Here is today’s question: Is private drone use legal in the United States?

You know what a “drone” is, right? In the context I want to talk about, it is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) which is also called an unmanned aircraft system (UAS). Some are guided by onboard computers, but drones that are radio controlled by a “pilot” on the ground are far more common.

As I write this in January, 2014, there is quite a buzz about drones. Amazon plans to make deliveries with them, and some experts predict, with only slight exaggeration, that before too long the skies will be dark with all the drones that will be flying. Last year, acting FAA chairman Michael Hurta estimated that there could be close to 30,000 private drones sharing the air with regular manned aircraft by 2020. I think he underestimates.

Many think of drones only in the context of their military uses, or their use for surveillance. However, there are many exciting ways that drones will benefit us, including traffic monitoring and control, wildlife research, agriculture, disaster relief, firefighting, mapping, surveying and journalism.

Like it or not, and in spite of our understandable privacy concerns, drones are coming.

Actually, they are here now and anyone with a credit card can purchase one. Prices for consumer-type drones range from $200, or even less, to about $2,000. In this price range, you can purchase a drone that will fly somewhere between a few minutes and one-half hour.

This explosion of interest leads to the question of whether private drone use is legal in the United States now.

It will take a little more than the usual 2 minutes to read this article, but if you would like to learn more about this fascinating and timely topic, read on.

Is Private Drone Use Legal In The United States?

Yes, provided that (1) you do not fly above 400 feet, (2) or within 3 miles of an airport (without telling airport personnel) and (3) you do not fly commercially.

Basically, these are the rules that apply to model aircraft. (If you need the actual authority, recreational use of airspace is covered by FAA Advisory Circular (AC) 91-57 which was written way back in 1981.)

Can I Fly A Drone With A Camera On It?

As I just discussed, you cannot fly a drone commercially with or without a camera.

However, if you are flying your aircraft under the recreational rules, you may use a camera.

Of course, this does not mean you can invade someone’s privacy, disturb the peace or violate any other ground-level laws.

How Do I Get FAA Approval To Fly A Drone Commercially Or Above 400 Feet?

To get approval to fly in regulated airspace or to fly commercially, you must get a Certificate of Authorization (CoA) from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

However – and this is the catch – the process for getting CoAs is not open to individuals at this point.

So far, the FAA has issued several hundred CoAs to public entities such as government agencies, fire departments, police and some universities You may remember that Massachusetts police used a drone when apprehending one of the Boston Marathon bombers in 2013.

But no CoAs are being issued to “civilian” users.

What Will Happen If I Violate FAA Rules?

If you violate the FAA rules, you will probably receive a “cease and desist” notice from them. The FAA has issued dozens of such orders.

Fines are also possible, especially if you operate your drone recklessly. The FAA fined a Virginia photographer $10,000 for what they said was recklessly flying his drone over the University of Virginia which had hired him to make photos. The photographer has sued the FAA and that case is pending.

When Will Commercial Drone Use And Flying Above 400 Feet Be Authorized?

Congress has instructed the FAA to formulate regulations for drone use by 2015; and, in furtherance of that edict, the FAA has established six locations throughout the country to do testing and provide data that will be used to establish the UAV regulations.

There obviously is a need for regulations that deal with safety and privacy, among other things.

Seven states (as of January, 2014) have passed drone restrictions. In Illinois, Florida, Montana and Tennessee, the limitations mostly protect individual privacy rights, require that law enforcement obtain warrants when using drones and prohibiting images collected from them from being used in court. Virginia has passed a two-year moratorium on drone use by law enforcement so it can study the privacy implications. Only Texas and Idaho have restricted drone use by private citizens as well as public entities, however the Texas law has many exceptions.

So, for now, you can fly your drone below 400 feet as a hobby, but you can’t fly it higher or commercially.

TIP: If you fly a drone, I suggest that you obtain liability insurance in case your aircraft falls or otherwise harms a person or property.

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**This article is designed to provide helpful information that can be read within 2 minutes. It is neither a full explanation of this subject nor legal advice. To learn more, and to receive legal advice on which you can rely, contact me or another lawyer.

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