commercial purposes. All drones weighing more than .55 pounds must be registered with the FAA. (The rules below apply to small drones—those weighing less than 55 pounds.)
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) imposes stricter regulations on commercial drone use as compared to recreational drones. Commercial drone regulations apply to those who are flying drones for their business (such as real estate or marketing), for profit (taking pictures or video for someone else), or for any purpose that's not purely recreational. This means if you're flying a drone to assist a nonprofit organization, a school, a religious organization, or any other organization—even for free—it's considered a commercial use.
Individuals who are flying a drone for commercial purposes must follow Part 107 rules and get a drone pilot certificate from the FAA. Part 107 rules impose certain restrictions regarding flying at certain heights and speeds, over people or moving vehicles, and at night. These are just a few examples of the restrictions. Find all the rules and regulations on the FAA's website. (49 U.S.C. § 44807, 14 C.F.R. part 107 (2022).)
Recreational drones are those flown purely for personal enjoyment. The FAA doesn't require a pilot certification for those who fly drones for recreational purposes, and it exempts such use from the Part 107 rules. But the operator must still follow certain safety rules and obey state and local laws (discussed below).
FAA rules for recreational drone use include:
The FAA has an app called B4UFLY to assist operators in determining where they can fly their drones. (49 U.S.C. § 44809 (2022).)
A violation of FAA regulations can lead to stiff civil penalties, depending on the type of violation. Each flight constitutes a separate violation, so the penalties can add up quickly. Civil penalties range from a maximum of $1,100 to $25,000 per violation. The FAA can also suspend a person's drone pilot certificate or prohibit its issuance. For more egregious violations, criminal penalties may apply. (49 U.S.C. §§ 43601 and following (2022).)
On top of federal regulations, you must know the laws of the state and local governing body where you're operating the drone.
Many local governments restrict drone use at events in private or public spaces or over public property. There may also be filming restrictions or permit requirements. A local government can also designate areas as "No Drone Zones," which restrict drone take off and landings in the designated areas. You can also run afoul of nuisance and trespassing laws. It's important to check your city, county, or municipalities rules.
While not many states have drone-specific laws, general criminal laws can come into play, such as disorderly conduct, criminal mischief, criminal trespassing, reckless endangerment, and invasion of privacy laws. Below are some examples.
A person trespasses by entering another's property without consent or permission. Typically, trespassing only becomes a crime if the trespasser knew they didn't have a right to enter (such as through a verbal warning or clearly posted signs) or if they remain on the property after learning they're not welcome. So if you decide to fly a drone over your neighbor's yard and the neighbor tells you not to, another unauthorized flyover could mean criminal trespassing charges should that neighbor contact the police. Or if you're a real estate agent using a drone to take aerial shots of a property, you could also be subject to trespassing laws if your drone flies near or over adjoining property.
Several states have enacted laws specifically addressing trespass by drone use. For instance, Virginia makes it a class 1 misdemeanor to knowingly fly a drone over another's property or within 50 feet of another's dwelling after receiving notice to stop such drone use. (Va. Code. § 18.2-121.3 (2022).) Utah has a similar law but it also provides that a fence provides sufficient notice against entering another's private property by land or air. (Utah Code § 76-6-206 (2022).)
Many states also prohibit the recreational operation of drones over certain public and private properties, including prisons, critical infrastructure areas, sporting events, concerts, or other large outdoor venues. In a similar vein, certain states now have laws making it a crime to fly a drone over an area where first responders are actively engaged. These situations might range from natural disasters and wildfires to car accidents or crime scenes. These provisions can sometimes be found in trespass laws or obstruction laws. Delaware, for instance, makes knowing use of a drone over any active first responder incident an unclassified misdemeanor for a first offense. (Del. Code tit. 11, § 1334 (2022).)
Quite a few states have addressed the use of drones in their privacy-related criminal laws, including as forms of harassment, stalking, invasion of privacy, voyeurism (peeping Tom), and unlawful surveillance. Here, the laws focus on the defendant's intent. West Virginia, for instance, makes it a misdemeanor to intentionally operate a drone to harass someone or to capture or view images that invade a person's reasonable expectation of privacy. (W. Va. Code § 61-16-2 (2022).)
You can violate privacy laws even if you don't fly over another's property. Flying a drone on your own property can still violate the law if you knowingly focus the camera toward your neighbor's bedroom window or hover at a vantage point with the intent of stalking or harassing another. Some states include these privacy-related violations in protection or restraining orders, which can lead to additional charges. (Del. Code tit. 11, § 1334 (2022).)
If your operation of a drone results in property damage or bodily injuries to someone, you could face criminal charges for reckless endangerment or criminal mischief. Under these crimes, it doesn't matter if you intended to harm someone or their property. You can be convicted for acting recklessly, such as by flying a drone in bad weather conditions, flying too close to obstructions, or not properly maintaining your drone and it malfunctions. Penalties for reckless endangerment and criminal mischief often depend on the amount of harm done.
No. Even if the drone is trespassing, shooting down a drone carries a serious risk of harm. A person who shoots down a drone could face severe criminal charges and be liable for the cost of replacing the damaged drone.
Federal law makes it a crime to shoot down an aircraft, and drones technically qualify as aircraft. (18 U.S.C. § 32 (2022).) Shooting down a drone can also violate local ordinances prohibiting discharging of a firearm within city or municipality limits. State crimes that may apply include reckless discharge of a firearm, disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, or intentional destruction of property.
An angry property owner might claim that they are defending their property. But this defense would likely fail as shooting at a drone isn't a reasonable and proportional response (unless it were armed) to the property intrusion.
If you're facing criminal charges for a drone-related incident, contact a criminal defense attorney. Many of the charges above are misdemeanors and might seem minor, but any criminal conviction can stay on your record and follow you for a long time.
If you have questions regarding where you can fly your drone or if someone can fly a drone near or over your property, check out the FAA website or B4UFLY app. You will also want to check out state and local regulations. If you're flying a drone for commercial purposes, you may want to consult with an attorney as well.