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U.S. Drone Laws & Regulations – The Ultimate Guide (2020)

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Please note, this article does not provide legal advice. I do my best to keep it as up to date as possible, but depending on the timing, some information may have changed. Thank you for your understanding and don't hesitate to get in touch if you notice any information that needs to be updated or added. - Mark

Drone laws and regulations are constantly evolving as we attempt to integrate this technology further into society.

It's an exciting time for the industry, and regulatory changes can give us insight into how sUAS will impact our lives in the future.

This guide provides a comprehensive breakdown of the federal and state laws in the United States. Feel free to use the links below to quickly navigate through the guide:

Thinking about getting certified as a drone pilot? Check out my guide to getting a commercial drone license in the U.S.

Part 107 Test Preparation: Want to prepare for the Part 107 Test? Check out Drone Launch Academy, one of the best test prep options on the market. (Pass the first time or get your money back.)

The information in this guide is based on information available as of January 28, 2020. Feel free to check out the FAA's Getting Started page here as well

Federal Regulations

Federal laws regarding drones used for personal and commercial purposes are under the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). These laws cover many things such as prohibited uses, restricted airspace, and privacy regulations. The FAA also regulates the need for a pilot certification and the registration of drones with the FAA.

The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 became the new law on October 5, 2018. This law changed the rules for use of recreational drones that previously were covered under the Special Rule for Model Aircraft. The FAA laws now apply to drones according to their weight. The laws about drones from the FAA Reauthorization Act can be found in sections 341-384 under Title III – Safety, Subtitle B - Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

The FAA calls drones “unmanned aircraft systems” (UAS). 

UAS are divided into these categories:

  1. Actively-Tethered UAS
    • These UAS are attached to the ground by a tether. They weigh less than 4.4 lbs. including any payload but not including the weight of the tether.
  2. Small UAS
    • These UAS weigh more than 0.55 lbs. and less than 55 lbs. including anything carried by them.
  3. UAS
    • These UAS weigh more that 55 lbs.

Helpful Hint: The FAA offers a free downloadable application that shows where flying a UAS is allowed, as well as where there are restrictions and “No Drone” zones based on a GPS location.

Actively-Tethered UAS

With the new legislation, the FAA introduced rules for this hobby category of very small drones (under 4.4 lbs) that are tied down when flying. These are called actively-tethered UAS. They are exempt from FAA federal regulations as long as they are operated under the altitude of 150 feet and flown in Class G airspace. 

Class G airspace is near the ground (1,200 feet or less altitude) and uncontrolled. The actively-tethered UAS must always remain within the site of the operator, not be flown over non-participating persons, and not interfere with any other aircraft. In many American communities, there are special areas that are dedicated to this hobby flying. 

Regulations for Small UAS

All UAS that are un-tethered and are larger than 0.55 lbs. (250 grams) must be registered with the FAA. For a Small UAS, which weighs less than 55 lbs., registration can be done online at the FAA Drone Zone.

UAS

All UAS that weigh more than 55 lbs. must be registered with the FAA by using a paper application process. The registration application can be downloaded from the FAA aircraft certification section.

FAA Online UAS Registration

The FAA offers online registration for hobbyists and commercial users of Small UAS that weigh less than 55 lbs. Registration costs $5 per UAS and lasts for three years.

Hobby Flying Registration

Hobbyists can register a Small UAS online. They do not need to have a pilot’s license as long as the fly their Small UAS under the Special Rules for Model Aircraft (section 336). 

The Special Rules for Model Aircraft are: 

  • Register your Small UAS and mark it with your registration number to help recover it. if it is lost or stolen.
  • Flying is for a hobby purpose only.
  • No commercial flying allowed.
  • Fly only within an area that permits visual sight of the UAS.
  • Never fly near any other aircraft.
  • Follow any safety guidelines of the community.
  • Ask any airport for permission to fly within five miles of it.
  • Never fly near any emergency or law enforcement efforts.

For those that do not meet all of these hobby requirements or want to fly commercially, they need to register under the UAS Rule Part 107. 

UAS Registrations for Commercial Flying - Rule 107

To fly a small UAS for commercial purposes, you must register it and you must have a Remote Pilot Certification (UAS Pilot License). 

