Flying a Drone in the U.S. as a Hobby
A legal guide to flying a drone recreationally.
IntroThere are currently at least 330,000 registered drones, or small unmanned aerial systems, (sUAS) in the United States, eclipsing the amount of registered manned aircraft in February of 2016, a mere two months after compulsory registration came into effect. With sUASs flooding the skies the FAA revealed Part 107 rules for sUAS operation on June 21st 2016, putting it into effect in August. With this rulemaking the FAA finally separated sUAS rules from traditional-manned aircraft regulation. In the past the FAA has largely ignored every day, casual users who fly model aircraft as a hobby, and as long as you still qualify you can continue to fly in this manner, rule 107 creates a second option though, and complying with these rules can be confusing.
Before You FlyFirst, every user needs to make sure they're flying a drone that qualifies legally as a sUAS. If you're attempting to fly a UAS that is larger than 55 pounds these rules aren't for you, and hobby flights are going to require a 333 exemption from the FAA, it is recommended to speak to an attorney who specializes in drone law in order to correctly apply. Alternatively, if the drone is smaller than .55 pounds this qualifies as a toy and the FAA doesn't have any kind of regulation, have fun! As long as the drone qualifies as a sUAS though, it must then be registered with the FAA before ever flying in the sky. This can be done online, right on the FAA website and costs $5. Once the sUAS is registered, you need to decide which rules you need to follow.
Option #1 - The Hard WayIf you are ever going to derive any kind of economic value from pictures taken, or data collected, you're going to need to follow the procedures of Rule 107. If you want to keep all bases covered and keep the option open to sell pictures later then it is still prudent to follow the rule while flying. The first step is to get a sUAS pilot's license through the FAA, the requirements are that you must; be at least 16 years old; be able to read, speak, write, and understand English; and have the physical and mental health to safely operate the sUAS. Assuming these are met, you must then take an aeronautical knowledge exam at an FAA knowledge testing center (A complete list of testing centers can be found at: https://www.faa.gov/training_testing/testing/media/test_centers.pdf). Once that exam has been completed an individual may apply for the license through the FAA Integrated Airman Certificate and/or Rating Application System (this can be found at: https://iacra.faa.gov/IACRA/Default.aspx)./a> From there the FAA will initiate a background check and email notification of acceptance and a temporary license. Those who already have a manned aircraft pilot's license can complete an online training course, called "Part 107 small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) ALC-451" (This can be found at: http://www.faasafety.gov/).
Once the pilot has been certified it is time for an actual flight, as long as certain rules are followed. First, the flight must take place in Class G airspace (airspace types are defined here: https://www.faa.gov/air_traffic/nas/nynjphl_redesign/documentation/feis/media/Appendix_A-National_Airspace_System_Overview.pdf). Any flight under 107 must also follow a few procedures, the pilot must always be able to directly see the sUAS, it must stay below 400 feet from a roof or the ground, it must take place during the day, cannot exceed 100 MPH, must yield to any manned aircraft, cannot fly over people, and the pilot cannot be in a moving vehicle. The full rules can be found in the federal rule (available here). This entire process can be confusing, and if there is absolutely no chance you will ever need to make money from flying, it is much easier to follow option #2 for strict hobby use.
Option #2 - The Easier WayIn order to qualify for hobby use, the pilot must follow a few guidelines found in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, section 336. First, it must be a strictly hobby use, there can be no economic gain. Second, it must be operated in accordance with "the programming of a nationwide community-based organization" (At this time the only one of its kind is the AMA, or the Academy of Model Aviation, their training can be found here: http://suas.modelaircraft.org/). Third, the pilot must give way to manned aircraft. Finally, if flying within five miles of an airport, the air traffic control of that airport must be contacted before the flight is legally able to commence. These guidelines are much simpler to follow, however the requirements do require that there be no economic gain, and the FAA has taken an extremely strict standard in measuring this, originally even going to YouTube to find violators who may be making money from views (although this practice has ended).
Ultimately, the safest way to fly a sUAS is to follow Option #1 and the Rule 107 standards that the FAA has put into place. If there is ever a question as to whether there was some kind of economic benefit, even an unforeseen source, it is far safer to follow the FAA's rules ahead of time, this can prevent the fines and litigation that could potentially arise from drone flights the FAA has forbidden. Option #2 is a fantastic outlet for anyone looking to enjoy the hobby of drone flights though, and a wonderful way for newcomers of all ages to learn about this thrilling hobby that continues to gain popularity.