FAA Drone Regulations for Dummies

Note: Since posting this article, there have been several minor changes to regulations including new commercial drone laws.

Drones have been in the news lately for all sorts of reasons, good and bad. As you might remember, a drone crashed into the White House lawn last year. They have also been getting a lot of publicity for their potential harm to airplanes (although this is greatly debated). The news has reported several close calls of drones operating near airports that have almost caused a crash.


According to CNN, between December 2013 and September 2015 there were 327 incidents that were categorized as ‘close encounters’ (drones coming within 500 feet of an airplane). Pilots were forced to maneuver around these drones 28 times.  The Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) has been forced to more strictly regulate these UAVs (or Unmanned Aircraft Systems as the FAA identifies them). These laws and regulations can be complicated so here they are in a more simplified format:

  • As of February 19, 2016 all of drones must be registered that meet the following criteria:
    • The drone weighs 0.55 lbs (small drones like my Syma x5c are not required to be registered)  and less than 55 lbs (UAVs over 55 lbs have a separate registration). Here are some examples provided by the FAA.
    • The owner must be 13+ years of age.
    • The owner must be a US citizen or legal permanent citizen.

  • You may register online for a small fee of $5.
    • Full name, address, and email need to be provided if using for recreational purposes only.
    • After registration you will receive an email with your license that gives you a certificate number and expiration date.Example Drone License
    • This certificate number must be visible on or in an easily accessible compartment on your drone (I used a sharpie on the bottom of my Phantom 3 Advanced).
    • Once registered, all drones owned are covered under this certificate.
  • Registration is a must as unregistered owners can be hit with a fine up to $27,500 (although it is unlikely the FAA would actually be able to enforce this).
  • Drones must be flown lower than an altitude of 400 ft (many drones and apps (see Must Have Drone Apps) have this feature built-in to prevent the user from flying above this height, such as the newer models of the DJI Phantom and the 3DR Solo).
  • The UAV must be kept within a line of sight.
  • No flying over or near airports (many drones won’t allow you to anyway), stadiums (around the time of sporting events), or other crowded areas.
    • Visit this interactive map to see zones where special permission to fly must be granted (usually within a 5 mile radius of an airport).
    • Recommended to avoid flying within 25 feet of people or valuable objects.
    • Many cities also have restrictions. Check to make sure flying a drone is legal if you are within city limits.
  • No flying while under the influence of alcohol/other substances.
  • Use common sense to avoid invading a person’s privacy (laws are not very specific on this yet).
  • Monetization of any service using a drone requires a special exemption (Exemption under Section 333). However, rules on commercial use of personal UAVs are changing so I will not yet go into detail on this.

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While all these regulations can be hard to remember at times, most advanced drones prevent some of these from ever happening. Just fly smart and safely, and you likely will not have any problems with the law. Any questions on these? Please feel free to comment or use to contact form!