Drone flying laws, FAA regulations and license requirements you need to know

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Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide legal advice. These laws are continually changing, and you should not rely solely on the lists herein. Please look up your state’s current laws and/or contact an attorney to determine what, if any, legal requirements or restrictions apply to the use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems in your area.


Óscar J.Barroso/Europa Press via Getty Images


Recreational vs. Commercial Drone Regulations

One of the biggest hurdles to mass adoption of drones is the numerous regulations that restrict what drone owners and operators can do. In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has several regulations that have hindered drone market growth.

The most prevalent of these restrictions is the one colloquially known as the “line of sight rule,” which mandates that drone operators keep the unmanned aircraft within eye shot at all times. This clearly removes any potential application for drones in the delivery space, as the need to keep a drone in line of sight at all times defeats the purpose of sending off a drone to drop off a product at a consumer’s home.

But there are different FAA drone regulations for commercial use and for recreational use. Recreational drone laws are in some ways more lax than commercial ones, but the line of sight remains pivotal (more on these laws later). 

Drone Pilot License and FAA Laws & Regulations

“Do I need a license to fly a drone?” “Do I need to register my drone?” These are two of the most common questions prospective drone owners ask.

As of a law passed on January 3, 2018, a recreational drone user must register their drone with the FAA, mark the outside of the drone with the registration number, and carry proof of registration when flying. Furthermore, the pilot must fly only for recreational purposes.

This next portion is crucial: The pilot must keep the drone below 400 feet in uncontrolled or “Class G” airspace. This simply refers to airspace where the FAA is not controlling manned air traffic, which means it is safe to fly your drone there. Fortunately, most drones and their accompanying mobile apps provide guidelines to help identify appropriate airspace and height.

The FAA has a full list of guidelines here.

Drone Registration

The FAA’s online registration system went into effect on Dec. 21, 2015. This required all UAS weighing more than 0.55 pounds (250 grams) and less than 55 pounds to be registered.

Since then, the number of drones registered in the U.S. has been increasing. More than 900,000 owners had already registered by the end of 2018, and monthly owner registration averaged between 8,000-9,000 during the full year 2018, according to the FAA.

As of December 10, 2019, there were 1,509,617 drones registered with the FAA. This includes 1,085,392 recreational drones and 420,340 commercial drones, as well as 160,748 remote pilots certified. 

State and Local Laws & Regulations

In addition the federal laws, several states have enacted drone regulations of their own. Here’s a breakdown of drone regulations by state:

Alabama: N/A

Alaska:Alaska state law HB 255 passed in 2014 places limits on how law enforcement can use drones in their operations, which includes but is not limited to how and whether they can save images and video captured by drone.

Arizona: SB 1449 passed in 2016 is quite robust, and includes the following regulations:

  • Drones cannot interfere with police, firefighters, or manned aircraft.
  • Flying a drone in what is considered “dangerous proximity” to a person or property is deemed Disorderly Conduct.
  • Drones must stay a minimum of 500 feet horizontally or 250 feet vertically of any “critical facility.” These include but are not limited to courthouses, hospitals, military installations, water treatment and oil and gas facilities, and power plants.
  • Any city or town in Arizona with more than one park must permit the usage of drones in at least one of those parks.
  • Cities and towns in Arizona may not craft their own drone laws.

Arkansas:Arkansas has several state laws regarding drones. Act 293 forbids the use of drones to invade privacy and commit video voyeurism. Act 1019 forbids the use of drones for surveillance of “critical infrastructure.” And am Arkansas State Park Regulation passed in 2018 forbids the operation of drones in any Arkansas State Park without first acquiring a Special Use Permit from the Office of the Director.

California:The most populous state in the union has three laws regarding drones. Civil Code Section 1708.8 forbids the use of drones to record another person without their consent. SB 807 grants immunity for first responders who damage any unmanned vehicle that interferes with first responders during emergency services. Related, AB 1680 makes it a misdemeanor for drones to interfere with the activities of first responders during an emergency.

Colorado:HB 1070 passed in 2017 requires the Center of Excellence within the Division of Fire Prevention and Control within the Department of Public Safety to conduct a study on the integration of drones within state and local government operations that relate to certain public safety functions. The law also created a pilot program to facilitate this goal.

Meanwhile, Colorado State Parks Regulation #100-c.24 in 2018 forbids the operation of drones in Colorado State Parks with the exception of designated areas.

Connecticut:SB 975 prohibits municipalities within the state from regulating drones with the exception of municipalities that are also water companies, which can regulate or forbid the use of drones over said municipality’s public water supply and land.

