Flying drones and getting great aerial shots is an addictive hobby but they aren’t just exciting toys — operating personal drones count as piloting aircraft and it’s essential to know the do’s and don’ts or you could actually be breaking the law.
It’s so tempting to take your camera drone out for a test run straight out of the box but you legally can’t. Any Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) weighing more than .55 pounds but less than 55 pounds must be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It only costs $5 for three years and you can do it all online through the FAA website. You only need to be over 13-years-old and a U.S. citizen with an address in order to register. Failure to register can lead to criminal penalties of up to three years in jail and hundreds of thousands in fines so it’s a pretty big deal.
Once your drone is registered, you should sit down and really read the entire instruction manual. There are tons of different kinds of flying drones with unique features and you could damage it, or other people and property, if you don’t know everything about how it works.
Now that you’ve got the paperwork out of the way and you’re ready for your first flight, there are a few basic rules to follow. You can print out the FAA’s one page Advisory Circular for reference. Don’t be alarmed when you see that it’s dated 1981, the old model airplane rules still apply: Don’t fly higher than 400 feet; always keep personal drones within sight; don’t fly near people until you’ve had a few test runs and are confident that you can control your craft. You also need to avoid full-size aircraft and must notify air traffic control if your drone is flying closer than five miles from an airport. Given our current political climate, you probably should just avoid airports and government offices completely.
Camera drones take incredible aerial shots but if you’re flying in a residential area, be a good neighbor and avoid going by windows and over private places like backyard pools. Remember, other people don’t know what you’re photographing and you definitely don’t want to become that guy in the hood.
Last but not least, the Academy of Model Aeronautics has an excellent sUAS Flight Safety Guide (it’s only 11 pages) that you can print and keep on-hand. Now you’re really ready to have fun flying the friendly skies!