There are many spots in the U.S. (and around the world) where you cannot legally fly drones. That being said, there are many, many more places where you CAN legally fly drones!
Don’t be discouraged, just because your local park bans drones or you can’t bring a drone with you on your vacation to the Grand Canyon. There are many excellent places to fly, and this guide will show you how to tell if your specific spot is legal or not.
General rules for flying drones in the U.S.
Rules in the U.S. vary from rules in other countries — and some rules even vary by state, city and down to individual park!
Drone flights are regulated by the FAA if they’re outdoors. But individual land operators can have their own rules. While some flights might be okay with the FAA, they might not be okay (ie. you’re flying in Class G airspace, but it’s a National Park, which is a no-no). Here’s how you can ensure your drone flight is legal:
Make sure it’s FAA compliant: Check the FAA’s Know Before You Fly website
The best way to know whether your flight is okay in the eyes of the FAA is by checking their website called Know Before You Fly. Know Before You Fly is a website initially founded by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) and the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) in partnership with the Federal Aviation Administration, so you can assure the data on the site is accurate.
Here’s how it works.
Step 1: Go to the Know Before You Fly airspace map page and scroll down to the “Flying Sites Map.” Input the address of where you intend to fly, and you’ll likely get a clear “yay” or “nay.”
Step 2: Determine what the colors mean. I’ve input the address of Drone Girl headquarters, and alas! There is a huge black circle around it. That’s probably a sign I can’t drone there.
I’ve clicked on the circle, and it turns out, there’s a Temporary Flight Restriction. Why? There’s a Giants game happening right now (the FAA prohibits flying drones near major sporting events, and Drone Girl headquarters happens to be about a mile from AT&T Park, where the Giants play).
Step 3. Scroll down on that same “Know Before You Fly” page to find out what the other colors mean. The webpage has a legend to explain other colors. Dark yellow indicates an airport, meaning hobby pilots should give notice for flights within 5 statute miles of an airport. Dashed yellow indicates a heliport, which means that while you can still fly there, you should be particularly alert to helicopter traffic in the area — and always yield to manned air traffic.
So your flight can legally take place in your area? Great! Just make sure you also adhere to all hobby drone laws if you are flying just for fun, rather than for money (if you’re flying commercially, you have to adhere to a completely separate set of rules; the next part of this guide will cover that).
If you fly a DJI drone: use DJI’s GEO System to tell you if you can legally fly your drone
Rather than force you to navigate the FAA’s website, DJI makes it super easy for its pilots to make sure they can legally fly in that airspace.
DJI has a software implemented in most of its drones called GEO System, showing where it’s safe to fly, where flight may raise concerns, and where flight is restricted.
Often, it actually prohibits you from flying in those off-limits zones (like airports, power plants, and prisons) unless you take an extra step to unlock them (GEO allows users with verified DJI accounts to temporarily unlock or self-authorize their flights, though the unlock function is unavailable for some sensitive national-security locations). The system is even smart enough to take into account temporary restrictions, like major stadium events, forest fires, or other emergency situations.
Keep in mind, DJI wants you to know that their system is “advisory only” so you should still check with the FAA to be crystal clear.
“Each user is responsible for checking official sources and determining what laws or regulations might apply to his or her flight,” DJI said in a statement regarding their GEO software. “In some instances, DJI has selected widely-recommended general parameters without making any determination of whether this guidance matches regulations that may apply specifically to you.”
City-specific and other local rules around legally flying drones
Much to the dismay of both the Federal Aviation Administration and many drone pilots, many cities pass their own ordinances around flying drones. This is incredibly frustrating, as there is no one database for searching city-specific rules (the map above only references federal rules). Cities technically cannot pass rules about airspace (only the FAA has jurisdiction over the air, but they bypass the FAA by creating rules regulating the land — typically along the lines of “it is illegal to take off or land drones in city parks.”
For example, San Francisco (home of Drone Girl headquarters) issues citations of up to $192 for taking off or landing drones in city parks. (San Franciscans, check out my guide to flying in our beautiful city here.)
I highly recommend you check with your local city and park ordinances before flying drones, just to be safe. Typically your city will have its own website with a search feature, indicating whether there are rules about whether you can legally fly drones. Before flying in a new city, I typically run an Internet search for that city’s website, and once I’m there, I search that site for the words “UAV” and “drone” to assess whether that city has any established drone laws. Also, look out for signs in those areas noting any possible drone laws, and of course, adhere to them.
Rules around how to legally fly drones in foreign countries
Rather than re-invent the wheel here, I’m going to direct you to my friends at UAV Coach, who have a really excellent master list of drone laws by country. There you can find out if you need to register, if you need a license, and if you can even bring that drone into the country. Though, sometimes it seems laws change on an almost-daily basis, so I would also check with each country’s aviation regulatory agency’s website as well.
General FAA rules for flying drones recreationally:
- Your drone must be registered. Registration costs $5 and lasts 3 years. Register with the FAA here.
- Adhere to the following guidelines. (Note, these are guidelines, and the FAA is not legally able to enforce them):
- Keep your drone in eyesight at all times, and use an observer to assist if needed
- Remain clear of manned aircraft
- Do not intentionally fly over unprotected persons or moving vehicles, and remain at least 25 feet away from individuals and vulnerable property
- Contact the airport and control tower before flying within five miles of an airport or heliport. (Read about best practices here)
- Do not fly in adverse weather conditions such as in high winds or reduced visibility.
- Do not fly under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
- Do not fly near or over sensitive infrastructure or property such as power stations, water treatment facilities, correctional facilities, heavily traveled roadways, government facilities, etc.
- Check and follow all local laws and ordinances before flying over private property.