A Beginner’s Guide How To Use Personal Drones Legally

We’ve all seen impressive drone footage, whether that’s testing reusable rockets in the desert or a timeless birds-eye view of New York City, but if you’ve ever considered taking the plunge and forking out for one yourself, there are one or two things you should probably know first.

So, we’ve put together a little guide to the dos and don’ts to point you in the right direction with a little input from the relevant authorities in the US and UK.

Depending on where you are in the world, there are obviously different rules – just today, Spain published its own set of temporary regulations governing drone use. Don’t consider this legal advice, consider it a jump-off point for your own research; a little background info and some good old-fashioned common sense that probably could be applied wherever you are.


In the US, non-commercial drone use is still a mostly unregulated affair, although we wouldn’t necessarily expect it to stay that way indefinitely. Official regulations refer to all unmanned aerial drones as UAS (unmanned aerial systems) and don’t differentiate for personal drones.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is in charge of overseeing airspace in the US and the regulations governing it. With the increasing realization for the potential of drones, it’s already looking closely at how – and when – they should be permitted for use by businesses (or individuals for commercial activity) in the US.

However, if you’re hoping that Amazon’s delivery drones are just around the corner, you’ll be disapointed. The FAA ruled recently that drone use for business purposes will remain banned for the immediate future, but that hobbyist use is still OK for now, providing you follow a few rules.

Specifically, the drone must be kept in your line of sight and clearly observable from your position on the ground, along with a few less-specifically defined rules more applicable to model aircraft:

“Users are advised to avoid noise sensitive areas such as parks, schools, hospitals, and churches. Hobbyists are advised not to fly in the vicinity of spectators until they are confident that the model aircraft has been flight tested and proven airworthy.

Model aircraft should be flown below 400 feet above the surface to avoid other aircraft in flight. The FAA expects that hobbyists will operate these recreational model aircraft within visual line-of-sight.”

Obviously, there are a few differences between model aircraft and personal drones – the addition of a camera, in many cases, being just one – so make sure you look into any other applicable laws in your own State regarding the operation of drones or capturing of personal images.

It’s worth keeping in mind here that the classing of drones as business use still applies even if you’re using one over private land at less than 400 feet – even if that activity isn’t directly making you money. For example, a realtor using a drone to take aerial shots of a property is still in breach of the rules and cannot be operated under section 336 of Public Law 112-95 which covers hobbyists.

Two drones do in fact already have certification for commercial use – theScanEagle and Aeroenvironment’s Puma drone – but are only cleared for use in the Arctic. Neither of them are particularly like the sort of consumer drones available to purchase today anyway.

There also seems to be a general understanding that the FAA isn’t responsible for airspace under 400 feet, but this is incorrect, according to the organization. It has broad provisions that cover from the ground up.

“Consistent with its authority, the FAA presently has regulations that apply to the operation of all aircraft, whether manned or unmanned, and irrespective of the altitude at which the aircraft is operating,” it states.

The FAA was planning to look at the use of drones for commercial purposes again and potentially put something more concrete in writing next year, but according to a recent review of the FAA’s progress, it’s falling massively behind its target delivery dates for any regulation covering UAS.

Again, we wouldn’t be surprised to ultimately see some provisions that cover personal drone use too.

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