A huge part of my nature adventures and the photos I take involve using drones, but with all the laws which exist which restrict flights, people like myself and other fliers often ask “where can I fly my drone in the United States?” and so I will present this guide that will help you figure out where you can legally fly.
Anyone who has ever used a drone to take pictures and videos will tell you how amazing the footage can be and the possibilities of capturing breathtaking moments is raised to new levels with these things.
But as you get more and more involved with this industry, you begin to see a new, perhaps arguably a darker, yet necessary side: The regulations.
The more you try to figure these regulations out, the more and more one can draw the conclusion that LEGAL drone flying is at best VERY restrictive. I have been exploring various regulations, and to make the point short, here is what you need to know:
Drone laws are like a tangled web (It’s hard to know where you can fly), but:
I will try to help you untangle it & actually help you fly safely and legally.
The laws you will find across countries vary. Each country has it’s own laws and each region inside the country ALSO has it’s own laws regarding these UAVs. So for the sake of not over complicating an already tangled web, we’ll stick to the laws in the United States specifically.
As I explore more and more countries across the world and attempt to use my drones there (where ever possible), I will inform you all about what happened and where you can freely fly. For now, we’ll stick to the U.S.
Basic drone laws in the United States summarized, things you absolutely need to know:
First I want to say that I am NOT a lawyer. I am simply a lover of drones and one who wants to enjoy using them legally. I have in the time I’ve been using these things (I have 3) flown across MANY places and have taken some amazing footage.
But the fact is, most authority figures in this industry who try and tell you where you can and cannot use them, simply do not go as deep as this article will go. So let me go deeper:
First, you have to understand that there are federal, state and local laws inside the U.S regarding UAV’s.
Federal law, aka the law set by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) is the one most people know about. But it is more of a general guideline. Here are the basics in case you don’t already know (screenshot from the FAA site):
Here is a link to the FAA page itself in case you need more information.
Some updates to note about these rules including some that aren’t mentioned on the page:
-The 400 foot rule applies to the area you’re in from my understanding. If you wish to film an object, say a hill/mountain that is 500 feet high, you can actually go above it and go up to 400 feet ABOVE the 500 foot mountain. This is written inside drone regulations.
-There was once a mandate to register any UAV you purchased with the FAA. Recently there was a court case where one man proved that this registration was unconstitutional and supposedly since, the mandate has been removed. I would be careful with this and register your drone anyway just in case, until there is a more definitive finalization of this.
-Using them inside a NATIONAL park is NOT allowed. You have to receive special permission from the park itself in order to do this (Good. Luck. I heard it’s impossible). However, a sneaky rule AROUND that is if you take off and land OUTSIDE the park territory, you’re good.
Now one would think that these rules are good enough to oversee the entire US land, but it is simply not so…
Enter State laws and how they sometimes “supersede” federal drone laws…
Each state inside the U.S has it’s own laws regarding UAVs. From what I have seen and heard, most of the states, which are most restrictive about UAVs generally do not allow them to be used to film or fly above people and private property.
Honestly, this is a DUH rule to even mention, but even so. Even if the state you’re in “allows” you to fly, you still have to look at things like:
State parks. This is generally a “yellow” area of flight, meaning it is necessary use your drone with caution. To fully know if the park you’re in allows you to use them, you will need to call up the administration.
In many cases, I have heard that state parks will not allow you to fly. Never the less, call them up and find out.
Mountains with ski slopes. This is a total no no. I found this out when I was checking out Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire. Although I had my drones, I never used them because I first asked and they told me, it is completely against the rules, the reason being that since people ski through there, it is considered a hazard, not to mention the the ski lifts and gondolas.
Military bases. Another no-no. You shouldn’t even have to wonder about this one…
Dams. A yellow flag at best and a red one at worst. Dams are generally places you should not fly, at the very least, ask the administration there. For example, Ausable Chasm is a gorge and dam, and therefore has restrictions.
Cities. Each city in a state has it’s own rules as well. Again, call up the administration of it or check out their site.
So the point here is that these 5 categories alone may often contradict the federal laws so be careful. I’ll give you an example:
I love to go to the Catskill Mountains and do adventurous things there.
There’s places there that would be absolutely stunning for drone footage and video, but keeping these rules in mind, I have to be VERY careful. For example:
Here is an image of Catskill Park on a map:
Note, this is a state park, not national park, so the rules may be more flexible!
I am actually taking this image from an APP (It’s called AirMap) that shows me where I can fly with my drone and look, there’s literally no circles or seemingly any restrictions in this region…
Safe right? Not so fast…
There is a ski mountain called Hunter Mountain in that region plus a bunch of private property in large masses (farms). Based on the rules we already went over, I would not be able to fly in many of those areas, so BE CAREFUL.