Rule 107 UAS Flying Rules are: 

  • The UAS must be less than 55 lbs. including any payload.
  • The UAS must be registered.
  • Flying is permitted only in Class G unmonitored airspace
  • The maximum flying altitude is 400 feet.
  • The UAS must always be able to be seen by its operator without using binoculars.
  • Flying is permitted only in daylight for a UAS without lighting.
  • Flying is allowed in civil twilight if the UAS has lighting.
  • Flight speed is limited to 100 mph or less.
  •  Do not interfere with the flights of other aircraft.
  • Do not fly the UAS over any part of another person.

Helpful Hint: Any person or organization that wants to fly a UAS commercially that violates these Part 107 rules for a valid reason, such as a news channel that wants to fly a UAS for story-reporting purposes, needs to request a waiver of the rules from the FAA and get a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA). 

UAS Remote Pilot License Requirements

Getting a pilot’s license to fly a Small UAS can be done by anyone that is 16-years-old or older. Applicants must meet the Transportation Safety Administration’s (TSA) security requirements.

A passing score on the FAA-approved aeronautical test is also required before a UAS Pilot License certification is issued. The full details about the application process can be found at the FAA Remote Pilot License Certification information. To take the test costs about $150 and the certificate is valid for two years.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions

Is package delivery by Small UAS permitted?

Yes, delivery is permitted as long as the total weight of the UAS with the package is less than 55 lbs. The operator must keep the UAS in the line-of-site at all times and cannot operate the UAS from a moving vehicle. 

See Also: The Current State of Drone Delivery Worldwide

Can a UAS be used to fly over an event, such as a sports match in a stadium? 

A UAS cannot be used to fly over any people or one hour before any event until one hour afterward unless the operator first obtains FAA permission by getting a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA). 

Does a UAS have to be registered to fly over private land? 

Yes, any un-tethered UAS that weighs over 0.55 lbs (250 grams) must be registered with the FAA. 

Do I have to register my UAS to fly it inside my own building? 

No, the FAA does not have any regulations for indoor use. 

What should be done if a UAS is lost, destroyed, sold, or transferred? 

The UAS registration should be cancelled through the FAA registration system. Any new owner should then make a new registration. Hint: Use a drone tracking device to reduce the chance of losing your drone. Check out my guide here.

How should a UAS be marked with the unique FAA registration number? 

The registration number needs to be put on the UAS so that it is permanently in place. This can be done by a permanent marker, engraving, or a label. 

What are the penalties for failing to register a UAS when required by law? 

The penalties can be both civil and criminal. The severity depends on the circumstances. The maximum civil penalty is $27,500. The maximum criminal penalty is a fine of up to $250,000 and imprisonment of up to three years. Since registration for a Small UAS only costs $5 for three years and is easy to accomplish online; it is very foolish not to follow the federal law. 

What should be done in the case of an accident? 

If the accident causes more than $500 damage to property, besides the UAS itself, report the accident to the FAA. 

State Laws

In addition to the federal laws, many states have some of their own laws regarding flying drones. 

These states currently do not have any special state laws regarding drones. People in these states simply need to follow the FAA regulations: 

  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • New York
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina

Here are all the other states that have laws to be aware of: 

Arizona

In addition to following FAA rules, users of drones in the state of Arizona must follow SB 1449 that passed in 2016, which has the following requirements: 

  • Flying a UAS cannot interfere with law enforcement, fire-rescue efforts, or emergency responses.
  • Flying a UAS cannot interfere with a manned aircraft.
  • A charged of “disorderly conduct” can be made for flying a UAS dangerously close to a person or property.
  • Flying a UAS within 500 horizontal feet or 250 vertical feet of a critical facility is prohibited, such as courthouses, hospitals, military bases, power plants, oil or gas facilities, and water-treatment plants.
  • Municipalities in Arizona that have public parks must allow drone flying in at least one of them.
  • Arizona state law pre-empts any local ordinances regarding drones.

Arkansas

In addition to complying with FAA regulations, those flying drones in the state of Arkansas are subject to Arkansas laws passed in 2015 as follows: 

HB 1349:

Under this Arkansas law, it is not legal to use a drone to record a person who has a reasonable expectation of personal privacy.

HB 1770:

This law makes it illegal to use a drone to collect information or photograph critical infrastructure within the state, without specific authorization.

California

In addition to following FAA rules, drones that are flown in California are subject to these laws: 

AB 856:

This law, passed in 2015, prohibits using a drone to capture photographs or video of person that violates their privacy, such as using a drone to spy on celebrities.

AB 1680:

This law, passed in 2016, makes it a misdemeanor to interfere with any emergency services provided by first responders.

