Last updated: August 6, 2020
Know Your Drone Laws: These 8 Violations Can Land You In Jail
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By 2020, there will be more than 7 million drones in US skies alone. Hobby flying is booming. With ever greater numbers of untrained operators has come increasing numbers of accidents, as well as some hair-raising near-misses with commercial planes.
While some countries allow drone flight pretty much anywhere, many countries are quickly creating laws to limit their use. You don't have to get the attention of your local aviation administration to land in jail. It could happen because you run afoul of non-drone laws. These include things like invasion of privacy and endangering the public.
If you want to avoid illegal usage, there are 8 clear scenarios to avoid.
Your Fast Pass to Prison
It's not possible to list every drone law, and every regulation — even in the US, much less in every country. But we can look at clear examples of reckless usage. Here are some of the cases that have gotten hobbyists drone users in a lot of trouble — in some cases, landing them in jail.
1. Freaking out Politicians and Celebrities
In 2013, an activist from Germany's Pirate Party flew a drone up close to German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a press conference.
The operator was apprehended, and detained by the police. He claimed he was just trying to take a close-up photo. Once the police determined he was not a threat, they released him.
Most small drones aren't able to carry weapons, so that isn't a primary concern. But they could still carry harmful substances that worry security teams. So flying close to politicians and other celebrities is a complete no-no, for obvious reasons.
Government security teams are similarly against flying drones near government buildings.
There have been multiple incidents of people flying too close to the White House, both intentionally and by accident. In 2015, a man was arrested for flying his drone in Lafayette Park. Incidents like this have resulted in drone detection equipment being tested in Washington, DC.
Not Just Famous People and Government Buildings
In the UK, drones must never be flown within 50 meters (164 feet) of vehicles, buildings, people, and structures. The primary motivation is safety; the secondary motivation is privacy. So all use in cities is totally forbidden in the UK. But even drone use in a relatively secluded area is likely to result in a visit to your local police station.
The US Federal Aviation Administration is actually considering relaxing laws on flying near people. It would still have to stay well above the person and at least 10 feet away horizontally. Also: this would apply only to very lightweight craft. Despite this, blanket laws prevent privacy invasion in many countries, including the US and most European Union states.
A drone that falls onto someone's head is going to cause a serious injury, which is another good reason not to risk getting too close to people.
2. Doing Things That Are Illegal Even Without the Drone
Sometimes, it's not the drone that'll get you arrested. It's the stuff you attach to the drone. Delivering a large combination pizza by drone, okay. Delivering 5 grams of methamphetamine by drone, not okay.
Maryland police arrested two people for trying to smuggle drugs, pornography, and tobacco into a correctional institution via drone.
It was a creative attempt at getting contraband into jail, and one we'll probably see repeated. But there is a simple rule here: if it is against the law without a drone, it's still against the law with a drone.
3. Flying a Drone Near an Airport or Airfield
The US Federal Aviation Administration prohibits the use of any drone within 5 miles of an airport, unless you obtain permission from the airport tower first. This is called FAA-controlled airspace. If you're not sure if you're safely outside the FAA boundary, check on Airmap.io.
In other countries, it's wise (although not necessarily compulsory) to check sectional charts on SkyVector to determine where planes are likely to be flying.
Many areas in the US are permanently considered no-fly zones. For example, you can't fly a drone in New York City. Additionally, small no-fly zones are created for special events. It's also common for no-fly zones to be set up for special political events, such as the President Obama's visit to London in late 2015.
For information on global no-fly zones, you should check out DJI's online map. But note that its purpose is to advise drone operators. It isn't perfect. Nor is it exhaustive. As DJI puts it, "It is always the user's responsibility to determine what laws or regulations apply to any operation, and to obtain any required government authorizations."
If you fly too close to a plane while it's airborne, US law currently allows both hefty fines and jail sentences for endangering an aircraft. Canadian law is also very clear that there will be consequences of flying "in a manner that is or is likely to be hazardous to aviation safety".
