If you are one of the many that have a brand new drone, welcome to the wide world of flight. Hope you are ready for the excitement of flying and the magic that is aerial photography.

Before you take to the sky with your new quadcopter, or other multi-rotor flier, there are a few things you might want to know – actually, if you are in the United States, there are things that you need to know. Our interview with Brendan Shulman of DJI was enlightening, please have a look through, then join us below for the remaining things to consider. We’ll make it quick, after all, we all just want to get out there to fly.

We will regularly update this post with new info and rules for drones, or sUAS, as the FAA calls them. There are no changes this month, but we are following a number of decisions in the legal community that will eventually affect pilots like you and I. We’ll update as soon as we know of any confirmed changes.

0.55 pounds

If your new flying toy weighs in at a total flight weight less than 0.55 lbs, you need to follow the basic guidelines below, but you are all but ready to step out the door and hit the sky. If your drone weighs more than this, the FAA has jurisdiction over your flight.

I will outline the main points below, but you can find everything you need at the FAA website for sUAS (small Unmanned Aircraft System.)

Register your drone with the FAA

First up, for all the drones over 0.55 lbs, you will need to register with the FAA. This includes a $5 application fee and you must be at least 13 years of age to apply. Once your application is complete, you will immediately receive your registration number, which you will need to affix to your drone.

The process is much faster and easier than you might imagine, but you will need to complete it first to fly legally.

In addition to the below guidelines, the FAA provides an app, called B4UFly, that will show you on a map where you can and cannot legally fly. They’ve been fairly lenient about rule breakers in safe situations, but if you fly over crowds or around airports, be prepared to pay some serious fines, or land in jail if you hurt anyone.

FAA's B4UFly app for Android and iOS

Basic drone flying guidelines in the United States

  • Fly at or below 400 feet above the ground
  • Always fly within line-of-sight, if you can’t see it, bring it in
  • Stay away from airports
  • Stay away from airplanes – they have the right of way in the air
  • Do not fly over people
  • Do not fly over or close to sports events or stadiums
  • Do not fly near emergency situations such as car crashes or building fires
  • Do not fly under the influence
  • Be aware of controlled airspace – use the B4UFly app

The short version of the controlled airspace situation is that you cannot fly within 5 miles of an airport without first calling in to inform the air traffic controller of your exact flight itinerary. You should know your GPS coordinates, your elevation above sea level, your intended maximum flight elevation and the amount of time you plan to be in the air. As Brendan from DJI explains, this is not really about asking for permission, it is more about informing the airport your intent and learning first hand if there is any reason to not fly in that location that day.

Remember, other aircraft have the right of way, the air traffic controller should be able to tell you if there are any planned aircraft for your location.

The B4UFly app is a little overzealous sometimes, marking many small rural airports, or unmanned helipads, as needing permission to fly. Many of these are actually not within restricted airspace, not requiring permission to fly, but it is truly better to be safe than sorry.

Those that can read a VFR map, there is a great online version available at vfrmap.com. It is not the official map that you can download from the FAA website, but it’s currently accurate in my area. As you can see, but maybe can’t make sense of, there are many small airports and helipads, and they all have their own controlled airspace, but the main airspace that I need to be concerned with are the purple, blue and faded purple areas. Basically, if you are in an area with a solid line surrounding it, you should call in.

Do check for further local flight laws, however, as they will not be on this VFR map and may not be in the B4UFly FAA app. For example, the Mt. Hood National Forest just East of Portland, whose boundary is not indicated on the VFR map, is a no-fly zone.

Bottom line, be safe out there. Drones may be great fun and come in small packages that seem to offer little threat to people, property and other aircraft, but the rules in place are due to incident or injury, please don’t add to that list. Now go have some fun!

A huge thank you again to Brendan Shulman and DJI for visiting us at the Android Authority booth at CES 2017, we learned a lot and hope you did too. DJI also has great drone safety info, check it out at www.dji.com/flysafe

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