DEEP 23-4-1 prohibits the use of drones at Connecticut State Parks, State Forests or other lands under the control of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, with the exception of those specifically authorized by the Commissioner through a Special Use License.

Delaware: HB 195 forbids flying a drone over any event with an attendance greater than 5,000 people (such as concerts, sporting events, auto races, and festivals), as well as any critical infrastructure (such as government buildings, power plants, water treatment facilities, military installations, oil and gas refineries). Lastly, the law forbids cities and towns in Delaware from crafting their own drone laws.

Florida: Criminal Code Section 934.50 forbids the use of drones for surveillance that violates another person’s reasonable expectation of privacy. This includes law enforcement, however police can use drones with a valid search warrant, if there is a terrorist threat, or “swift action” is needed to prevent loss of life or to find a missing person, per SB 92. That same law also allows someone harmed by the inappropriate use of a drone to pursue civil action.

HB 1027 forbids local regulation of drones, but does allow for local legislatures to craft some drone laws related to “nuisances, voyeurism, harassment, reckless endangerment, property damage, or other illegal acts.” It also forbids also the use of drones over or near critical infrastructure in most situations, and bans the possession or use of a weaponized drone.

Finally, Florida Administrative Code 5l-4.003 forbids the usage of drones on managed lands (such as Florida state parks and forests) with the exception of runways or helispots and only with authorization from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. 

Georgia:HB 481 preempts Georgia’s local governments from creating drone regulations after April 1, 2017. This law also permits state and local governments in Georgia to regulate the launch or landing of drones on public property.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources also has rules and regulations that forbid the use of drones in Georgia’s State Parks and Historic Sites, with some exceptions for waivers for professional commercial projects that could help generate revenue or promote those sites. Prior authorization is required for such exceptions.

Hawaii: Act 208 created a drone test site advisory board, along with a chief operating officer to oversee the site.

Idaho:Idaho Code 36-1101 forbids the use of drones to hunt, molest, or locate game animals, game birds, or fur-bearing animals. Idaho Code 21-213 mandates warrants for law enforcement to use drones, creates guidelines for drone use by private citizens, and outlines civil penalties for damage caused by improper use of drones.

A drone is seen in the sky as Chinese drone maker DJI holds a demonstration to display an app that tracks a drone’s registration and owner in Montreal
Reuters


Illinois: Illinois has one of the more thorough sets of state drone laws in the nation.

20 ILCS 5065 created the Unmanned Aerial System Oversight Task Force Act charged with regulating commercial and private drones. These regulations include landowners’ rights, operational safety, and privacy rights.

HB 1652 prohibits the use of drones to interfere with the activities of hunters or fishermen.

SB 1587 permits the use of drones by law enforcement with a warrant for counterterrorism, to prevent harm, or to thwart the impending escape of a suspect. If used, law enforcement agencies must destroy all information gathered by the drone within 30 days, with exceptions made if the information contains reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

SB 2937 relaxes regulations on drone usage by law enforcement during a disaster or public health emergency, and creates rules for how law enforcement can acquire and use information gathered from a private party’s use of drones.

Finally, SB 3291 forbids cities, towns, and other municipalities from enacting regulations or restrictions on the drone use, with the exception of municipalities with more than one million residents.

Indiana: Indiana has multiple state drone laws, starting with HB 1009, which created warrant guidelines for law enforcement use of drones and other real-time geolocation tracking devices. The law also created a Class A misdemeanor called “Unlawful Photography and Surveillance on Private Property,” in which a person intentionally conducts electronic surveillance of another’s private property without permission.

HB 1013 permits drone use to photograph or video a traffic crash site, while HB 1246 forbids drone use to locate game during hunting season.

SB 299 created two Class A misdemeanors tied to drone use. The first is “sex offender unmanned aerial vehicle offense,” in which a sex offender uses a drone to follow, contact, or surveil another person under conditions that prohibit said offender from doing so. The second is “public safety remote aerial interference offense,” in which a person uses a drone in a manner that obstructs or interferes with a public safety official performing his or her duties. Both offenses become level 6 felonies if the guilty party has a prior conviction under the same section.

Finally, IAC 312 8-2-8 (i) forbids drone use on Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) property, which includes state parks; however, the DNR can grant licenses to use drones at its discretion.

Iowa: The Hawkeye State’s lone drone law, HB 2289, forbids any state agency from using drones to enforce traffic laws and insists upon a warrant or other lawful measure to use any information obtained by drones in any civil or criminal court proceedings.

