Common questions about drones

Drones, which are also known by other names such as unmanned aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicles, come in many sizes and styles, and are widely available for purchase around the world. Whether they are flown for fun or for profit, their use is highly regulated, especially in the United States. The following questions and answers address some of the most common questions that drone users, especially those in the US, may have about buying and using these devices.

What is a drone? - A drone, which can go by several other names, including unmanned aerial vehicle, unmanned aircraft, or unmanned aircraft system, is an aircraft operated without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or on the aircraft. Commercially available drones that are used for recreational purposes typically are powered by batteries, are controlled by a ground-based control device that communicates with the drone by radio, and may have a limited ability to fly without direct inputs from the ground-based operator.

Where can I fly a drone? - In the US, where one can fly a drone depends on the type of flight operation. The FAA places a number of restrictions on drones flown for recreational purposes, including not allowing flights above 400 feet in altitude above the ground, and no recreational drone flights near airports. The FAA allows less restricted operations for commercial operators of some classes of smaller drones that have a maximum weight of no more than 55 pounds (25 kilos).

How big are drones? - While some drones may be light, weighing under four ounces (113.4 gm), and small enough to fit in the palm of you hand, they can be as large as the largest aircraft. However, in the US, drones that are intended to be flown for recreational purposes must weigh less than 55 pounds (25 kg).

How big should my drone be? - There are a number of drone options where the aircraft weighs well under five pounds (2.25 kg), yet has relatively sophisticated capabilities such as recording high definition photo and video, GPS navigation, and automated obstacle avoidance. While it is possible and legal to buy drones with a much heavier maximum weight, buying the smallest drone with the capabilities you desire is probably the wisest choice, especially if you are an inexperienced drone pilot or purchasing the drone for a child.

How old should a drone pilot be? - While drones are often marketed and sold as toys, even the smallest of drones require the person flying the drone to be able to manipulate controls while at the same time making decisions about where to maneuver the drone, and being ready to quickly take actions to avoid accidents. Common sense, rather than rules or regulations, should be your guide. If your child can ride a bike in traffic or use a computer or mobile device without supervision, they are also likely able to safely fly a drone.

Do I have to register a drone? - In the US, all drones heavier than 0.55 pounds (250 grams) must be registered with the FAA by someone (typically the person who purchased the drone) who is at least 13 years old. The FAA has a separate process for drones that weigh between 0.55 and 55 pounds (250 grams and 25 kg), and a third process for those that weigh at least 55 pounds. Drones weighing less than 0.55 pounds do not have to be registered in the US.

Does every drone have a different number? - The FAA drone registration process allows an owner to use the same registration number for every drone that weighs between 0.55 and 55 pounds.

What happens if I'm buying a drone for a child? - It depends on the drone and the child. If the drone weighs less than 0.55 pounds (250 grams), no registration is needed. If the drone is between 0.55 and 55 pounds, and if the child is younger than 13 years old, either you or a another person who is least 13 years old must register the drone. If the child is at least 13 years old, the child may apply for a registration number.

Do I need any special training before I can fly a drone? - The FAA does not have any training requirements for drone pilots. Whether you are flying a drone for fun or for business, it is up to the person flying the drone to make the effort to learn how to fly a drone safely and well.

Do I need a license to fly a drone? - If you are flying a drone for recreational purposes, you don't need a license or any formal training. You should however be familiar with the flight restrictions that may exist in your area. For example, in the US, drone flights are not allowed in national parks, over or near airports, at sporting events, or in restricted areas like military bases without first getting permission to do so. If you are flying a drone for commercial purposes or as part of your business, you have to have that drone's flight supervised by someone who has been certified by the FAA to operate a drone for a commercial purpose.

Do I need permission to fly a drone? - It depends on what kind of flying that you are doing and where you are doing it. All drone flights through controlled airspace can only happen with the permission of the FAA or from the appropriate authority. If a drone is to be used for commercial purposes, whoever is responsible for flying the drone must get an appropriate FAA certification for commercial drone pilots. Commercial drone operators who intend to perform flights that deviate from regulations that cover commercial drone operations would have to get a waiver from the FAA to do so.

Does my drone have to pass any kind of inspection? - The FAA does not have any requirements for drone inspection or certification.

Do I need permission to build or modify my drone? - No. Someone who wants to build or modify a drone does not need to meet any FAA requirement. However, any changes to the drone may affect your manufacturer's warranty. Also, if the original drone is lighter than 0.55 pounds, and the modifications make it heavier than 0.55 lbs, then the drone would have to be registered with the FAA.

Are the regulations different if I build my own drone? - In the US, the rules and restrictions for drones are the same whether they are purchased from a manufacturer or if they are created by an individual.

Can I bring drones on a plane? - It depends on the drone. If it is a battery-powered drone, the airline will likely have no restrictions on the drone, but may have restrictions related to drone batteries. There are restrictions and regulations covering all types of batteries, and of particular interest to owners of drones are the restrictions on rechargeable batteries, the type of battery most commonly used to power drones. A battery may be allowed in checked baggage if it is installed inside of your drone. Spare rechargeable batteries are not allowed in checked bags, and a maximum of two are allowed in a carry on bag. You may be barred from flying with a rechargeable battery if it has a capacity above 100 watt hours. The drone's controller has a similar set of issues if it is battery powered. While the controller can be packed in a checked or carry on bag, there may be limitations on the type, size, and number of batteries that the controller uses.

Can I mail or ship my drone? - It depends. As is the case with flying on an airliner, the batteries in the drone or the drone controller may have limitation when it comes to mailing them or shipping them, so it may be a good idea to check before you ship or mail your drone.

How fast can I fly my drone? - In the US, the FAA limits drones to a maximum airspeed of 100 mph (87 knots). However, most common recreational drones have a maximum airspeed much lower than 100 mph.

How high and how far can I fly a drone? - In the US, a drone has to stay within visual line of sight of the drone pilot or of anyone who is assisting the drone pilot. Drones flown for fun have to stay lower than 400 feet above ground level. There are exceptions for the height limitations for certain kinds of commercial flight operations.

Can I fly a drone while under the influence of alcohol or drugs? - No. Not only is such behavior not legal, it would be highly irresponsible.

Additional drone resources

Common questions about drones -- Revised 18 September 2016