‘Tis the season for drones- so learn the rules of the sky

Predictions about the number of drones that will be given as gifts this holiday season have “taken off.” According to the Consumer Technology Association, Americans will buy about 1.6 million drones over the holidays, nearly half the total for the entire year and an increase of about 30 percent over last year.

Unlike the typical holiday gift, however, drones are technically considered airplanes by the federal government. If you plan to give the kids or grandkids a drone, you need to be aware of the rules. Better to hear them now than to hear from the police later.

When drones are flown for recreational purposes, as is the case for most drones given as gifts, the FAA does not formally regulate them. Only drones being flown for commercial purposes—things like wedding photography, construction or real estate sales—are subject to the federal regulations controlling aviation.

But the operative word here is “formally”: Even those drones given as holiday gifts are subject to some federal rules and guidelines. As a practical matter, if a drone hits an airplane or a person, it doesn’t matter whether the drone was being flown for hire or for fun. Drones are not your typical toys. It’s way too easy, if a few simple rules are not observed, to hurt someone or break the law. The rules/guidelines include:

  1. Don’t fly a drone within 5 miles of an airport. Airplanes are taking off and landing at low altitudes and could easily collide with a low-flying drone. Even if the drone doesn’t actually hit a plane, it could distract the pilot and cause an accident.
  2. Keep them away from highways and roads. A drone colliding with a car or 18-wheeler won’t necessarily cause the vehicle to crash by force of impact, but it could certainly distract or startle the driver, causing the person to hit someone else or drive off the road.
  3. Drones should be flown at no more than 400 feet above the ground and should never be out of sight.
  4. Don’t fly over obstacles like buildings or power lines or over or near crowds. As tempting as it may be to fly them at the playground, don’t…the risk of injury is way too high.
  5. Don’t fly a drone at sporting events, stadiums or other venues where there are large numbers of people. Even though these occasions provide great opportunities for taking pictures, the risk of injury is even greater.
  6. The operator should be fully expert at controlling the drone. A good practical rule of thumb is to confine flying to 20 or 30 feet above the ground until fully proficient. Only then should consideration be given to the fact that you’re allowed to fly up to 400 feet above the ground.
  7. Given the potential risks, the younger the pilot/operator, the more important it is for a responsible adult who knows the rules to be there to supervise. It only takes a second of inattention or a single mistake to lose control of a drone and cause an accident.

The Wright Brothers flew their aircraft in 1903. It has taken us 114 years to bring aviation to its current level of development and safety. Even though drones have only entered the commercial and consumer markets in the past few years, it won’t take 114 years for them to become a safe and enjoyable part of everyday life. If we all use common sense and observe a few simple rules, we can achieve the same extraordinary level of safety as the rest of U.S. aviation. Happy Holidays and happy flying!

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Mark Dombroff is an Alexandria, VA-based shareholder in LeClairRyan, a nationwide law firm, and co-chair of the firm’s aviation industry practice.  He owns and flies 5 drones (of course, not all at once).

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