Kansas:SB 319 expands the definition of harassment in the state’s existing Protection from Stalking Act to include particular drone uses.

Kentucky:HB 540 permits commercial airports to design their own drone facility maps and forbids drone use in certain areas designated by said maps.

Louisiana: La. Revised Statutes, section 3.41, et seq. regulates drone use for agricultural purposes and mandates that operators be licensed and registered, with renewals every three years.

HB 1029 created the crime of unlawful drone use, defined as the intentional use of a drone to surveil a location without the owner’s prior written consent.

SB 183 regulates drone use for agricultural commercial operations, while SB 141 clarifies that some drone surveillance constitutes criminal trespass.

HB 635 added drones under the crimes of voyeurism and video voyeurism, and HB 335 authorized the establishment of registration and licensing fees for drones in Louisiana at a $100 limit.

HB 19 forbids drone use to surveil school rounds or correctional facilities, while SB 73 expands the definition of obstructing an officer to include intentionally crossing a police barrier with a drone. SB 73 also permits law enforcement and the fire department to disable drones if they endanger the safety of the public or an officer.

Lastly, SB 69 insists that only the state, not local governments, can regulate drone use.

Maine: Sec. 1. 25 MRSA Pt. 12 mandates that law enforcement agencies obtain approval before acquiring drones and lays out other rules for police use, such as warrant requirements.

Maryland:Section 14-301 establishes the state’s power over local authorities to create laws that regulate drone operation.

Massachusetts: N/A

Michigan: Mich. Compiled Laws Section 324.40112 forbids the use of drones to interfere with hunters, and Mich. Compiled Laws Section 324.40111c forbids the use of drones to locate, hunt, trap, or catch animals.

Furthermore, SB 992 outlines several prohibitions for drones, all of which classify as misdemeanors. First, local governments cannot regulate drones except if the drone belongs to the locality. Second, the law allows commercial drone operation provided the FAA has authorized the user to do so commercially, and allows recreational use under federal law compliance.

Third, SB 992 forbids drone use that interferes with emergency personnel, to harass any individual, to violate restraining orders, or to capture photo or video that invades a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy. Finally, the law forbids sex offenders from using drones to photograph, follow, or make contact with an individual they are forbidden to contact.

Minnesota:Minnesota Statute 360.60 mandates that all recreational and commercial drone operators register their drone with the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Commercial operators must have drone insurance per the requirements set forth under Minnesota Statute 360.59. Furthermore, all commercial operators must pay a licensing fee for a Commercial Operations License, according to the Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Rules Chapter 8800.

Mississippi:Miss. Code Section 97-29-61 forbids the use of drones to spy on another person inside a building.

Missouri: N/A

Montana: In the Big Sky State, SB 196 outlines that information gained from drone use is only admissible in court when obtained with a search warrant or through some other exception recognized by the courts.

HB 644 forbids drone use that interferes with efforts to suppress wildfires.

Nebraska: N/A

Nevada:Amendments 362, 640, and 746 officially define drones as aircraft, which regulates drone operations. This law also prohibits weapons on drones and forbids the use of drones within a certain distance of airports and other “critical” facilities. Finally, it places restrictions on drone use by law enforcement.

New Hampshire: RSA 207:57 forbids the use of drones to interfere with legal hunting, fishing, and trapping.

New Jersey:The New Jersey State Park Service Policy forbids drone use on all areas managed by the State Park Service without prior authorization.

SB 3370 is a robust law that establishes several guidelines for drone use:

  • Permits drone use in accordance with federal law
  • Classifies drone use in a way that endangers the life or property of another as a disorderly person offense.
  • Establishes that is a fourth-degree crime if an individual “knowingly or intentionally creates or maintains a condition which endangers the safety or security of a correctional facility by operating an unmanned aircraft system on the premises of or in close proximity to that facility”
  • Outlines that using a drone to interfere with a first responder is a criminal offense
  • Allows drone owners of critical infrastructure to apply to the FAA to forbid or limit drone use near said infrastructure
  • Classifies operating a drone under the influence of drugs or with a blood alcohol content of .08 percent or greater as a disorderly person offense
  • Forbids local governments from regulating drone use in any way that conflicts with this law

New Mexico:SB 556 forbids unwanted surveillance via drone.

New York: N/A

North Carolina:Appropriately, the state that was “First in Flight” was also one of the first to adopt a truly detailed set of drone laws, starting with SB 744 in 2014, which established requirements for recreational, commercial, and government drone use.

