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Getting Started with Drones Part 2: How do I know if I can legally fly my drone in a specific area?

Missed Part 1? Read my 7 quick and easy questions to consider before your first drone flight.

There are many spots in the U.S. (and around the world) where you cannot legally fly drones. That being said, there are many, many more places where you CAN legally fly drones!

Don’t be discouraged, just because your local park bans drones or you can’t bring a drone with you on your vacation to the Grand Canyon. There are many excellent places to fly, and this guide will show you how to tell if your specific spot is legal or not.

General rules for flying drones in the U.S.

Rules in the U.S. vary from rules in other countries — and some rules even vary by state, city and down to individual park!

Drone flights are regulated by the FAA if they’re outdoors. But individual land operators can have their own rules. While some flights might be okay with the FAA, they might not be okay (ie. you’re flying in Class G airspace, but it’s a National Park, which is a no-no). Here’s how you can ensure your drone flight is legal:

Make sure it’s FAA compliant: Check the FAA’s Know Before You Fly website

The best way to know whether your flight is okay in the eyes of the FAA is by checking their website called B4UFLY. Formerly known as ‘Know Before You Fly’ and initially founded by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) and the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) in partnership with the Federal Aviation Administration, the website is now operated by Aloft (the company formerly known as Kittyhawk).

Here’s what you’ll see when you navigate to the B4UFLY desktop site:

If you’re more of a smartphone and less of a desktop person, the B4UFLY app is also available for free download at the App Store for iOS and Google Play store for Android.

Among the things you can do with the B4UFLY app:

  • Use the clear “status” indicator to know if your flight is safe to fly or not.
  • Filter out by types of flight or controlled areas.
  • Get free information about controlled airspace, special use airspace, critical infrastructure, airports, national parks, military training routes and temporary flight restrictions.
  • Check whether it’s safe to fly in different locations by searching for a location or moving the location pin.
  • Gain access to additional FAA drone resources and regulatory information.

If you fly a DJI drone: use DJI’s GEO System to tell you if you can legally fly your drone

Rather than force you to navigate the FAA’s website, DJI makes it super easy for its pilots to make sure they can legally fly in that airspace.

DJI has a software implemented in most of its drones called GEO System, showing where it’s safe to fly, where flight may raise concerns, and where flight is restricted.

Often, it actually prohibits you from flying in those off-limits zones (like airports, power plants, and prisons) unless you take an extra step to unlock them (GEO allows users with verified DJI accounts to temporarily unlock or self-authorize their flights, though the unlock function is unavailable for some sensitive national-security locations). The system is even smart enough to take into account temporary restrictions, like major stadium events, forest fires, or other emergency situations.

Keep in mind, DJI wants you to know that their system is “advisory only” so you should still check with the FAA to be crystal clear.

“Each user is responsible for checking official sources and determining what laws or regulations might apply to his or her flight,” DJI said in a statement regarding their GEO software. “In some instances, DJI has selected widely-recommended general parameters without making any determination of whether this guidance matches regulations that may apply specifically to you.”

City-specific and other local rules around legally flying drones

Much to the dismay of both the Federal Aviation Administration and many drone pilots, many cities pass their own ordinances around flying drones. This is incredibly frustrating, as there is no one database for searching city-specific rules (the map above only references federal rules). Cities technically cannot pass rules about airspace (only the FAA has jurisdiction over the air, but they bypass the FAA by creating rules regulating the land — typically along the lines of “it is illegal to take off or land drones in city parks.”

For example, San Francisco (home of Drone Girl headquarters) issues citations of up to $192 for taking off or landing drones in city parks. (San Franciscans, check out my guide to flying in our beautiful city here.)

I highly recommend you check with your local city and park ordinances before flying drones, just to be safe. Typically your city will have its own website with a search feature, indicating whether there are rules about whether you can legally fly drones. Before flying in a new city, I typically run an Internet search for that city’s website, and once I’m there, I search that site for the words “UAV” and “drone” to assess whether that city has any established drone laws. Also, look out for signs in those areas noting any possible drone laws, and of course, adhere to them.

Rules around how to legally fly drones in foreign countries

Rather than re-invent the wheel here, I’m going to direct you to my friends at UAV Coach, who have a really excellent master list of drone laws by country. There you can find out if you need to register, if you need a license, and if you can even bring that drone into the country. Though, sometimes it seems laws change on an almost-daily basis, so I would also check with each country’s aviation regulatory agency’s website as well.

General FAA rules for flying drones recreationally:

  1. Your drone must be registered.  Registration costs $5 and lasts 3 years. Register with the FAA here.
  2. You must have a completion certificate to prove you passed the Recreational Drone Pilot Safety test. Up until June 2021, pilots did not need a license or certificate in order to fly drones for hobby purposes (though they needed a Remote Pilot Certificate if flying drones commercially. That changed after the FAA launched the Recreational Unmanned Aircraft Systems Safety Test (and reduced to an acronym of sorts as TRUST). Learn more about how to take (and pass) the FAA recreational drone test here.
  3. Adhere to the following guidelines:
    • Keep your drone in eyesight at all times, and use an observer to assist if needed
    • Remain clear of manned aircraft
    • Do not intentionally fly over unprotected persons or moving vehicles, and remain at least 25 feet away from individuals and vulnerable property
    • Contact the airport and control tower before flying within five miles of an airport or heliport. (Read about best practices here)
    • Do not fly in adverse weather conditions such as in high winds or reduced visibility.
    • Do not fly under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
    • Do not fly near or over sensitive infrastructure or property such as power stations, water treatment facilities, correctional facilities, heavily traveled roadways, government facilities, etc.
    • Check and follow all local laws and ordinances before flying over private property.
    • Do not conduct surveillance or photograph persons in areas where there is an expectation of privacy without the individual’s permission (see AMA’s privacy policy).

Read next: Part 3 of Getting Started with Drones: Flying drones commercially? How to get a drone pilot license