There have been multiple instances of drones coming close to aircraft, although no major disasters yet. If a drone hit the main body of an airplane, pilots believe that it could be sucked into the engine, break the fuselage, or crack a window. If multiple failures occur at the same time, a crash is possible.
4. Flying a Drone Too High
A drone can reach over 10,000 feet (Two miles!) in ideal conditions, but you'd almost certainly be arrested for flying so high if your drone were detected.
All leisure drone flights should be carried out below 400 feet to be legal in the US; the UK Civil Aviation Authority recommends the same limit (PDF). (Four hundred feet is equivalent to around 13 stories of a typical apartment building.)
There are two main reasons why the 400 foot limit applies. Most near-misses take place above 400 feet, which is clearly a good reason to fly low. Also, your drone has to be in your line of sight, and that gets tricky when it becomes a speck among the clouds. In practice, it's a good idea to stay below 200 feet.
5. Interfering With Emergency Workers
Anything that restricts the duties of emergency services is against US law, so drones can't fly near emergency situations. They can impede access for other aircraft, such as helicopters, and can be a hazard for operatives working below.
6. Shooting Drone Footage in a National Park
Thinking of taking your drone on a road trip — perhaps flying it over the Grand Canyon? Flying in remote areas could land you in hot water. Drones interfere with wildlife and natural habitats. They can also be an annoyance to other tourists.
Almost all US national parks are no-fly zones, and contravening the rules carries a maximum $5,000 fine. In practice, you'll probably be fined less. But it'll be enough to ruin your vacation.
7. Selling Drone Photos
If you fly a drone for leisure use, it's assumed you'll be flying a fairly small craft. If you fly for business, you're subject to far stricter laws in most countries. Regardless of the size of your drone, if you take a photo and sell it, it automatically becomes a commercial craft. That puts you in a whole other category of the law.
Regulations like this apply in Canada, the US, and the UK.
8. Flying an Unregistered Drone
All but the tiniest drones have to be registered to be flown in the US. The fine for flying an unregistered drone could reach $27,500, and you could also be handed a 3-month jail term.
Realistically, it's unlikely that such harsh penalties would be handed out to amateur drone users. But the registration fee is just $5, so it makes sense to comply with the law rather than becoming the first test case in the courts. In the first 8 months, the Federal Aviation Administration received 520,000 drone registrations. That's 200,000 more than the number of manned aircraft on its records.
Where Can I Legally Fly?
Some countries are very liberal about drones. But in all countries, drone laws might not be the most important issue. Privacy and safety laws generally supersede drone laws. So even if a country technically allows drones to be flow anywhere, there will still be restrictions. You may not legally be allowed to use its camera, for example. And you certainly will break the law if you crash into people and things.
Still, if the drone laws in the US and Europe bother you, there are other more accommodating countries.
There are no laws restricting drones under 2 kg (4.4 lbs) in Mexico, providing you fly during the day. It's still a good idea to fly away from airports. Postandfly wisely got permission from the Mexico City Airport before filming this amazing video:
The country's military routinely uses drones for covert surveillance, and has a relaxed attitude to personal drone use too. Until recently, you could capture urban footage like Team BlackSheep's incredible bird's eye view of Rio below. Some laws have now been enacted to restrict drone use over cities, due to security concerns ahead of the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
You'll have to fly low (under 300 feet), and well away from airports and crowds. But otherwise, you can fly where you like in India.
Here's a stunning view of India taken over three weeks by Winston Bohl:
Pack a miniature quadcopter for your vacation, and you're unlikely to run into problems in Greece. The Hellenic Civil Aviation Authority has decided that all craft under 350 grams (three-quarter pound) should be totally unregulated.
Here's a fun video by zonic.tv where you can see a bit of the drone itself at points:
To look up a specific country, see the UAV Systems International list.
Drone laws are very new, and some countries are still quite forgiving. But we're only going to see more restrictions as the technology becomes more common around the world. The high probability of an aircraft accident will only accelerate the desire for legal control.
Providing you stay away from people and airports, and you don't carry illegal cargo, you're unlikely to get arrested or excessively fined. There's one prerequisite: in the US, your drone also has to be properly registered.
Otherwise, stay safe and have fun!