Before you take your drone up in the air, there are 7 rules or procedures that even hobby drone pilots need to follow when operating outdoors in the United States. The Federal Aviation Administration, which governs the U.S. airspace, has a robust system of rules that even recreational operators need to follow.
While there are fairly tough requirements to flying drones for commercial purposes — including passing the FAA Part 107 test to earn your drone pilot license — there are still some requirements for hobby drone pilots too. And yes, you need to pass a (albeit easier) test too.
If you’re flying drones for fun, here are the 7 rules or procedures that you need to ensure you adhere to (yes, even if you’re just casually flying in your backyard or alone in the middle of nowhere):
- Don’t let your drone out of your eyesight during flight: You need to keep your drone within the visual line of sight of either yourself as the drone pilot. Or, you can use a visual observer who is co-located (physically next to) and in direct communication with you. That would enable you to fly with FPV goggles (where you otherwise can’t see the physical drone) or to fly around a building, where your visual observer is standing to your side and can see around the corner.
- Watch out for other obstacles (especially flying ones): Hobby drone pilots are legally required to give way to (and do not interfere with) manned aircraft. If you see manned aircraft in the area, it’s best just to land until it passes.
- Make sure you can legally fly in that area: It’s easiest if you fly in unrestricted airspace, which is Class G airspace. Most airspace, assuming its away from airports or other sensitive areas and under 400 feet, is Class G airspace. The easiest way to find out if you’re flying in Class G airspace is by downloading the FAA’s official app called B4UFly app. Input your flight location, and the app can tell you the type of airspace and whether or not you’re clear to fly. What’s more, a November 2020 B4UFly app update made things even better thanks to a layer for state and county data, which may reduce confusion around local drone laws pertaining to where you can and can’t fly.
- Request approval (only if you’re flying in controlled airspace): If you find yourself in anything other than Class G airspace (that’s Class B, C, D, and E), then you’ll need to receive prior authorization by using LAANC or DroneZone. Luckily, it’s generally a fairly quick and easy process in most airspace areas, especially C or D (though B can be more complicated, as that’s the area around busy airports).
- Take (and pass!) The Recreational UAS Safety Test (TRUST): New as of 2021: all drone operators — regardless of whether you’re flying for commercial or hobby purposes — need to pass a test in order to legally fly most drones in the United States. Formally referred to as the Recreational Unmanned Aircraft Systems Safety Test (and reduced to an acronym of sorts as TRUST), the recreational drone pilot test and accompanying course can be taken online (for free!) through one of the FAA-approved partner organizations. You can learn more about enrolling in one of those free courses here. Additionally, all hobby drone pilots need to carry proof of test passage and be prepared to show it to authorities when you’re operating your drone.
- Register your drone: If your drone weighs more than 0.55 lbs and less than 55 lbs, you need to register as a drone operator with the FAA. It’s a quick and easy process (though it will cost $5). To register your drone, visit the FAA’s drone registration website and create an account. Enter some personal information (like name and address) and pay the fee, upon which you’ll receive a registration number. Mark your drone(s) on the outside with the registration number, and carry proof of registration with you.
- Be safe! Do not operate your drone in a dangerous manner. It should be common sense, but here are some specific examples:
- Do not interfere with emergency response or law enforcement activities (yes, that includes no flying over wildfires).
- Do not fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
If you’re just getting started with drones, check out my beginner drone guide for more flying tips. And if you’re ready to buy your first drone, I recommend starting with my guide to the best drones under $100. If you’re ready to take the plunge with a higher-quality drone, check out my guide to the best drones for photographers.