SB 807:

This law, passed in 2016, provides legal immunity to protect first responders that damage a UAS if it is interfering with emergency services.

Colorado

Colorado does not have any additional laws that drone flyers need to follow except for following FAA rules. 

However, under Colorado State Law 070, the state legislature did approve the investigation of using drones to provide better public services that include fighting fires, emergency services, criminal investigations, and search or rescue efforts. 

Connecticut

Drone flyers in Connecticut must follow FAA regulations. In addition, here are the Connecticut state laws regarding drones: 

SB 975:

This law passed in 2017. It says that state law supersedes any municipal regulations, except that local ordinances can prohibit the use of drones over the municipal water supply and land.

DEEP §23-4-1:

This law passed in 2017 prohibits the unauthorized use of drones, without specific permission, at any state-owned land such as state parks and forests.

Delaware

Delaware has additional laws that must be followed along with FAA regulations. 

Delaware state laws pre-empt local ordinances and prohibit flying drones in these ways: 

  • Drones cannot be flown over events with more than 5,000 attendees.
  • Drones cannot be flown over critical infrastructure.
  • Drones cannot be flown in state parks unless specifically allowed by the Division of Parks & Recreation.

Florida

In addition to FAA rules, drone flyers in Florida must follow these state laws: 

SB 92:

This law passed in 2013. It restricts the use of drones by law enforcement. To use a surveillance drone, law enforcement must first obtain a warrant unless there is a terrorist threat or the drone is being used to search for a missing person. Anyone harmed by the inappropriate use by law enforcement of drones is allowed to file a civil lawsuit for damages.

SB 766:

This law passed in 2015. It made it illegal in Florida to use a drone to capture images of privately-owned property or persons without their consent when they have an expectation of privacy.

HB 1027:

This law passed in 2017. It made it illegal in Florida to fly drones over critical infrastructure. It also made it illegal to possess a drone that is weaponized. Florida State law pre-empts local ordinances except that municipalities are permitted to make their own ordinances that restrict drone usage for illegal acts, such as, creating a nuisance, harassment, damaging property, reckless endangerment, and voyeurism.

Georgia

Besides the FAA regulations, there are no other laws regarding drones in Georgia, except that state law will pre-empt any local ordinances.

Hawaii

The only state regulations in Hawaii are SB 661, passed in 2015, which created a UAS test site. Otherwise, only the FAA regulations apply in this state.

Idaho

In addition to FAA regulations, drone flyers in Idaho need to follow these laws: 

SB 1134:

This law passed in 2013. It requires law enforcement to get a warrant in order to use a surveillance drone. It also provides civil penalties for improper use of drones by law enforcement and private citizens.

SB 1213:

This laws passed in 2016. It makes it illegal to use a drone for finding, molesting, or hunting, animals or birds.

Illinois

In addition to FAA regulations, drone flyers in Illinois need to follow these laws: 

HB 1652:

This law passed in 2013. It prohibits anyone from interfering with hunters or fishermen by using a drone.

SB 1587:

This law passed in 2013. It allows law enforcement to use drones against terrorist attacks, to prevent harm to life, and to stop a suspect’s escape.

SB 2937:

This law passed in 2014. It allows law enforcement to use a UAS during a disaster or a public health emergency. It also allows law enforcement to obtain information gathered by private drones.

Indiana

Indiana has many drone laws. In addition to FAA regulations, drone flyers in Indiana need to follow these laws: 

HB 1009:

This law passed in 2014. It required law enforcement, with some exceptions, to get a warrant before using a surveillance drone. It also made it a misdemeanor for anyone to use a drone to conduct surveillance and photograph private property without permission.

HB 1013:

This law, passed in 2016, allowed drones to be used to photograph or take videos of crash sites.

HB 1246:

This law, passed in 2016, makes it illegal to use a drone for hunting.

SB 299:

This law, passed in 2017, created new criminal offenses. It makes it illegal if a sex offender uses a UAV to capture photographs or video recordings of another person without permission. It made it a crime to use an UAV in a way that interferes with the work of a public safety official.

IAC 312 8-2-8 (i):

This law, passed in 2018, prohibits using a drone on state parks and recreational lands without first obtaining permission from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

Iowa

The only Iowa state law that is an addition to FAA rules is HB 2289, passed in 2014, which makes it illegal for any state agency to use a drone to enforce traffic laws. Drones can only be used by law enforcement in Iowa after they obtain a warrant. 

