3D Robotics

Regulatory FAQ

[These are Frequently Asked Questions about the current state of UAV regulation in the US. Regulations elsewhere are different, but here is a similar post giving the rules for Canada.]

Q: Are UAVs legal in the United States?

A: Under certain conditions, they are. There are two ways to legally fly Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in the "National Airspace", which is to say all but certain restricted areas: 1) Get a Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA, a process that can take months or more. 2) Fly under exemptions granted to non-commercial ("recreational") flyers who adhere to certain restrictions. More detail is here.

Q) What are those restrictions for non-commercial UAVs flying without a COA?

A: You MUST do the following: 1) Stay below 400ft. 2) Maintain a "pilot in control", which is to say that you must always be able to take manual control and fly the aircraft out of danger (in general, that means maintaining line-of-sight contact with the aircraft). 3) Stay away from built-up areas. More detail is here.

Q) Who can apply for a COA?

A: Typically only government agencies (Law enforcement, Civil government, etc). This is not an option for a private individual.

Q) I've heard that the FAA doesn't allow unmanned aircraft with cameras and/or GPS. True?

A) No. Commercial use of aircraft with cameras is regulated as above, but aircraft flying under the recreational exemption may use cameras and GPS.

Q) What countries have more relaxed UAV regulations?

A) Australia and New Zealand are famously progressive in their UAV policies. Other countries, such as Mexico, have been know to be relatively friendly, too.

Q) What are the prospects for FAA regulations that allow amateur UAVs more freedom?

A) There is currently a rulemaking proceeding that aims to improve the regulations on UAVs. It will take a while; indeed, you shouldn't hope for anything before 2010-2012. There may be a special category for UAVs under 4 pounds, which may be more lightly regulated. But then again there may not. It's all up in the air, so to speak, and the forces that oppose amateur or commercial UAVs in the National Airspace are many and powerful. Speak up!

Q) What about universities and other students. Any exemptions for them?

A) Not automatically. But they may be able to get COAs more easily if they are federally funded and go through that agency.

Q) What if I break the rules?

A) Well, for starters, we don't want to hear about it here! We realize, of course, that people break the rules all the time on the assumption that if they use good judgment and stay away from built-up areas, they won't be caught. That may indeed be the case, but it will only take one cowboy flying a UAV into an airport landing zone and endangering civil aviation to set our hobby back by decades. So please don't do it! (Plus you could go to jail)

Q) Okay, I'm obeying all the rules. Are there any other guidelines for safe and responsible UAV operations?

A) Yes. RCAPA (the RC aerial photography association) has some excellent guidelines that are a great place to start.

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  • Don,

    My understanding is the FAA claims jurisdiction anywhere in the National Air Space, including paper airplanes in tunnels.

    It would seem to me flight in any enclosed structure (gym, Astro-Dome, Porta-Potty, etc.) would not be within FAA jurisdiction and you would be free to operate commercially in such places, while of course exercising your usual good judgement and due diligence.

    Tell'me I said it is OK!

    All the best.
  • My understanding (not verified legally) is that commercial use is only prohibited in "controlled airspace", i.e. outdoors. If I contain my drones in a plastic box (or even a mesh net as they did at CES), I should be following the letter of the law and abiding by the proposed regulations for commercial use. I'm not 1) endangering anyone 2) intruding on public airspace 3) engaging in reckless behavior. Comments?

  • http://youtu.be/3s6OskHPHy8

    CAAP Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines passes memorandum on UAV,

    and regulating that all RC and UAV must need clearance from air traffic to fly BELOW 400 feet........

  • Hello all,

    Noticed the "rulemaking proceeding" link in the Regulatory FAQ is a dead end.

    Someone please spare me Google time send me in the right direction.

  • Looks like they are considering permits to shoot drones in Colorado;



  • The low-altitude airspace over Niagara Falls is reserved for chartered sightseeing tours. I think that describes FPV. In fact, it's legal to fly over almost all federal land. In the U.S., overflight rights are mostly unrelated to land ownership.

    David's video clearly shows a failure, but the severity of that failure is literally zero. The river was in no danger. Those vandal-proof parks buildings were in no danger. They obviously chose to perform the flight during the most miserable winter weather possible to limit onlookers. Judging solely from the onboard video, ignoring David's captions and the happenings on the ground, you wouldn't know that anything was unintentional. He performed essentially the same maneuvers the next day, even closer to the falls. In fact, the ground video could have been completely faked to make an interesting story out of otherwise uneventful FPV footage. (Chad does run a video production company.)