Local laws, another thing you need to be careful of.
Within states, we have cities, regions, boroughs, ect…
These places may have parks, private property and each of these places also have their own laws which would supersede the federal and state law. For example…
There is a park I absolutely love to go to called Clove Lake’s Park. It is located in Staten Island, NYC. Checking the same AirMap app I talked about, half of it is in yellow and the other is in yellow lines, technically this would mean it’s cautionary to fly there.
But when I called Clove Lake’s park administration, they told me it is not allowed. I assume it is because there is wildlife which is another apparent rule in place (you can’t disturb it).
However, if you look right next to it (south), there is another park called LaTourette Park which by the official NYC website is one of the 5 allowed parks where you can use your UAV. But the app says I should cautious.
There’s 2 more examples of potentially contradicting evidence.
Sometimes the safest thing to do is to contact a ranger or an official at a park you’ll visit to find out for sure if you can fly your drone there.
For example, an amazing area I’ve visited in the west coast on 2 road trips is Natural Bridges, and Secret Beach (one time). These places are legal to fly at because I’ve contacted the rangers and asked them directly if it was allowed.
Once they said yes, I had a green light to shoot this amazing photo:
And also this one:
And if you’d like to see where this spot above is exactly, it’s called Natural Bridges and here are directions to it.
So what is a UAV pilot to do? Here’s some guidelines:
1) Obviously be mindful of the federal (general) rules.
2) Use an app like AirMap to identify if the area you’re in is restricted or not.
3) Double check with the local administration of the area you’re planning on flying in if you’re allowed to fly or not.
4) Keep in mind the rules I talked about with regards to lifting off and landing outside a National Park, a no go zone for drones and that if you do it OUTSIDE it, you’re OK.
5) Google which areas in the state you’re in ALLOW you to use your drone.
If the area you’re in will not allow them, here’s another tip:
Don’t fly them, carry them, while they are on. That way you can take the film, using the awesome camera with the gimbal and get great footage. For example:
There is a place called Zion National Park which as you guessed it is off limits to drones, BUT that’s for flying.
What if I carried it in my hands, with the propellers OFF? Then it would not be under the same restrictions and I would be able to use the footage they can take and get some great video.
Will the laws ever change/get more flexible?
I really hope so. Right now, there’s a few MAIN problems with these laws:
1) They were made by people who know little to nothing about this industry. To them, I think they literally believe that if they allowed an “open space” for this stuff, people would be buzzing around, and killing each other with these toys so to play it safe, they just make an overarching restriction across the board to “slay” the problem and potential doomsday scenario they see.
2) There’s a lot of contradictions as I pointed out. What you read with the FAA rules may not necessarily go along with the state and local laws. And if you’re trying to keep things as legal as possible as I am, you’re going to get VERY confused and frustrated.
3) Most of the FEW allowed areas to fly are quite boring to do so in. I love to film nature and I love to hover above streams and film mountains, but most of those areas are off limits to me technically.
4) I totally get that people who make these rules don’t want to see everyone flying and causing a danger to others and I’m all for that, but if there were some way to pay an extra fee to fly in say, a national park, that would be great. And anyone who would cause damage to property or someone would be liable to a lot of money if they did. This would make pilots fly very carefully, although stats show that there’s VERY few actual incidents that occur.
Drone pilots by a LARGE majority are very safe fliers in my experience, they just aren’t appreciated, it’s a few bad pilots in the past who did stupid things that ended up making this web in the first place and it needs to change ASAP.
The drone industry is rapidly rising in popularity and this new opportunity extends BEYOND just hobbies, it is used in real estate, to save people, it expands commerce in many ways. I get that it can also be used with malicious intent, but the possibility of that is far, far lower and good pilots, which is the majority should not be punished for that in my personal opinion!
Update: I have a lot of new drone footage to share of other beautiful areas…
Even though there are a lot of regulations, I still make sure that each time I fly that it’s in the “green” areas I find. I want to share some amazing photos I took on a west coast trip in California, Oregon and many of the other western states. Here are the details of 10 beautiful spots I recommend seeing on the Oregon Coast.
Want to know more about drones? Check out my other site on it.
I run a site called TheDroneAdventure.com where I detail different models, rules and ways to enjoy this hobby safely.
Many of the coastal areas I explored did not allow drone usage and the Airmap definitely helped me figure out where I could legally fly. In any case, the pictures I took there were crazy! Enjoy 🙂