Kansas

In addition to FAA regulations, in 2016, Kansas passed SB 319 into law. This law expanded the definition of harassment under the “Protection from Stalking Act” to include the use of a drone.

Kentucky

Kentucky added some new criminal laws to enforce protection around airports, in addition to the FAA regulations. In 2017, the state passed HB 540 to prohibit the operation of a UAS in areas designated as restricted airspace by a commercial airport within the state. This law also makes it a crime to operate a UAS in a reckless manner that creates a serious risk of injury or property damage.

Louisiana

Besides following FAA regulations, using a drone in Louisiana is subject to many state laws, which include: 

HB 1029:

This law passed in 2014, making it a crime to use a drone for property surveillance without the owner’s permission.

SB 183:

This law passed in 2015 to regulate the use of a UAS in commercial agriculture.

SB 73:

This law passed in 2016, making it a crime to use a drone to obstruct a law enforcement officer. It also allows emergency personnel to disable a UAS if they think it endangers public safety.

HB 19:

This law passed in 2016 and makes it a crime, punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and six months in jail to use a drone for the surveillance of a correctional facility or a school.

HB 335:

This law that passed in 2016 established state registration and licensing fees for a UAS.

HB 635:

HB 635: This law passed in 2016. It added drone use to the state statues regarding the crime of voyeurism.

SB 141:

This law passed in 2016. It states that surveillance by a UAS under certain circumstances is criminal trespass.

SB 69:

This law passed in 2017, making the state law pre-empt any local ordinances.

Maine

Maine added to the FAA regulations, the law LD 25, which passed in 2015 that law enforcement needs to have a warrant to use a drone for surveillance purposes.

Michigan

In addition to FAA regulations, Michigan has these state laws: 

SB 54:

This law, passed in 2015, prohibits using a drone to harass a hunter.

SB 992:

This law, passed in 2016, says that state law pre-empts municipal ordinances. It prohibits using a drone by sex offenders to photograph another person. It also prohibits using a drone by anyone to interfere with the efforts of emergency personnel, to harass any person, to violate a restraining order, or to invade someone’s privacy.

Minnesota

In addition to following FAA rules, commercial drone operators in Minnesota, under MN DOT Aeronautics Rules Chapter 8800, need to pay $30 for a license and have commercial drone insurance.

Mississippi

The only law that Mississippi added to the FAA rules is to make using a drone for voyeurism a felony.

Montana

Montana passed HB 644 in 2017 that prohibits using a drone to interfere with wildfire suppression efforts. Other than that, drone flyers in Montana need only to follow FAA rules.

Nevada

In addition to FAA regulations, in 2015 Nevada passed a law, AB 239, making it illegal to weaponize a drone or to use one near critical facilities or airports. 

New Hampshire

In addition to FAA regulations, in 2015 New Hampshire passed a law, SB 222, making it illegal to use a drone for fishing, hunting, or trapping. 

New Jersey

In addition to FAA regulations, in 2017 New Jersey passed a law, SB 3370, making it illegal to do the following. 

  • A UAS cannot be operated near critical infrastructure or correctional facilities.
  • A UAS cannot be operated in a way that endangers life or property.
  • A UAS cannot interfere with first responders.
  • A UAS cannot be operated by a person under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

New Mexico

In addition to FAA regulations, in 2013 New Mexico passed a law, SB 556, making it illegal to use a drone for unwanted surveillance. 

North Carolina

In addition to FAA regulations, North Carolina has state laws that heavily regulate the use of a UAS within the state. The state laws include: 

SB 744:

This law passed in 2014. It requires commercial UAS operators to pass a test and to obtain a state license. Recreational drone flyers do not need a license from the state; however, they must follow the state’s UAS rules.

HB 128:

This law passed in 2017 making it illegal to use a drone near a correctional facility.

North Dakota

In addition to FAA regulations, in 2015 North Dakota passed a law, HB 1328, making it illegal to arm a drone with a lethal weapon. This law also limits their use for surveillance. 

Ohio

Ohio established a new state regulatory supervision for UAS devices but has not passed any laws. At this time, Ohio residents need only follow FAA regulations. 

Oklahoma

In addition to FAA regulations, in 2016 Oklahoma passed a law, HB 2559, making it illegal to operate a drone within 400 feet of any critical infrastructure. 

Oregon

Oregon has many laws regarding drones in addition to the FAA regulations, which include: 

HB 2710:

This law passed in 2013. It made it illegal to install a weapon on a drone. It allows a property owner to bring a legal action against someone flying a drone lower than 400 feet over their private property. It requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant to use a drone for surveillance.

