You Are Likely Flying Your Drone Very Illegally with Rob Adams


You Are Likely Flying Your Drone Very Illegally with Rob Adams

It seems like everyone in the photo and video world has a drone these days. We can now get amazing perspectives and high-angle shots with superb image quality, allowing us to take our productions to a whole new level. But you may be surprised to hear that if you are flying a drone like the insanely popular DJI Phantom series of quad-copters, you are very likely breaking the law—federal law.

The Federal Aviation Administration just enacted new regulations for small UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) that cover all drones weighing between .55 and 55 pounds total, between the aircraft itself and any payload. Many of us (including me, before I dug deeper) thought that all we would have to do is register our drone via the Federal Aviation Administration website when the time came, pay our $5 fee, affix our registration number to the drone and off we fly. Wrong.

The new drone regulations that went into effect on December 21, 2015, the ones everyone has been talking about, legally apply only to hobbyists, not commercial users. Commercial users operate drones for profit, so we are bound by other, more stringent regulations and operational license requirements. According to the FAA website (, any person or business that flies a drone for commercial profit must apply for a Section 333 exemption from the FAA, which allows them to operate their small UAS under more specific guidelines.

That’s not all. The new UAS regulations stipulate that hobbyists who register their drones must abide by certain rules. They must maintain a flight ceiling of 400 feet in elevation above sea level (not 400 feet from where you are standing), not fly within 5 miles of any airport or government building, and not fly directly over people or highways. The exemption further states that drones must not fly at a speed greater than 80 MPH, and that users maintain visual line of sight at all times, fly only during daylight hours, never around stadiums or sports complexes, and always have a dedicated observer during all flights to keep visual track of the UAS.

But wait, there’s more. Commercial drone operators who are granted the Section 333 exemption must also obtain and carry a Certificate of Waiver, issued with a granted Section 333, and must obtain an FAA Airman Certificate. That’s right, you need a pilot’s certification to fly your drone commercially. Don’t shoot me, I’m just deciphering the federal law. You can see screenshots of the UAS registration information on the FAA website in Figures 1.1 through 1.4.

What this means is that the new drone regulations basically don’t apply to any of us using our drones for commercial purposes, and we must still jump through hoops that have always been in place in order to fly and capture images with our drones legally. So the new regulations are basically only for enthusiasts who got a drone for Christmas this year and fly only for fun. Depending on where you live and your local laws, you may need to visit a local flight school to become certified for the Airman Certificate.

The FAA’s website shows examples of Section 333 exemption applications that have been submitted, and also letters of approval so you can see who is actually licensed to fly their drones and what permits are pending. The information is very specific. Each applicant is required to list the type, model and serial number of the drone they intend to fly, for what purpose and what the final payload will be. If accepted, the FAA will authorize specific permission for what you have listed for a period of two years. You can see a portion of one such approval letter here detailing the permissions granted.

You’ll have to affix your registration number someplace on your drone where it is plainly visible, and there is a $5 fee to obtain the registration certificate. No sticker is provided, just a number that you can put on the drone by means of a marker, label, sticker or etching.

The FAA is also getting serious about giving everyone the right to declare their property, residential or commercial, as a “no drone zone,” providing logos on its website that people can download to put on signs and stickers.

For a videographer like me, the new regulations pose a glaring issue. I’m not a pilot, nor do I think I will be taking a certification course to become one. Have you seen what it costs to learn to fly? It’s cheaper for me to outsource my drone work to someone who holds the certifications, and let them assume all the risk and responsibility. For as little as I use my drone for wedding work and commercial ventures, I certainly won’t be jumping through these hoops unless absolutely necessary. I won’t be flying my drone illegally, either. You will likely find it listed for sale on Close5 or eBay soon.

Here’s the text from the FAA’s website detailing Section 333’s requirement for the pilot’s certification:

By law, any aircraft operation in the national airspace requires a certificated and registered aircraft, a licensed pilot*, and operational approval. Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA) grants the Secretary of Transportation the authority to determine whether an airworthiness certificate is required for a UAS to operate safely in the National Airspace System (NAS).

*This authority is being leveraged to grant case-by-case authorization for certain unmanned aircraft to perform commercial operations prior to the finalization of the Small UAS Rule, which will be the primary method for authorizing small UAS operations once it is complete.

The Section 333 Exemption process provides operators who wish to pursue safe and legal entry into the NAS a competitive advantage in the UAS marketplace, thus discouraging illegal operations and improving safety. It is anticipated that this activity will result in significant economic benefits, and the FAA Administrator has identified this as a high priority project to address demand for civil operation of UAS for commercial purposes.

This is pretty clear, and it’s a blow to all of us videographers and photographers who’ve been having great fun producing stunning aerial images with technology that is only getting better as demand increases.

In my video in this issue, I speak with Ray Adams, who’s an FAA spokesman and president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association Northeast Region (and also my older brother). We discuss these regulations and the misconception that commercial drone operators are required to do only what’s required of hobbyists.

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To read the full article, launch the digital version of the February 2016 magazine.

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