Drones and the Law

It hasn’t been since Batteries not included that we ever really thought about the possibility of tiny machines flying through the air. It hasn’t been until recently that we’ve understood the far reaching impact of these little robotic aviators. Not surprisingly, drones in general are not a new technology. If we were to take into account the bare essentials of what defines a drone we can say with conviction that this technology goes as far back as 1849 when one of the first recorded uses stemmed from pilotless balloons carried bombs to release over the city of Venice by the Austrians in July of that year. 

Intrepid Drone, Shaw, 2014

Drones today

What we attribute to drones today are one of three machines. We have military “Hunter-Killer Drones,” “Surveillance Drones,” and our friendly “Consumer Drones”–perhaps… toys if you will. One of the more well-known drone models for the military was the Predator, which later evolved into the Reaper before shooting off into the Raven.

The laws concerning these machines are murky at best. At what point did the United States really foresee citizens purchasing what was formerly too cost-prohibitive for ordinary Americans? The question begs to be asked, “At what point did toy helicopters and remote controlled airplanes shift into fully functional flying computers?” The change is drastic enough that today, we have CBS reporting well-known businesses like online retailer Amazon getting their feet wet in the drone pool. 

Drone on the Pavement

Drones and the FAA

The fact that they’ve had extensive military use only increases the unease in which we’re beginning to see Federal entities such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) getting involved with regulations associated with drone ownership and operation. One of those regulations include civil penalties of up to $27,500 USD for failure to register their drones–even if they’re being used recreationally. This registration must include: name, physical address, email addresses, and a credit card payment of $5.00 for user authentification purposes.


“…a lot of people that are doing this have no idea about airspace and about the problems that they can cause…it’s just a matter of time in this scenario before somebody gets hurt or even worse,” Coleman said in an interview with CNBC.

(CBS Evening News, 2015)

A few of the major points according to the FAA Website regarding Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS/DRONES):

Public Operations (Governmental)

  • Certification of Waiver or Authorization (COA) required, issued by the FAA
  • COA are issued for a specific period–usually up to two years
  • Basic parameters include (but not limited to) not operating in a populated area
  • One requirement of the COA is that a registrant is a recognized political subdivision of the US under Title 49 of the United Stated Code (USC) section (§) 40102(a)(41)(c) or (d) and that the proponent will operate its unmanned aircraft in accordance with 49 USC. § 40125(b) (not for commercial purposes).
  • Approval typically takes 60 days

Civil Operations (Non-Governmental)

  • Any operation not meeting criteria for public aircraft operation is considered a civil aircraft operation
  • Section 333 Exemption grants operations to perform commercial tasks in low-risk, controlled environments
  • Special Airworthiness Certificate (SAC) requires applicants to describe their aircraft system design, construction, and manufacture including engineering, software, and quality assurance procedures, along with where they intend to fly

Model Aircraft (Hobby or Recreation Only)

  • Fly below 400 feet and remain clear of surrounding obstacles
  • Keep the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times
  • Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations
  • Don’t fly within 5 miles of an airport unless you contact the airport and control tower before flying
  • Don’t fly near people or stadiums
  • Don’t fly an aircraft that weighs more than 55 lbs
  • Don’t be careless or reckless with your unmanned aircraft – you could be fined for endangering people or other aircraft

(Model Aircraft Operations, FAA Website, 2016)

Drones and Business don’t mix

The line between what is considered non-commercial and commercial is a thin one. Let’s say you wanted to take pictures from a drone with a camera. If you use those pictures for your own personal use then it is not commercial. If you happen to sell them or if you begin to sell them to others then that’s commercial and requires FAA authorization.

(FOX Business, 2015)

Drones and the changing landscape

Laws change all the time and as much as we want things to have a straightforward answer, they don’t. As little as one month ago the FAA updated their rules for Washington D.C. when before they originally prohibited any type of drone to operate therein. 

Although the FAA controls and regulates airspace, many smaller municipalities and townships across the US have been under pressure to pass laws regulating how those drones operate within their jurisdictions–if at all.

Drone over Bridge

Drones and California

Lawmakers in California have also begun to consider the possibility of treating drones as they would cars, with two bills concerning drones requiring a license, insurance, and a kill switch to help combat potentially dangerous encounters with larger aircraft, and to address liability concerns when another person is harmed on accident. 

“When you cause an accident in your car, California law says you have to stay at the scene and give the injured party and the police your identification,” Chau said, adding that, if a drone falls from the sky for whatever reason, “the operator needs to do the responsible thing and come forward and identify himself to the victim and to the police. This bill will make that responsibility the law.”

Drones and you

The problems facing hobbyists as well as commercial pilots for legitimate business purposes are only expounded by those who are not adhering to the new registration rules and operational guidelines purposed by the FAA. By educating yourself on both local and federal laws in addition to operating your drone within the COA’s and recreational statutes you can avoid a slew of trouble when–not if–the unexpected happens. For a link to the FAA website concerning official mandates please visit: The Federal Aviation Administration’s website on Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

Elias Stevens is a freelance journalist, personal chef, and tech enthusiast.

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