HB 3047:

This law made it a felony to fire a weapon mounted on a drone. It also prohibits flying a drone over private property to harass the owner or occupant.

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania has only added to the FAA regulations by making a rule at state parks that drones can only fly in designated zones. 

South Dakota

In addition to FAA regulations, in 2017 South Dakota passed a law, SB 80, making it illegal to operate a drone over a correctional facility or fly over a military base. It also makes surveillance without a person’s consent a misdemeanor. 

Tennessee

Tennessee has many laws that are in addition to FAA regulations, which include: 

SB 1892:

This law passed in 2014. It makes it a misdemeanor to use a drone to conduct surveillance of a person or their property.

SB 1777:

This law passed in 2014. It makes it a misdemeanor to use a drone to conduct surveillance of a person who is hunting or fishing.

HB 153:

This law passed in 2015. It prohibits using a drone over open-air events or fireworks displays.

 SB 2106:

This law passed in 2016. It makes it illegal to fly a drone within 250 feet of critical infrastructure.

Texas

In addition to the FAA regulations, drone flyers in Texas are subject to HB 1424, which passed in 2017. This state law prohibits flying a drone over correctional facilities and sports venues. 

Utah

Utah has many laws regarding drones in addition to the FAA regulations, which include: 

SP 196:

This law passed in 2014. It requires law enforcement to get a warrant before using a drone.

SP 111:

This law passed in 2017. It makes it a misdemeanor to fly a drone that has a weapon. It included drones in the criminal trespass law when they fly over private property without permission. It adds drones to the voyeurism law and makes it a misdemeanor to secretly record video of a person.

HB 217:

This law passed in 2017. It prohibits using a drone to harass, chase, disturb, or harm livestock.

Vermont

In addition to the FAA regulations, Vermont passed SB 155 in 2016. This law prohibits adding weapons to drones by anyone including law enforcement. 

Virginia

In addition to FAA regulations, Virginia passed HB 2350 in 2017 that makes it illegal to use a drone for voyeurism or spying on others. 

Washington

In addition to FAA regulations, the state of Washington, under WAC 352-32-130, requires drone flyers who want to fly their drone in a state park to obtain a state-issued Remote Controlled Aircraft Permit

West Virginia

In addition to FAA regulations, West Virginia passed HB 2515 in 2015 that makes it illegal to use a drone for hunting. 

Wisconsin

In addition to FAA regulations, Wisconsin passed SB 338 in 2016 that prohibits using a drone to interfere with fishing, hunting, or trapping. Also, in 2016, AB 670 was passed that made it illegal to fly a drone over a correctional facility. 

Wyoming

In addition to FAA regulations, Wyoming passed SF 170 in 2017 that prohibits landing a drone on the property of another person. 

Best Practices for Flying Legally and Safely in the U.S.

The best practices for flying drones safely in the United States are: 

  • Register drones as required by FAA regulations.
  • Get a UAS Pilot certification if flying a drone for commercial purposes.
  • Follow all FAA rules.
  • Follow state rules and local ordinances.
  • Fly drones only during the daytime and within sight.
  • Give the right-of-way to manned aircraft.
  • Do not fly a drone over others.
  • Do not fly a drone over public events.
  • Do not fly a drone in restricted airspace or within five miles of an airport.
  • Do not fly a drone near critical infrastructure or correctional facilities.
  • Do not fly a drone that interferes with emergency services.
  • Do not use a drone for fishing, hunting, or trapping.
  • Do not fly a drone over private property without permission.
  • Do not use a drone to spy on others.
  • Do not fly a drone to harass others.
  • Do not disturb livestock or other animals with a drone.
  • Do not fly a drone when you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

What Do These Regulations Mean Going Forward?

There is a trend of increasing regulations as the legislatures of different jurisdictions address the issues regarding drone usage. It is likely that more laws will be enacted in the future; however, there is nothing expected to happen in the United States that will restrict drones in any severe way that reduces the expansion of their popularity. 

Key Drone Laws Worldwide

It is interesting to compare U.S. regulations to regulations of drones in other countries. 

Here are some links to the regulations of some other countries/regions: 

Summary

Flying drones for fun and commercial activities is becoming more and more popular in the U.S. and worldwide. If you practice the right safety precautions and follow all the regulations, you will help keep yourself out of trouble and maximize your experience with these amazing flying machines.

Have I missed something? Please get in touch here and let me know. 

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