Personal unmanned aircraft systems -- better known as drones -- have become popular purchases among consumers. Sales of drones have more than doubled in the past year, according to figures from analytics company NPD Group, and with the rise in drone usage, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has taken the potential problems that drones present to the aviation community very seriously. Various drone regulations cover commercial drones as well as those for personal use, and the FAA rules on drones have created controversy among various stakeholders.

If you're thinking of using a drone in the U.S., you'll need to know how the FAA looks at drones and what you'll need to do to get permission to fly.

Drone registration

The first thing that the FAA encourages is registering your drone. Registration is required if it weighs between 8.8 ounces (250 grams) and 55 pounds (25 kilograms), and potential civil and criminal penalties apply if you don't register. Those with drones above 55 pounds must use a paper registration process, while there's an online registry for smaller drones. The registration form is relatively simple, requiring basic information about yourself and the drone.

Drone weight requirements

Image source: Federal Aviation Administration.

Requirements for drone operation

The limitations that the FAA has imposed on drone operation emphasize the priority that the agency puts on manned aircraft operations. Drones for personal use must not be operated within five miles of an airport without prior notification to the airport and to air traffic control. Personal drones must always yield to manned aircraft, and operators must keep the aircraft within sight and follow community-based safety guidelines.

If you use a drone for work, then there are more stringent requirements. You may only operate the drone in uncontrolled airspace, also known as Class G airspace, which typically includes airspace close to the ground. In addition to line-of-sight rules, you must fly under 400 feet and only during the day, and speeds must be 100 mph or less. Commercial drones must yield to manned traffic, must not fly over people, and must not be controlled from a moving vehicle. For both personal and commercial drone use, waivers are available when it's necessary to fly in controlled airspace, fly at night, or make deviations from any of the other operational requirements in the rules under Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations.

Most importantly, pilots of recreational drones have no licensure requirements, but commercial drone operators must have a Remote Pilot airman certificate. This involves a process of learning that culminates in a knowledge test covering regulations, operating requirements, weather, drone performance, emergency procedures, and other information. Commercial operators must also pass vetting from the Transportation Safety Authority and be at least 16 years of age.

Are FAA drone rules legal?

Some unmanned aircraft users weren't happy about the FAA's assertion of rulemaking authority with respect to drones, and one took the agency to court and won. In May 2017, a federal appeals court issued a decision on Taylor v. Huerta, which found that a model aircraft hobbyist did not have to register with the FAA drone database because a federal law specifically prevented any rules or regulations covering model aircraft.

Some commentators immediately jumped to the conclusion that this invalidated the entire FAA registry. However, the court's decision was specifically limited to "model aircraft," and it's unclear whether any consumer-oriented drone will fall within that definition. In addition, commercial drones are fairly clearly not covered as model aircraft, and so registration will still be necessary for those. The FAA has said that it is taking the decision into consideration and will update users about requirements in the future.

Drone use has already taken off, and most of those following the industry anticipate even more rapid growth in the future. As the FAA's regulatory scheme recognizes, the need to protect the safety of manned aircraft is paramount, but that won't keep drone operators from arguing that the regulatory agency is being too strict with its requirements for their aircraft and the pilots who use them.

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