How to Fly Your Drone Safely and Legally

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Illustration for article titled How to Fly Your Drone Safely and Legally

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If you woke up last week and found a drone under your tree (or more likely, in a cardboard box wherever you receive package deliveries) you probably can’t wait to try it out. But unlike other new gadgets, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) like drones take a little more effort to get up off the ground. Specifically, you might need to register it with the government and get approval before taking it on its first flight.

It’s also important to know that the laws governing drones keep changing. So even if you operated one three or four years ago, you’re going to want to take a look at the current regulations. Here’s what to know if you’re planning to fly a UAV in 2021.

Before you register your drone

The first thing to do is figure out which category your drone falls under, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Though you probably are considered a recreational flyer, if you’re also using your drone for educational purposes, you may need some additional clarification. This tool from the FAA will help you know for sure.

Assuming you fall into the “recreational flyer” category, the next categorization is based on weight. If your drone weighs more than 0.55 pounds (250 grams), it must be registered with the FAA through the FAADroneZone website—otherwise, if you are caught flying it you could be subject to civil and criminal penalties (including fines of up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment for up to three years). Drones that are more than 55 pounds go through a separate registration process, which can also be found on the FAADroneZone site.

It also helps to know whether you meet the minimum requirements necessary to register a drone. According to the FAA, you must be:

  • 13 years of age or older (if the owner is less than 13 years of age, a person 13 years of age or older must register the drone)
  • A U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident.
  • For foreign operators the FAA will consider the certificate issued to be a recognition of ownership rather than a certificate of U.S. aircraft registration.

How to register your drone

Once you’ve determined that your drone must be registered, follow these steps:

  1. Go to the FAADroneZone website.
  2. Create an account. You’ll then be asked to provide basic information like your name, address, phone number and the make of your drone.
  3. Pay the $5 registration fee to complete the process. Your fee gets you a three-year registration with the FAA.

After you register your drone

Once you fill out the online forms and pay the $5, you’ll then receive a registration certificate in your email with a registration number on it. Place this number somewhere visible on your drone, or inside the battery compartment if it does not require a tool to open. (If you’re not sure how to label/display the registration number, here are some tips from the FAA.) The registration number helps identify that you own your drone if it gets lost or causes damage.

Also, keep in mind that you must have your registration certificate (either a paper copy or digital copy) in your possession when you fly. If someone else operates your drone, they must have your drone registration certificate (either a paper or digital copy) in their possession. Federal law requires drone operators who are required to register to show their certificate of registration to any federal, state, or local law enforcement officer if asked, according to the FAA.

Find somewhere to fly legally

For this, you’ll need to download the FAA’s B4UFLY app, which uses interactive maps to show where recreational drone flyers where can and cannot fly. If you first tried this app a few years ago, know that it has been significantly updated and improved, so give it another shot. One thing is still doesn’t do, though, is allow users to obtain airspace authorizations to fly in controlled airspace: those are only available through the FAA’s Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC).

But here are some of the key features of the B4UFLY app:

  • A clear “status” indicator that informs the operator whether it is safe to fly or not. (For example, it shows flying in the Special Flight Rules Area around Washington, D.C. is prohibited.)
  • Informative, interactive maps with filtering options.
  • Information about controlled airspace, special use airspace, critical infrastructure, airports, national parks, military training routes, and temporary flight restrictions.
  • The ability to check whether it is safe to fly in different locations by searching for a location or moving the location pin.
  • Links to other FAA drone resources and regulatory information.

If all else fails, you can find a local flight club that can help you with the specifics in your area. You can search the Academy of Model Aeronautics for a local chapter. In the meantime, if you’re not sure it’s legal to fly (or if you think you might have flown outside a legal fly zone), be courteous and bring your drone down if you’re asked. Especially if that request comes from law enforcement, or from any property owners you may be hovering over.

Lastly, the FAA doesn’t explicitly regulate drone photography, so at the moment, it’s a case of working within other photography laws and using your best judgement. The Photographer’s Right is a good source of general information on what’s permitted in photography.

How to fly drones safely

Once you’re up and flying, make sure you obey a few basic safety rules. Most of them are pretty common sense, but you can never be too careful. From the FAA’s website, here are the basics for recreational flyers:

  • Fly only for recreational purposes.
  • Fly below 400 feet when in uncontrolled (Class G) airspace.
  • Check the FAA’s B4UFLY app to determine whether you’re legally allowed to fly a drone in a particular area.
  • Keep your drone within your visual line of sight, or within the visual line-of-sight of a visual observer who is co-located (physically next to) and in direct communication with you.
  • Do not fly at night unless your drone has lighting that allows you to know its location and orientation at all times.
  • Do not interfere with manned aircraft operations.
  • Respect the privacy of others.
  • Never interfere with emergency response activities such as disaster relief, any type of accident response, law enforcement activities, firefighting, or hurricane recovery efforts.
  • Don’t fly near or over people, events, stadiums, or moving vehicles.
  • Don’t fly an aircraft that weighs more than 55 pounds (as mentioned above, those are in a separate category).
  • Never fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol. (Keeping in mind that many over-the-counter medications have side effects that could impact your ability to safely operate your drone.)
  • Don’t be careless or reckless with your unmanned aircraft—you could be fined for endangering people or other aircraft.

You should also check your drone manufacturer for guides on how to fly your specific model safely. DJI, one of the leading drone manufacturers has an extensive collection of tutorial videos on YouTube. Each model is different, so get to know your drone before you take it out for your first flight.

This story was originally published in March 2016 and was updated on December 28, 2020 to reflect changes in FAA regulations, as well as to provide more information and meet Lifehacker’s current style guidelines.

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