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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  • The problem is, the AMA code is based primarily on existing law - you are not allowed to fly anything except a model rocket higher than 400 ft, and even then you have to be at least 3 (might be 5) miles from an airport and not in controlled airspace. I think that goes for gliders as well if you are following the letter of the law. The AMA is just starting to talk about UAVs and in particular FPVs. There was a survey on their website last month to try to guage interest and it was overwhelming. But if you are not part of the organization, or one of like size and/or political strength, I can almost guarantee that the FAA is going to legislate you into history.

    The problem is pretty simple. Go to YouTube and type in "Quadcopter" and you will (eventually) get to the video of the idiot who flew his FPV over Niagra Falls. He had a spotter who turned out to be of no help when the wind knocked over his antenna and his goggles went black. He was lucky that it was still close enough that he could (eventually) get it back under control by sight. What's gonna happen if one of those yahoos flies one of these things into a Cessna because the operator was flying 1/2 mile from a community airport? Or flies one in a sports stadium filled with people? Somebody actually did that, and he's in jail now.

    Point is, the acts of a few fools can and does impact the rest of us who want to use our toys in an interesting but responsible way. And the enormously high level of paranoia in the United States over the last 10 years only makes it worse. All of which means that if we want to continue to fly quads, we are going to have to get laws and/or FCC rulings passed that specifically allow us to do it.

    The current legislative mood at the FAA is not in our favor.

    Perhaps there is another organization of substantial size that can be brought to bear on this issue. If so, I would like to know what it is so I can join. If not, then one approach - an easy one - is to join AMA, vote, make calls, write letters, and move them toward embracing what we want to do with these devices. They are fairly reasonable and intelligent people and they have embraced changes to the hobby before. It is my hope they will do so again.

  • The AMA Safety Code requires that "the pilot of a RC model aircraft shall maintain control during the entire flight, maintaining visual contact without enhancement."  Maybe they support UAVs in ways that aren't documented, and I have no experience in how the rules are applied in reality, but on paper nearly everything I would like to do with my plane is either directly prohibited or restricted into pointlessness.

  • Here's a thought. Why not join the AMA (Academy of Model Aeronautics) and for about $60 a year you get the political strength of a 200,000+ strong organization that has represented small aircraft "hobby" operators for the last 75 or so years. AND you get $2 million in liability insurance in case you fly your toy into a bread truck and set it ablaze. Plus access to thousands of flying fields where you can safely fly your quad. You even get a magazine as part of the deal. The AMA mounted a tens-of-thousands strong letter writing campaign in 2011 and got a senator and house representative to jointly sponsor changes to the FAA plan to take hobby operators into account and insulate us to some degree from the new FAA rules. These are expected to be especially onerous on operators of UAVs of all configurations.

    Or, you can sit back, do nothing, and allow the FAA to decide that "hobby" UAV's are "too dangerous" and pose "too much security risk" to operate without a license that you and I will never be able to get.

    There is power in numbers. Take advantage of it while you still can.

    Ok, getting off my soapbox now.


  • Can a glider with autopilot that can be guided back to a certain GPS coordinate be launched higher than 400 ft? Because it's similar to a high altitude balloon. And there's two different sets of rules for UAVs and high altitude balloons. It's just a bit confusing because the glider can fall under either set of rules.

  • are there any such guidelines and rules for flying UAVs as a recreation in INDIA?? are there any UAV clubs in INDIA (preferably bangalore)??



  • Does anyone know where to find the supposed Dos and Don'ts regulating onboard electronics for sUAS?

    I have a question about certain types of radio equipment to be used on mine.  A wideband receiver that reports GPS data (coords and time), frequency and received signal strength indicator (RSSI) to my ground station whee a circle that stays put on the map will be drawn around my current acft position.  After the platform gets several hits the circles will all have something in common....the position of the transmitter.   

    Now for the punchline,....a friend that works for one of the big $$$ UAS companies tells me that the FAA forbids any kind of DF equipment on board civilian UAS in national airspace.  There is not really any "DF" equipment here on the platform, the processing is done on the ground station.  I assume that the new FAA rules will maybe require a APRS module that reports the sUAS status on a itimed basis during flight.

    Let me know if anyone has knowledge of this or a link to the FAA reg that specifies it.

  • Here is the link for the regulations in Canada:



    As you can read above, Transport Canada regulations are different if you plan to use your aircraft (max 35kg) only for recreationnal activity or for commercial projects. It seams that Transport Canada includes research and development projects in the commercial part of the regulation.


    For commercial purposes (if you plan to take a video for the promotion of your shop, if you plan to sell a picture for tourism promotion, etc.), you need to apply for a Special Flight Operation Certificate (SFOC) where you "demonstrate the predictability and reliability of the unmanned air vehicle [...] in the desired environment".

    From what I understood 4-5 years ago. You need to apply for a SFOC for every flight and the analysis is made on a case by case basis. A SFOC for a 2m helicopter flight over downtown Toronto will probably be really harder to obtain then a SFOC for your 10th flight of your foam glider in a field 100km away from any village.


    For more info on commercial UAVs in Canada, you can visit the non-profit organisation called:


  • Now for the weight question....  Is it legal to design, build and experiment with < 55 lb model aircraft intended for personal recreational and educational purposes?
  • While we all want folks to be responsible and to work within reasonable guidelines, it is misleading to state that one is required to stay below 400ft.


    AC 91-57 is the referenced document in this case, and I feel it is important to point out that an Advisory Circular (AC) is simply "Advice" from the FAA on what they feel would be best practices.  It is not a regulation, and deviating from this advice will not result in specific consequences.  Even in AC 91-57 the first paragraph states...


    This advisory circular outlines, and encourages voluntary compliance with, safety standards for model aircraft operators.


    We all clearly want to be aware of any hazards operating our recreational model aircraft might pose, and to operate them with a healthy dose of common sense.  But let's not cloud the waters with misinformation.  There is not currently any regulation, FAR or otherwise that restrict the altitude at which we operate.


    That said... if you often see full scale aircraft flying over the area you fly out of, then you will definitely want to limit your altitude to a safe level.

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