SB 446 gives North Carolina’s Chief Information Officer the power to approve drone use by state agencies, mandates tests for drone operations, and establishes a permit process for commercial drones.

HB 128 forbids drone use near a correctional facility, with the exception of certain official use or other prior authorization.

HB 337 permits drone use for emergency management activities. It also makes adjustments to align the state law with federal law, and exempts model aircraft from the state’s training and permitting requirements for drones.

Finally, NCAC 13B.1204 forbids drones to take off or ascend at any state park area without a special permit from the park.

North Dakota: North Dakota Code Sec. 29-29.4-01 restricts drone use to surveillance, crime investigation, and other law enforcement uses. It also mandates law enforcement have a warrant to do so.

Ohio: N/A

Oklahoma:HB 2559 forbids drone use within 400 feet of any critical infrastructure facility.

Oregon:HB 2710 established quite a few drone regulations, including:

  • Creating new crimes and civil penalties for mounting weapons on drones, as well as interfering with or obtaining unauthorized access to public drones
  • Allowing a law enforcement agency to use a drone with a warrant and for exceptions such as training
  • Requiring any drone operated by a public body to be registered with the Oregon Department of Aviation (DOA)
  • Allowing a landowner under certain conditions to take action against an individual operating a drone lower than 400 feet over their property

SB 5702 set the fees for registering a public drone. HB 4066 clarified and modified some drone definitions and made it a class A misdemeanor to operate a weaponized drone. It also regulated public drone use and mandated policies and procedures for data retention.

HB 3047 adjusted the law forbidding weaponizing drones by making it a class C felony to fire a bullet or projectile from such a device. It also prohibits drone use over private property in any way that intentionally or recklessly harasses or agitates the property’s owner or occupant. Finally, it allows law enforcement to use drones to reconstruct accident scenes. 

Lastly, The State Fish and Wildlife Commission forbids the use of drones to hunt, fish, or trap animals and prohibits using drones to interfere with hunters.

Pennsylvania: Title 18 Section 3505 forbids drone use to intentionally surveil other people in a private place, to use a drone in a way that puts another person in reasonable fear of injury, or to operate a drone to handle contraband.

Title 53 of Section 305 builds upon this law by having Title 18 Section 3505 preempt any laws or resolutions of other municipalities. Furthermore, municipalities cannot regulate ownership and operation of drones unless authorized by statute.

Finally, The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources states that drone use is prohibited at state parks with the exception of designated areas at Beltzville State Park, Benjamin Rush State Park, Hillman State Park, Lackawanna State Park, Prompton State Park, and Tuscarora State Park.

Rhode Island: HB 7511 provides exclusive regulatory power over drone use to the state and the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, in accordance with federal law. It also prevents local governments from crafting their own drone laws.

Title 250 of Park and Management Area Rules and Regulations forbids drone use at any Rhode Island state park without a special use permit, typically issued for professional filming and media companies. Furthermore, the law also bans drone use to harass or disturb individuals, wildlife, or natural resources at a state park.

South Carolina: N/A

South Dakota:SB 80 mandates that drone operation complies with appropriate FAA requirements. It also classifies drone use over military and correctional facilities as a class 1 misdemeanor. Delivering contraband or drugs by drone to a correctional facility is a class 6 felony under this law. Finally, it amends the crime of unlawful surveillance to include intentional drone use to observe or record an individual in a way that violates their reasonable expectation of privacy, and forbids landing a drone on someone’s property without consent. Unlawful surveillance is a class 1 misdemeanor.

The much simpler SB 22 grants exemptions from aircraft registration requirements for drones that weigh less than 55 pounds.

A customized DJI Agras MG-1S drone sprays water over rice field during pilots training flight near Zanzibar City
Reuters


Tennessee:The Volunteer State has six drone laws to consider. SB 796 permits law enforcement to use drones with a search warrant in cases of high-risk terrorist attacks or if quick action is necessary to prevent clear and present danger to life. Any evidence obtained in violation of this law cannot be admitted in state criminal prosecutions, and the law creates opportunities for those wronged by such evidence to take civil action.

SB 1892 classifies intentional drone surveillance of an individual or property, and possessing images from said surveillance, as  Class C misdemeanors. Distribution or use of those images is a Class B misdemeanor.

On a similar note, SB 1777 makes it a Class C misdemeanor for any private entity to use a drone to conduct video surveillance of someone who is hunting or fishing without their consent.

HB 153 forbids drone use to capture footage above open-air events and fireworks displays. HB 2376 clarifies that individuals can use drones on behalf of both public and private institutions of higher education.

