FAA regulates drones (unmanned aircraft) for safety

Ohio State Bar Association

Q: What are drones?

A: Drones are unmanned aircraft flown either remotely by pilots or autonomously by onboard computers. They also are known as “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAV). The term “unmanned aircraft systems” (UAS) more broadly refers to unmanned aircraft together with “associated elements (including communication links and the components that control the unmanned aircraft) that are required for the pilot in command to operate safely and efficiently in the national airspace system.” (See Section 331(9), FAA Modernization Act, Pub. Law 112-95.)

Q: Are there any safety regulations for drones?

A: Yes. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates drones for safety. In 2012, Congress instructed the FAA to develop a plan to integrate unmanned aircraft into U.S. airspace. Although the FAA has not met the various deadlines imposed by Congress as part of that process, it has adopted interim measures. In addition, various state and local governments have adopted a number of laws, regulations and policies addressing the use of drones.

For example, recreational users must keep their drones within eyesight, fly below 400 feet, and cannot fly within five miles of an airport without first getting permission from the control tower. The FAA is also beta-testing a Smartphone app, B4UFly, which helps unmanned aircraft operators determine whether there are any restrictions or requirements in effect at the location where they want to fly. In addition, the FAA is partnering with industry associations to develop additional safety guidelines, policies and regulations.

Q: Do I need FAA approval to fly a drone?

A: It depends. If you are flying drones for hobby or recreational use, then you do not need FAA approval. However, you may need to register your drone with the Department of Transportation. On October 19, 2015, government officials announced that a task force would be created to work out the details of a new requirement to register all drones. On December 14, 2015, the FAA issued a press release that announced a web-based registration process for “small unmanned aircraft” (i.e., weighs less than 55 pounds). Registrants must provide their name, home and email address to receive a Certificate of Aircraft Registration/Proof of Ownership, including a unique identification number. Registration is good for three years. If you are flying drones for a commercial purpose, (i.e., to make money), then you must get FAA approval.

Q: What does the FAA consider a hobby or recreational use?

A: According to the FAA, the following uses are “hobby or recreational uses”: (1) “flying model aircraft at the local model aircraft club”; (2) “taking photographs with a model aircraft for personal use”; (3) “using a model aircraft to move a box from point to point without any kind of compensation”; and (4) “viewing a field to determine whether crops need water when they are grown for personal enjoyment.”

Q: What does the FAA consider commercial use?

A: The FAA has stated that the following uses are considered commercial: (1) “receiving money for demonstrating aerobatics with a model aircraft”; (2) “a realtor using a model aircraft to photograph a property that he is trying to sell and using the photos in the property real estate listing”; (3) “a person photographing a property or event and selling the photos to someone else”; (4) “delivering packages to people for a fee”; and (5) “determining whether crops need to be watered that are grown as part of commercial farming operation.” In addition, in May 2015, the FAA issued a memorandum explaining how and when commercial news media may use drones to gather news.

Q: What FAA approval do I need to fly a drone for a commercial purpose?

A: Although the FAA has not adopted final rules for commercial use of small drones (i.e., unmanned aircraft weighing no more than 55 pounds), the agency currently allows holders of “Section 333 exemptions” to fly small drones for commercial purposes. The agency issues Certificates of Waiver or Authorization for flights at or below 200 feet to Section 333 exemption holders who (1) operate during daytime visual flight rules, (2) operate within visual line of slight of pilots, and (3) remain certain distances away from airports and outside restricted airspaces, such as major cities.

Q: Do I need to register my drone?

A: Maybe. As mentioned above, the FAA formed a task force to propose a registration system for all drones, including those flown for hobby and recreational purposes, and rules regarding registration of small UAS were announced in mid-December.


This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was prepared by OSBA members Erin E. Rhinehart and Christopher C. Hollon, attorneys with Faruki Ireland & Cox P.L.L., a commercial litigation and trial practice firm with offices in Dayton and Cincinnati. Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from an attorney.

Ohio State Bar Association