Drones have become a hobby of the modern age! Lightweight and easily transportable, with a user-friendly interface, they are perfect for taking breathtaking pictures and videos from a new, birds-eye perspective. But, along with the boom in drone popularity, the FAA has made a few regulations that all drone pilots and owners need to follow. Are you aware that you might need to have a drone pilot’s license for some activities you are using your drone for?
All drones used for commercial purposes require their owner to obtain a valid drone pilot’s license. If you are using a drone solely for the purpose of recreation, you are exempt from this rule. Also, every drone needs to be registered and to have a registration number, regardless of its use.
Bear in mind that flying a drone is more complex than it might seem and that, besides obtaining a pilot license and drone registration, it means you’ll need to constantly update your knowledge on the rules and requirements introduced by the FAA. I’ll explain this more in detail further on in the article.
Do All Drones Require a License?
It’s not the drone that determines the license requirement, but the way the operator is using it. The answer to this question depends on what you are using your drone for – are you using it for commercial or recreational purposes. Separating the difference between these two is not as straightforward as it may seem, and thus can trick you very easily. If your drone is going to be used for commercial purposes, then you need to obtain a license and follow specific rules I’ll talk more about in just a bit.
To get a license, you will need to apply through the FAA website, pay a non-refundable fee and pass a 60-item Part 107 knowledge test. This is for the FAA to ensure that you are familiar with all rules and regulations that are described in the FAA’s Small UAS Part 107 legislation. The Part 107 test cannot be taken online, but must be taken at a certified FAA testing center.
Let me make a small diversion and explain the meaning of the commercial use of drones. If you, for example, take pictures and intend to use them only as a part of your personal archive, to satisfy your hobby – that would be considered as fun or recreational use. But, if you intend to sell those pictures or use them to enhance a business in any possible way (promotions, campaigns, website photos, YouTube channel), that would be considered as commercial use.
Please note that the purpose of every flight has to be determined at the point of take-off, and cannot be changed later on. For example, if you decide to take a recreational flight during which you captured a few wonderful pictures and a few months later you decide to sell them, promote them or use them to enhance any business, it would be considered illegal. The fines for this kind of activity, if discovered by the FAA, go up to $35,000!
Another related topic is the registration of the drone itself with the FAA. According to Part 107 of the FAA’s Small UAS rule, every drone heavier than 250g needs to be registered, even if you are using your drone just for fun. After paying a small fee of $5 you get an identification number that needs to be placed on the drone exterior. Under this number you can use as many drones as you like – just be careful not to miss labeling one of them.
I recommend using printable stickers and making them yourself. There are plenty of portable printers on Amazon available. This way you can customize the drone exterior by choosing the sticker design and also placing it where it really enhances the drone’s overall looks.
If you are registering your drone for recreational purposes, the registration is valid for 3 years. If you are registering it for commercial use, you must renew registration every 3 years as well, and each drone will get a unique registration number.
Drones You Can Fly Without a License
Any type of drone you intend to use for fun can be flown without a license! But, this doesn’t mean that you are exempt from following the FAA’s rules. All the rules stated in Part 107 are there to ensure the safety of all aircraft that can be found in the air space.
But, just as with everything else in life, rules can also be very fluid and can change rapidly. My advice is to keep yourself up to date with all regulations, especially when it comes to drones which can sometimes be found in the grey area due to the fact that this topic hasn’t been regulated until recently, and the rules have changed several times in the past few years.
The latest updates indicate that the FAA will eventually require all recreational pilots to take two tests – a safety test and an aeronautical knowledge test. It is still unclear how this will be performed, but it is sure that passing these two tests will only grant you a permit to fly the drones for fun – they will not be enough for you to get a license.
Also, it is still unclear whether there will be any exemptions or what the fines would be if you don’t pass the test, but choose to fly the drone anyway. The plan was to implement this regulation at the beginning of 2020, but it was delayed due to the situation with the global pandemic.
Another thing you should keep in mind – as aforementioned, any drone with a take-off weight greater than 250g needs to be registered and marked with its unique registration number. But, there is one standout model on the market (besides toy drones) that doesn’t fall into this category.
It is the DJI Mavic Mini and Mini 2 drone. This drone has opened a path to a whole new category of drone production – lightweight drones that will save you the hassle of FAA registration.
Just 1g away from the preset margin of 250g, the Mavic Mini (and Mini 2) drone is perfect for beginners and people like me who like to use the drone as a hobby – to play around and explore their surroundings from a bird’s-eye perspective.
Being as small as it is means that with the Mavic Mini you have to make some compromises – unlike the big brother Mavic Air, the smaller model does not come with front or rear obstacle sensors, and the picture and video quality is considerably lower if compared to other models.
Nonetheless, the Mavic Mini is the first fully functional camera drone ever made that dodges the FAA registration requirement. It’s great to start with; later on you can easily switch to more advanced (and heavier) models when you familiarize yourself with all limitations and requirements.
» MORE: DJI Mini 2 Review
How High Can You Fly a Drone Without a License?
Flying a drone is not dependent on possession of a license as explained before. Regardless of the purpose of your drone flight, there is a 400ft threshold you need to be aware of.
Prohibition of flying over 400ft is a matter of safety. The minimum cruising altitude of manned aircraft is 500ft. The difference of 100ft between these two lines is there to act as a buffer and to ensure a safe distance is maintained at all times, as well as to avoid any possible interference between airplanes, helicopters and drones, and other unmanned devices in the air. Any collision between a drone and an aircraft could lead to fatal consequences.
Just keep it under 400ft to be safe – anyways you can make some really awesome captions even at that height! And in fact, your best shots are going to come from a much lower altitude anyway.
But, beware that height is not the only limitation you need to consider. The FAA has published a whole list of rules you need to abide by when flying a drone. You should avoid crowded places, flying over people, flying over emergency situations (like a fire, for example), flying above maximum height (400ft), and flying into restricted and controlled air spaces.
Restricted airspaces like airports must be avoided at all times. Believe it or not, in 2016 in Dubai a single drone shut down the whole airport for over an hour, causing multiple diversions and millions in costs! This is because unidentified objects like drones are considered a threat in areas where security is taken very seriously. Following this incident, Dubai has enforced a rule saying no drones are allowed within 5km around the airport premises, and most of the airports in the world have done the same.
Also, before flying your drone over a new area, be sure you are familiar with specific limitations that location might have. Flying over Washington DC or national parks is forbidden and might get you into some real hot water.
What Happens If You Fly a Drone Without a Remote Pilot Certificate?
If you are flying your drone just to get a few great snaps and to have fun – absolutely nothing. As already explained, flying without a license is totally fine if the flight is recreational.
But, let’s put you in a situation where you have decided to use a drone for commercial purposes, meaning you intend to sell the material captured by the drone afterward. Also, you like living on the edge and you decide not to get a remote pilot license, thinking playing on the naughty side will come without any consequences. This “harmless” idea could cost you $1,100 in fines only for not having the license!
To avoid this unnecessary cost, the easiest way is to just obtain a Part 107 license. The application process is very straightforward and the money you will spend on obtaining a license will keep you out of trouble and away from paying enormous fines.
If you’re ready to take the next step and get a drone license, check out our recommended Part 107 training classes.