Of all the states in America, the one with the highest rate of tourism is California. Between its pristine beaches, gorgeous mountains, open wilderness, and countless National Parks, it’s no wonder so many people are attracted to the Golden State. If you want to fly your drone in Cali, are you legally allowed to do so?
Drones are allowed in California, but drone pilots are subjected to a long list of state and local laws as well as federal regulations.
Be prepared before you fly your drone here.
Many drone laws bar you from flying in certain areas but some rules pertain to taking photos of people without their permission.
In this in-depth guide, we’ll walk you through all the drone laws in California so you can stay abreast of what’s what and fly safely and legally.
The great state of California enforces drone laws on a federal, state, and local level.
This section will guide you through the pertinent laws.
All courses offered by Pilot Institute are taught by remote pilots, flight instructors, FAA commercial pilots, and other certified professionals.
Federal Level Drone Laws
Let’s begin with the California drone laws on a federal level. These laws are instituted by the United State federal government and apply to those who fly their drones governmentally (and otherwise professionally), recreationally, and commercially.
Fire departments, police departments, and other government employees flying a drone in California are required to produce a Certificate of Authorization or COA when using their UAVs. The COA authorizes drone use in these situations.
Furthermore, all governmental and professional drone pilots must be current on their Part 107 rules as issued by the Federal Aviation Administration or FAA.
Recreational drone pilots are those who will not fly their drones in California in a professional capacity and will earn no money. They’re hobbyists only.
Well, hobbyist or not, you’re still expected to be current on the FAA Part 107 rules just as any other drone pilot would be.
Further, you have to register your drone if it weighs more than 0.55 pounds, which all but toy drones will. The registration fee is $5, and you can do the registration through the FAA for convenience.
That’s not all. Recreational drone pilots are also required to take a drone knowledge test known as The Recreational UAS Safety Test or TRUST.
The TRUST exam is free to take. You can take it online through an approved test administrator.
When taking the test, if you answer a question incorrectly, you can go back and correct it, and you can earn a perfect score on the test by the time you’ve gone through it. You’ll then earn your completion certificate, which you should download, print, and carry on your person.
The TRUST certificate lasts for life unless you happen to lose your certificate. Then you have to take the exam again.
TRUST is a collaboration between the FAA and industry to provide TRUST and educational safety material to Recreational Flyers.
That brings us to commercial drone pilots. A commercial drone pilot is not a government employee but will use their drone in California for profit, such as in real estate or news photography and videography.
As has been the case the entire time, you’ll have to know the FAA’s Part 107 rules. Unlike recreational drone pilots, federal drone law mandates that commercial drone pilots prove their proficiency in Part 107 rules by taking an exam.
You cannot legally fly your drone in a commercial capacity without taking the Part 107 exam. Unlike the TRUST test, the Part 107 exam is not free. You also cannot take the test online but you must go to a physical Testing Center.
We also have an informative guide on earning your drone license in California that you should check out for more in-depth details.
We also have plenty of reviews of online drone schools on the blog if you need to do some Part 107 exam prep ahead of the real test.
If you pass the test, then you will receive your remote pilot certificate, which is good for two years from the date it’s issued. Then you must take the Part 107 exam again if you want to continue using your drone in a commercial capacity.
California – State Level Drone Laws
Additionally, California drone usage is governed by a bevy of state laws that have been passed between 2015 and 2020 (as of this writing). Let’s go over each law now.
Orange Coast Beaches (PO 925-19-32 // 2019)
This law makes it illegal to use a drone in any way (no launching, landing, or flying) in any park throughout the Orange Coast District.
That district includes San Onofre State Beach, San Clemente State Beach, Doheny State Beach, Crystal Cove State Park, Corona del Mar State Beach, Huntington State Beach, and Bolsa Chica State Beach.
California Department of Parks & Regulations (Cal. Code Regs. Title 14, §4351) // 2015
The next drone law is the California Department of Parks & Regulations (Cal. Code Regs. Title 14, §4351).
Under this law, “motorized equipment (including UASs)” is banned from natural preserves, cultural preserves, and wilderness areas.
