The Law of Drones

There is a whole new world when it comes to drones. Laws, of course, play a part in that world. Here is all you need to know.

Unmanned drone, Onyxstart Fox C8-XT. (Image via Wikipedia, CC 4.0)

WASHINGTON, February 7, 2016 — Did you get a drone as a present for Christmas? Drones are big business: the Consumer Electronics Association projects the market to grow to $1 billion by 2018.

Do you believe it is illegal to fly your little toy? Have you been influenced by today’s headlines and TV stories reciting drone accidents and crimes being committed by drone owners?

Drones have come to mean any flying craft of the “model aircraft” type, and they commonly weigh less than 55 pounds. Many non-drone folks don’t really know what a drone is; this is because until about September, 2014, what most of us saw were military drones, as nearly every news story on civilian drones used inaccurate photographs and videos.

Drones have generated fun, concern, harm and disagreement from many quarters. Issues of safety and privacy dominate the discussions.

Discussions aplenty take place at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), but those folks do not make the laws regarding these flying Bullwinkles. In fact, the FAA cannot make laws – it can only develop guidelines and regulations. Further, there is no currently enforceable federal statute or regulation that applies to the general public other than

(1) a law that applies to all aircraft, providing that:

No person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another; and

(2) a registration requirement.

In 2012, The FAA Modernization and Reform Act was passed as a collection of orders from Congress to the FAA, dictating what the FAA may and may not do. The gist of the law is that the FAA cannot make any rule or regulation regarding drones if:

  • The drone is flown strictly for hobby or recreational use
  • It is operated within community safety guidelines
  • It weighs less than 55 pounds
  • It is operated in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to manned aircraft; and
  • The operator gives advance notice to airport operators and air traffic controllers when the drone will be flown within 5 miles of an airport.

So that should cover most of us. Fly your drone safely and use common sense, and you’ll avoid a nasty-gram from the FAA.

There are, however, as one might guess, many guidelines (not enforceable).

For example, the FAA says drones should not fly above 400 feet. Additionally, they should be kept in the operator’s line of sight at all times, and they must be operated safely, not near pedestrians, wildlife, or buildings.

There is a new registration requirement (effective December 21, 2015) you must file if your drone weighs more than half of a pound. You must register by February 19, 2016. If you haven’t flown your drone yet, you are required to register it before you do so. Failure to register will subject you to up to $27,500 in civil penalties, up to $250,000 in criminal fines, and up to three years in prison.

Registration is $5, and there is an online registration system: FAA Drone Registration.

There are, of course, always new proposals being considered for safety. Some of these would impose requirements such as the following:

  • Aeronautical knowledge testing must be renewed every 24 months
  • Flights must take place during daylight hours
  • Operators must be 17 years old, pass an aeronautical knowledge test, hold an FAA UAS operator certificate and pass a TSA background check
  • Operators must ensure their aircraft are safe for flight
  • Operators must assess weather conditions, airspace restrictions and the location of people to lessen risks
  • Objects cannot be dropped from the drone
  • The drone cannot fly faster than 100 mph

While discussions about regulations continue, there are laws that are currently in effect, such as these:

It is illegal to shoot down a drone, as good as that may feel. Even if the drone is hovering in your back yard. A New Jersey man who shot down a drone was arrested and a California man had to reimburse the owner of a drone he plucked out of the sky. Despite this no-shoot law, last September, an Idaho company introduced Drone Munition, a “12 gauge 3-inch shot shell solution to drone-based privacy concerns and terror.”

Law professor Michael Froomkin argues that self-defense should be permissible against drones, because we don’t know their capabilities. People have mounted guns on drones. This legal theory has not been tested in court.

Using a drone to spy on someone is illegal. Drones can be equipped with long range listening devices. There is no First Amendment right to drone surveillance. Any photos or videos taken can be an invasion of privacy.

Local ordinances and state laws are aplenty concerning nuisance and noise interference. Operating a drone that is too noisy can be against the law.

It is illegal to fly a drone in National Parks, near a stadium, or near the White House. Flying in a park can land you a $5000 fine and possibly six months in jail. A New York City teacher was arrested last September when his drone crashed into an empty seating area during a match at the U.S. Open tennis tournament in Queens.

In Washington last May a man was arrested for trying to fly his drone over the Obama’s digs.

You cannot fly your drone to deliver drugs to prisoners. Attempts in Maryland, Ohio and South Carolina resulted in arrests.

On the other hand, you may join Marque Cornblatt’s Aerial Sports League, where, yes, you can place your drone into battle against other drones. In 2014, Cornblatt founded the Game of Drones (don’t you love the title?), a drone-sales and fighting league that has now taken competitions to numerous U.S. venues, all in covered barns or other protected locations. Tournaments are regulated and contestants compete on a points system. Beginning with three points, one point is deducted each time the drone hits the ground. If the drone can’t get up (visions of Rocky) within 90 seconds, the drone is out. Last drone flying wins.

Cornblatt is on to something. Boy Scout and church groups regularly attend to watch these, and are often involved in the action.Cornblatt says “we see Game of Drones becoming the drones sports company worldwide with name recognition on par with X Games or NASCAR.”

Finally, for those entrepreneurs among you, the FAA, sadly, has issued an all-out ban on drones used for commercial purposes.

Still no baggage fees.

Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980.  He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website

His book “The 8 Critical Things Your Auto Accident Attorney Won’t Tell You” can be instantly downloaded, for free, on his website:

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