    My point is, safety is not the same thing as legality. This (unrelated) FPV video depicts completely lawful flying that nonetheless is bookended with gross disregard for human life and property. Our hobby could be completely outlawed tomorrow, but that doesn't mean that it would be more dangerous than it was yesterday.

    The AMA seems to take a "progress stops here" approach to the hobby. My home is right next to hundreds of miles of almost completely uninhabited public land. That the knowledgeable people at the AMA can imagine no safe way to make long-range UAV or FPV operation possible under those conditions strains credulity.

    Mark, I apologize for suggesting that I would not enjoy your company. It was wrong to assume that and more wrong to write it. Just because you called a complete stranger an idiot on a public forum doesn't necessarily mean that you're an unpleasant person all the time. Truce?

  • Mike, thanks for clearing this up. I thought this was a matter of law, so it shows how much I know :-)

    I just wish they would get it over with already, release the new rules, at least then we have some idea what we are facing.

  • To reply to Jonathan,

    I'm not sure how the quality of my company figures into this, but OK...

    It sounds like David Windestål is your personal friend. So I am sorry if I offended him, or you. He may well be, as you say, "the finest, most conservative example of what we should do" but to someone unfamiliar with the hobby, the video was neither fine nor conservative. I just watched it again. It shows David illegally overflying Federal land, and at 2:13 in, it shows the antenna going over with the word "FAIL" superimposed on the video. Shortly thereafter there's lots of what is clearly panic and then the copter banked hard left and down toward the river. Then it was in and out of control for the next 30 seconds or so.  All the while, the woman in the video was yelling "Uh-oh, Uh oh!" ... up! Up! UP!" ... "That was close!"  That's what someone unfamiliar with the technology - like, say, a Congressman - will see. Not a great advertisement for the hobby, I think.

    As far as AMA goes, if you don't like them, don't join. But don't complain if FAA takes your flight privileges away.

  • The "idiot" who almost lost his tricopter into Niagra Falls is named David Windestål, and his spotter was Chad Kapper. They are beloved, safety-conscious members of the RC community and probably better company than Mark Lewus or anyone staffing the AMA.  They certainly have better YouTube videos.  (Search "FliteTest".)


    I consider David's Niagra Falls flight to be the finest, most-conservative example of what we should do.  He's a skilled pilot who was flying a proven craft over an area devoid of people or structures (it's not possible to get boats as close to the falls as the movies would make it seem) within visual control and with a skilled spotter. Judging from the onboard video alone, a non-pilot would have no idea that anything was ever wrong. What would have happened if he went down? Nothing. You could fly a full-scale plane into that river and it would be gone five minutes later.


    That Niagra Falls footage is the best advertisement for our hobby. It's beautiful. People like it. It would be dangerous and prohibitively expensive to capture with a piloted craft. It fits in the trunk of your car and has zero emissions.


    What this hobby needs legislatively is for more lawmakers and bureaucrats to see videos like David's and think "I wanna do that, how do I make sure that I can legally do that?". That is precisely what the AMA rules prohibit: interesting environments and large-scale missions.

  • Mark, I agree with you comments regarding the problem, and the point you make here... but I have to respond to your statement regarding the law.  It does not change the pertinence of the rest of your comment, but I feel it is important to keep the facts straight.

    There are no laws governing the operations of our models at this point... that goes for R/C, free flight, rockets, or FPV.  The 400 ft limit, or 3 mile operation from an airport, everything in your first paragraph above are repeated again and again... but there is no law currently in place regarding any of that.  This is a complete falsehood that has been repeated so many times, many in our community believe it.

    So, where did it all start?  With AC 91-57 published 19 June 1981.  First, let me explain what an AC is.  The FAA publishes Advisory Circulars (ACs) to the aviation community as a form of advice (thus the name) for what they believe would be "best practices".  They do not carry any weight of law (or regulation), and are just as the name implies... advice.  If you do not follow this advice... there is no "enforceable" action that the FAA or any other organization can take.  That said... if the problem is real and persistent, they will simply take what was in the AC and add it to the regulations at some point, where it will become enforceable.

    The AC does state not to fly higher than 400 ft, and "when" flying within 3 miles of an airport to contact the operator or controlling authority.  It also states that flying sites should be sufficient distance from populated areas, and be away from noise sensitive areas such as parks, schools, hospitals, churches, etc.

    Yes, it actually says etc... and can you tell me how far a "sufficient distance" is?  The verbiage used here is clearly ambiguous, and this is not a problem, because it is not law or regulation... it is just advice for what the FAA believes is best practice so that we all continue to get along harmoniously.

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