Do you own a drone? Or maybe you’re thinking about buying one?
I absolutely love my drone and highly recommend getting one. The aerial perspective is such an interesting way to see the world. Plus, it’s fun to fly.
But a downside of owning a drone is all the rules related to flying it. And many of those rules are confusing to understand. Where can you fly it? How high? Over what? And when?
To help you sort through the drone flying restrictions, I’ve explained the drone flying rules in the United States below. Soon you’ll be happily flying in no time!
Location, location, location
First up – where can you fly your drone? There are certain areas that are entirely off-limits or have significant drone restrictions.
1. Avoid airports & aircraft
With some caveats, you can’t fly your drone within 5 miles of an airport. And there are a surprising number of airports in the United States once you start looking around.
But what are those caveats, you ask? You can ask the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower for advance permission to fly your drone within five miles of an airport. There’s no guarantee that they’ll say yes, but the option is available to ask.
Even if you’re not close to an airport, you are required to avoid and yield the right-away to all manned aircraft.
2. Just say no to National Parks
Sadly, you can’t fly your drone in U.S. National Parks. That’s right – some of the prettiest areas in the U.S. are completely off-limits to drone flying.
3. But say yes to National Forests!
Say what? Yep – you can fly your drone in U.S. National Forests.
Why the difference from National Parks? Well, National Parks are managed by the Department of the Interior and National Forests are managed by the Department of Agriculture. Those two government agencies reached different conclusions on whether drones are allowable in their areas.
In some areas of the country, National Parks and National Forests are very close to each other. So while you can’t fly in National Parks, you can move next door to the National Forests and get similar images.
4. Forget about Washington, DC
Yes, Washington, DC has its own category of drone flying restrictions. Which is pretty sad for me as a Washington, DC-area resident.
You can’t fly your drone within 15 miles of National Airport, which is directly across the river from Washington, DC in Arlington, Virginia.
You’re allowed to fly your drone within the 15-30 mile radius around DC, but you must comply with the restrictions in the “Flying method” section below.
5. Skip stadiums & public events
You can’t fly your drone within three miles of a stadium starting one hour before and until one hour after any of the following events:
- Major League Baseball
- National Football League
- NCAA Division One Football
- NASCAR Sprint Cup, Indy Car, and Champ Series races
In general, you’re not allowed to fly over public events or stadiums with people.
6. Don’t fly over or by wildfires
Smokey the Bear does not want you interfering with wildfires.
Planes are often used to drop water or fire suppressant to put out wildfires. Because planes and drones don’t mix, planes will be grounded if a drone is sighted in the area of a fire. With no planes, critical water and fire suppressant will not be applied. And that means you and are drone are directly contributing to the spread of a fire.
7. Mickey Mouse is not a fan
Randomly, Disney theme parks are specifically called out in the FAA regulations regarding drones. Unsurprisingly, you can’t fly your drone in Disney theme parks.
Fun fact: Mickey Mouse and I have the same birthday (November 18th).
8. Okay, what else?
In addition to the restrictions above, you can’t fly your drone in these areas:
- Emergency or rescue operations (including wildfires and hurricanes)
- Security-related events like the United Nations General Assembly or presidential motorcades
- National landmarks (like the Statue of Liberty, Hoover Dam, and Mount Rushmore)
- Military bases
- Nuclear power plants
9. Is that everything?
Unfortunately, no – there are a number of restricted areas throughout the United States that local or federal agencies have determined are off-limits to drones.
10. How do I know if I’m in a no-drone zone?
Luckily, the FAA has created an app called B4UFLY that will use your GPS location to tell you whether you’re in a location with drone flying restrictions. The app used to be terrible, but the FAA partnered with a private sector company to completely re-do the app. You can download it for free from the Apple App Store or in the Google Play Store.
Flying method restrictions
Once you find a place where you can fly your drone, there are several restrictions on how you fly your drone.
11. Fly below 400 feet
When flying your drone, you can’t fly over 400 feet. For perspective, a football field including the end zones is 360 feet long.
12. Maintain Line of Sight
You must be able to keep a visual line of sight – that means see your drone – at all times. You’re allowed to have another person with you to act as the “visual operator”, but either you or your visual operator must see the drone at all times when it’s in flight.
13. Avoid people
You can’t fly over people who aren’t part of your drone operation. That means if you’re with friends and family, you can fly over them (with their permission), but you can’t fly over other people.
You should also respect privacy. You shouldn’t be filming someone else’s backyard or inside their windows. You’re not allowed to do this without your drone, so you definitely can’t do this with it.
14. Avoid animals
Although the FAA doesn’t require this (yet), it’s highly recommended that you avoid flying near or above animals.
Drones are loud and make strange movements. This can scare and stress animals. A scared or stressed animal can act in erratic ways that can be harmful to themselves, you, or someone nearby.
Plus, any rules that apply to animals in any other aspect of your life still apply to drones. If you’re not allowed to get within a certain distance of a bald eagle’s nest or a turtle hatch site, those requirements apply to your drone as well.
15. Don’t fly when it’s dark
You’re not allowed to fly when it’s dark outside. The FAA considers it to be dark until 30 minutes before sunrise and starting 30 minutes after sunset.
16. Apply life rules
All the rules that apply to your day-to-day life – not doing anything reckless or careless, not operating something while impaired, following the law – also apply while flying a drone. That may seem obvious, but some people seem to forget this when they have a remote in their hand.
We have a duty as drone operators to be responsible members of the community. Plus, we want to make sure that we don’t spoil the opportunity we’ve been given to fly these awesome devices. If we apply the restrictions above, we can help create an environment where drones are viewed in a positive light and help avoid having any new restrictions applied to drones.
I hope this article helped clarify some of the drone flying rules for you. Happy flying!