Finally, SB2106 makes it illegal to operate a drone within 250 feet of a critical infrastructure facility in order to surveil or gather information about said facility.

Texas: Way back in 2005, Texas Administrative Code §65.152 banned drone use to to hunt, move, capture, count, or photograph any wildlife without special permits.

HB 912 detailed 19 lawful uses for drones and also created two new crimes: illegal use of drones to capture images, and the offense of possessing or distributing said images.

HB 1481 classifies drone use over a critical infrastructure facility if the drone is not more than 400 feet off the ground as a Class B misdemeanor. Meanwhile, HB 2167 allows individuals in certain professions to capture images for use in those professions via drone as long as no individual can be identified in the images.

HB 1643 forbids local governments from regulating drones with the exception of special events and when the drone is used by the locality. HB 1424 forbids drone use over correctional and detention facilities. It does the same for sports venues, with some exceptions.

SB 840 allows telecom companies to use drones to capture images. Furthermore, it clarifies that only law enforcement can use drones to capture images of property within 25 miles of the U.S. border for border security reasons. Lastly, it permits insurance companies to use drones to capture images for certain insurance purposes, according to FAA regulations.

Finally, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Policy bans drones in Texas State Parks without a permit, with the exception of Lake Whitney and San Angelo. Individuals can also request permits for drone use at state parks.

Utah: SB 196 mandates that law enforcement obtain a warrant before using drones in any location where an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy. Related, SB 167 regulates drone use by the government and establishes that law enforcement must have a warrant to obtain, receive, or use any data from drone use.

HB 296 permits law enforcement to use drones to capture footage at testing sites, or to find a lost or missing person in an area in which a person has no reasonable expectation of privacy.

HB 217 forbids individuals from using drones to intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly harm, actively disturb, or chase livestock.

Finally, SB 111 established several regulations for drones:

  • Creates cases for law enforcement to use drones for purposes not related to a criminal investigation
  • Mandates law enforcement create an official record of drone use to provide information on that use and any data acquired from it
  • Preempts local regulation of drones and exempts drones from aircraft registration in Utah
  • Classifies flying a drone with a weapon attached or carried on it as a class B misdemeanor
  • Modifies the offense of criminal trespass to include drones entering and remaining unlawfully over property with specified intent
  • States that a person is not guilty of what would otherwise be a privacy violation if the person is using a drone for some legitimate commercial or educational purpose under FAA law. It further amends the offense of voyeurism (a class B misdemeanor) to include the use of any technology, including drones, to secretly capture video of an individual under certain circumstances

Vermont: SB 155 mandates that law enforcement report annually on drone use by the department, regulates said use, and forbids weaponizing drones.

Virginia: In 2010, The Code of Virginia 4VAC5-30-400 banned drone use in Virginia State Parks without a special use permit.

In 2013, HB 2012 forbade drone use by any state agency “having jurisdiction over criminal law enforcement or regulatory violations,” as well as units of local law enforcement, until July 1, 2015.

HB 2125 mandates that law enforcement agencies obtain a warrant before using a drone for any purpose, with a few exceptions. Meanwhile, HB 412 forbids local government regulation of drones.

SB 873 specifies that the fire chief or other ranking officer at a fire department has the authority to maintain order at an emergency site, which includes the immediate airspace where drones might fly.

Finally, HB 2350 classifies using a drone to trespass on another’s property to peep or spy on them as a Class 1 misdemeanor.

Washington: The Washington State Legislature allows drone use in any state park area with written permission, wherein the director or designee can set restrictions. The operator must have said permission on them when using the drone.

West Virginia:HB 2515 forbids hunting, taking, or killing wild animals with drones. HB 4607 mandates that operators have permission from the State Park Superintendent to fly drones in any of West Virginia’s state parks. 

Wisconsin: SB 338 bans drone use to interfere with hunting, trapping, or fishing, while AB 670 forbids drone use over correctional facilities.

Wyoming:SF 170 requires the Wyoming Aeronautics Commission to craft rules and regulations for where drones can take off and land. The commission can also develop reasonable rules for drone use through coordination with the drone industry and local governments. Importantly, the law clarifies that the commission cannot regulate drone use in navigable airspace, and makes it illegal to land a drone on another’s property; however, operators can fly drones over their own property.

More to Learn

Regulatory hurdles will likely prevent drone mass adoption in the near-term, but the regulatory landscape around the world is continually evolving. Insider Intelligence has laid out the state of affairs in The Global Drone Regulation Landscape Report.

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