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Drone use laws & regulations:

what you should know before you fly

By Ohio personal injury lawyer Ralph C. Buss, Esq.

Drones have enjoyed considerably more than their 15 minutes of fame. 


Once considered mere toys, drones - or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) - have been garnering national headlines for years. There have been those that screamed about the U.S. military using one to take out a top terrorist in Iraq. Others called attention to some strange drones, whose origins were unknown, hovering around the Midwest. Amazon’s use of drones to deliver packages to online shoppers has been reported. Uber Eats has tossed around the idea of using them to deliver meals, and there’s even been talk of employing drones as flying taxis to take people where they need to go.


Unmanned aircraft systems have quickly become part of our everyday lives. Their recreational use still surpasses drones’ commercial and military use, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency’s latest numbers, dated Aug. 25, 2020, show there are 1,688,171 drones registered across the country. 487,313 of those are commercially registered and 1,197,368 are for recreational use. 


Along with the staggering growth in popularity of both commercially and recreationally used drones come health, privacy, and safety concerns for regulators and lawmakers. 


To ensure the safe operation of drones, the FAA through Congress, state legislatures, and local authorities has labored to see laws passed that dictate drones’ use and are designed to punish their criminal misuse. But this patchwork series of laws and regulations creates the potential for drone operators to unknowingly commit a crime even with the exercise of due diligence. 


So if you’re one of the thousands of lucky individuals who received a drone for Christmas, you’re likely wondering how to navigate this sleigh full of rules.


First and foremost, drone users must operate their vehicles in a safe and lawful manner at all times, or else they may incur criminal liability for their actions.

An unmanned aircraft system, or drone, in flight
Image courtesy of via

Basic rules and safety guidelines for drone use:


  • Keep your drone in eyesight at all times. Use an observer to assist, if needed.

  • Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations. You must see and avoid other aircraft and obstacles at all times.

  • Do not intentionally fly over unprotected persons or moving vehicles. 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.

  • Ensure the operating environment is safe and that the operator is competent and proficient in the operation of the drone.

  • 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.

  • Do not conduct surveillance or photograph persons in areas where there is an expectation of privacy without the individual’s permission.

  • Do not fly in adverse weather conditions such as high winds or reduced visibility.

  • Do not fly under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

  • Don’t be careless or reckless with your unmanned aircraft. You could be fined for endangering people or other aircraft.

Before you even get off the ground - before your first flight - you must register your drone with the FAA. Early on - well before their meteoric rise in popularity and availability - no registration was necessary. Eventually, drone registration for recreational pilots became a requirement. The registration requirement was challenged in court and rescinded. But following another round of legal proceedings, the court reversed that ruling and now all recreational pilots in the U.S. must register with the FAA before flying outdoors.


All owners of model aircraft, small unmanned aircraft or drones, or other remote-controlled aircraft weighing between 0.55 and 55 pounds are required to register online before taking to the skies. The online registration system requires drone owners 13 years and older to submit their names, email and home addresses to receive a certificate or aircraft registration/proof of ownership. This document contains a unique identification number owners must affix to any drone they own and operate exclusively for recreation.


Recreational drone use does not require a pilot’s license but everyone must register. Registration costs $5 per drone and is valid for three years. Failure to register an aircraft can result in civil and/or criminal penalties under 18 U.S.C. 3571.

FAA registration summary:


  • Registration is mandatory in the United States

  • You must register before your first flight

  • Users must be at least 13 to register online

  • The registration fee is $5. It’s good for three years.

  • Register your drone directly through the FAA at this web address:

  • All the information you need to provide is your name, home address, email address and the make and model of your drone.

  • This registration process only applies to hobby and recreational use. Commercial rules are more involved.

  • Failure to register can result in criminal penalties

  • Aircraft lighter than 0.5 pounds are exempt, although remote-controlled aircraft that light are usually not drones. If you do own a UAS that weighs over 55 pounds, you’ll need to fill out a paper waiver form


Most of the laws, rules and regulations regarding drone usage are simply common sense - something  you need to use while flying. In addition to the FAA rules, remember that national parks have banned the use of drones within their confines. The airspace around Washington, D.C. is also restricted. Sometimes, temporary flying restrictions are put into place elsewhere. For example, the FAA declared the entire city of Cleveland a “no drone zone” during the 2016 Republican National Convention. To ease the confusion, the FAA has developed a smartphone app to check for restrictions or requirements in effect at the location where you want to fly. It is available at the following web address:


Be aware that the information above is provided for recreational, noncommercial use. If you’re using a drone as a realtor, wedding videographer or similar for-profit purposes, you’ll need to petition for an exemption under Section 333. Commercial operators of small UASs must be at least 16 years old and have a remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating, limit flights to daylight hours or twilight if the drone is equipped with an “anti-collision light” and only fly as far as the operator’s line of sight. New regulation also establishes height and speed restrictions and other operational limits, such as prohibiting flights over unprotected people on the ground who aren’t directly participating in the UAS operation. There is a process through which users can apply to have some of these restrictions waived.


Also be aware that, if your neighbor has a drone flying inappropriately overhead, you cannot just shoot it down or otherwise interfere with its flight. As it is classified as an aircraft by the National Transportation Safety Board, a drone is protected. As a result, any such actions are strictly illegal. In such an instance, contact your neighbor and try to work it out or call the police.


This all may seem daunting, but hey - you had to jump through some hoops to ride your motorcycle, too. Besides, it’s all important stuff to know to protect yourself, your property and those around you. Flying a drone can be a lot of fun. Following the FAA rules, local laws and using common sense will take you and your UAS a long way.

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