You’re also barred from the following:
- Photographing people “in areas where there is an expectation of privacy without the individual’s permission”
- Conducting surveillance with your drone
- Operating your drone recklessly or carelessly
- Flying “near or over sensitive infrastructure or property,” which includes roadways with heavy traffic, correctional facilities, water treatment facilities, and power stations
- Using a drone that weighs over 55 pounds
- Flying your drone when under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol
- Flying your drone in reduced visibility, high winds, or other inclement weather
- Flying your drone near stadiums or people
- Flying your drone within five miles of an airport (“unless you contact the airport and control tower before flying”)
- Getting too close to manned aircraft
- Flying your drone outside of the visual line of sight
- Flying your drone over 400 feet
Further, commercial drone pilots must have either a Special Airworthiness Certificate or a Section 333 Exemption per this state rule.
AB 2655 // 2020
AB 2655 “prohibits a reproduction of any kind of photography of the body, or any portion of the body, of a deceased person, taken by or for the coroner at the scene of death or in the course of a post mortem examination or autopsy, from being made or disseminated.”
In other words, if you ever have the misfortune of seeing a corpse when flying your drone in California, do not photograph it or take any video footage.
AB 856 // 2015
The AB 856 law is concerned with a person’s privacy. Drone pilots cannot go on private property unless they have permission.
AB 1680 // 2016
First responders, firefighters, and police officers do life-saving work that should never be disrupted. That’s why AB 1680 was put into law.
What this law boils down to is that getting in the way of firefighters, police officers, or first responders in California will result in a misdemeanor charge. This of course includes anyone who’s getting in the way with their drone.
A person, according to the law, “shall include a person, regardless of his or her location, who operators or uses an unmanned aerial vehicle, remote piloted aircraft, or drone that is at the scene of an emergency.”
SB 807 // 2016
The last applicable state law in California is SB 807. This law states that if a first responder is busy doing their job and saving lives and your drone happens to be collateral damage in the process, the first responder is not liable to pay for your damaged drone, be that repairs or a replacement.
Local Level Drone Laws in California
If you thought California had a lot of drone laws on the state level, wait until you see all the local laws. Here is an overview.
City of Napa – Municipal Code 12.36.130
According to the Municipal Code 12.36.130 for the city of Napa, you cannot operate a drone in any “city park, playground, tot lot or other park or playground facility, except in areas set aside for those specific activities and with authorization and permit issued by the Director of Community Resources.”
City of Rancho Palos Verde – Municipal Ordinance // 1991
In place since 1991, the municipal ordinance for Rancho Palos Verde prohibits drone usage on property the city owns. You can use your drone in any designated area.
National Parks – Municipal Ordinance // 1984
Another long-standing municipal ordinance applies to California’s National Parks and has been in effect since 1984.
You cannot use your drone in any of Cali’s city parks unless there are designated areas for such activities.
Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority – Park Ordinance // 2018
The Mountains Recreational & Conservation Authority has its own park ordinance.
In § 3. 17. Flight, Aircrafts and Drones., (a) Motorized or radio-controlled models., the rule states that “No person shall cause any motorized or radio-controlled model to enter or fly in, on or above parkland except in areas designated for such use, except by permit from the Executive Officer or Executive Officer’s designee.”
City of Malibu – Filming Permit
Were you hoping to fly your drone and take some dreamy footage in Malibu? Who wouldn’t want to?
Well, per this local law, you’d need a permit. Those permits are usually granted for real estate work.
City of La Mesa – Municipal Ordinance // 2005
In La Mesa, section 9.08.150 – Model aircraft prohibited., the municipal ordinance states that “No individual or group of individuals shall fly or operate any type of model aircraft, including rockets, whether motorized or nonmotorized, with or without remote control in any city park, except for rubberband-powered aircraft, or a hand-launched, nonremote-controlled model glider, each weighing three ounces or less.”
La Mesa parks are off-limits then!
Orange County Parks
Orange County’s ordinance paints a similar picture. In most parks across Orange County, you cannot fly your drone, but the rule does not apply to every park.
MidPeninsula Regional Open Space District Lands – Regulations Sec. 409.4 // 2018
Section 409.4 of the MidPeninsula Regional Open Space District Lands regulations bans the usage of model aircraft, automobiles, boats, model airplanes, and drones “on, over, or into any portion of District Lands or Water Areas of the District, except in Designated Areas, or by written permit.”
Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority – Regulations Sec. 11.01.01 // 2018
The Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority – Regulations Sec. 11.01.01 is concerned with preserving California’s natural resources and wildlife as well as its peace and quiet.
That’s why you cannot launch a drone, fly one, or land one on Authority Land unless you have a permit.
San Francisco – Park Code Sec. 3.09 // 1981
Since 1981, San Francisco’s Park Code Sec. 3.09 bans drone users from flying their UAVs in San Fran parks unless they have Recreation and Park Department permission.
Sacramento County – County Code 9.36.068 // 2018
County Code 9.36.068 has applied to Sacramento County since 2018. Under that code, the county bans drones in the parks unless the drone operator has permission from the Director or is using their drone in a designated area.
City of Hermosa Beach – Ordinance 16-1363 // 2016
If you hope to fly your drone in Hermosa Beach, Ordinance 16-1363 requires you to get a permit. The permit lasts for a year and is renewable after a year.
You’ll be given an identification number and permit sticker, both of which should go directly on your drone “in a conspicuous location on the earth-facing surface of the device and in a manner clearly visible from the ground.”
Even though you can fly your drone, you’re still barred from flying outside of the visual line of sight, interrupting manned aircraft, flying at night, flying over 400 feet high, or launching or landing your drone within 25 feet of someone else.
Town of Calabasas – Municipal Ordinance // 2017
Calabasas’ municipal ordinance allows authorities to issue a misdemeanor if you break FAA rules when flying your drone.
City of Yorba Linda – Municipal Ordinance // 2017
In Yorba Linda, the municipal ordinance mandates that you cannot launch or land your drone within 500 feet of an emergency response or special event unless you have a temporary-use permit from the city.
Further, you can’t launch or land your drone within 25 feet of another person or outside of your own visual line of sight.
Town of Los Alamitos – Municipal Ordinance // 2018
Finally, there’s the municipal ordinance in Los Alamitos, which limits city drone usage.
California Drone Flight FAQs
Do you still have a couple of questions about flying your drone in California? What about flying a drone in the Yosemite National Park? Is it possible?
Can I fly a drone in a California Public Park?
As the last section illustrates amply, many cities and towns throughout California bar drone use in parks. There are usually two exceptions; you either need a permit or you can fly in a clearly marked designated area.
Whether these parks have a designated area for drone use varies on a case-by-case basis.
To be sure whether you can fly your drone in the Cali public park you were thinking of visiting, we’d suggest contacting their parks and rec association and asking.
Can I fly a drone in a California State Park?
The list of California state parks is truly astounding. From Angel Island State Park to D. L. Bliss State Park, Leo Carrillo State Park, Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park, and Wildwood Canyon, the list goes on and on.
According to the California Department of Parks and Recreation, drones are generally not allowed in state parks due to the risks of destruction to plants, peace and quiet disturbances, wildlife disturbances, and violating posted orders.
Again, defer to the parks and rec association to confirm whether your drone is allowed before you pack up for a day of adventuring in a California state park!
California is one of the most naturally beautiful states in the country, and it’s also one that receives a lot of tourists, more so than the rest of the US. Thus, the drone laws here are plentiful and strict, as they should be.
If you remember to avoid flying your drone in public or state parks unless you know it’s allowed, then you should be in the clear!
Part 107 rules (link)
Unmanned Aircraft System (Drones) in State Parks (link)
Bill Text – AB-2655 Invasion of privacy: first responders (link)
Bill Text – AB-856 Invasion of privacy (link)
AB 1680 (link)
SB 807 (link)
Municipal Code 12.36.130 (link)
Park ordinance (link)
Municode Library (link)
Park Rules | OC Parks (link)
MidPeninsula Regional Open Space District Lands regulations (link)
Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority – Regulations Sec. 11.01.01 (link)
Sacramento County, California County Code (link)
Ordinance 16-1363 (link)
Calabasas municipal ordinance (link)
Yorba Linda municipal ordinance (link)
FAQs • Los Alamitos, CA • CivicEngage (link)
No Drone Zone (link)