Long gone are the wild west days of purchasing a drone online and immediately taking to the skies with no training, no license, no registration, and not so much as even a glance at the owner’s manual.
Since 2015, the FAA has treated drones or unmanned aircraft systems (UAEs) as a type of aircraft and the people who operate said drones as pilots.
So, do the new rules and regulations mean all the fun of drone piloting is over? Not exactly. Once you know how to register your drone and get your drone operator license, you will be cleared to fly in many areas of the country.
Ready to get started? Here’s what you need to know to legally fly a drone in the USA.
Types of Drone Operators
The FAA recognizes several categories of drone flyers. The registration process and flight rules differ slightly depending on which type of category you are operating under.
Recreational Drone Pilots
The average person flying a personal drone aircraft falls under the recreational drone pilot category. Recreational pilots are flying just for fun and are not getting paid.
Business Drone Pilots
Commercial drone pilots who are flying their unmanned aircraft (UA) for paying drone jobs like aerial surveillance, photographic services, real estate photography, drone firefighting, and building inspections.
Public Entity Drone Pilots
Law enforcement agencies, government agencies, fire departments, and similar public service organizations are governed by the FAA’s public entity drone policies.
Teachers and students flying drones as part of an educational STEM curriculum qualify as educational pilots.
Do I Need to Register My Drone?
The only drones that currently do not need to be registered are those that weigh 0.55 pounds or less and are used solely for recreational purposes. All drones over 0.55 pounds (250 grams) must be registered with the FAA before they can be flown in the United States. The drone registration will need to be renewed every three years. Drones that weigh 55 pounds (25 kg) or more do not qualify as small, unmanned aircraft, and must instead be registered with an N-number like a standard aircraft.
Pro Tip: Know how you’re going to use your drone throughout its lifespan. When you register your drone, the FAA will ask whether you are flying that drone under Part 107 (commercial) or under the Exception for Recreational Flyers. Once your registration is complete, you won’t be able to alter the registration type for that drone, so a drone registered as recreational won’t later be able to fly commercially.
How to Register a Drone
Here’s what you will need to get registered:
- Your physical and mailing address
- Your email address
- Your phone number
- The make and model of your drone
- The Specific Remote ID serial number if the manufacturer has provided one (keep reading for more info on the new Remote ID program)
- Credit or debit card to pay $5 registration fee
Once your drone registration is complete, the FAA will issue you a registration certificate. Remember to always keep a paper or digital copy of this certificate with you when you are flying (just like you would standard aircraft registration paperwork). Federal, state, and local law enforcement officers may ask to see your registration document while you are flying.
Pro Tip: Drones registered with the FAA must also be labeled with their registration number prior to flight. The registration number “must be legibly displayed on an external surface of the small, unmanned aircraft.” You can engrave the number, write it with permanent marker, or adhere a label as long as the number is legible and stays on the drone at all times during flight. If you drone’s battery can be removed without using a tool, you could place your registration number inside the battery compartment.
Do I need a License to Fly a Drone?
Your drone is ready, but what about you? Before you can legally fly a drone in skies over the United States, you will need to obtain an FAA drone pilot license, or “remote pilot certificate.” The drone pilot license requirements are different for recreational versus commercial pilots.
For recreational and educational pilots, the drone pilot certification process includes taking a short online drone pilot training course and passing four small quizzes. Once you pass the quizzes, you can download and print your drone pilot certificate which you will want to keep on you while flying. The online course materials and test are free from any of the FAA’s TRUST test administrators.
Pro Tip: Your pilot certificate will not be saved by the test administrator and cannot be re-accessed once you close out of it, so make sure to download and save the certificate right away. You may also want to print a paper copy for your records.
Commercial and public entity pilots fly under a Part 107 license, so the process is a bit more involved, but still not difficult. Commercial pilots must be at least 16-years old, apply for and receive an FAA Tracking Number (FTN), plus pass an in-person 60-item Part 107 knowledge test. The testing fee is currently $160.
Pro Tip: Get a copy of the ASA Remote Pilot Test Prep book as a drone license study guide to help you ace the knowledge test the first time.
Commercial Drone Pilot License Requirements
If you’re a new drone pilot with no previous pilot’s license, your path to a commercial drone pilot’s license will look different than if you already hold a part 61 license and are current on your flight reviews. Here’s a high-level summary of the two paths to a commercial Part 107 drone pilot license:
First Time Pilot Drone License Requirements
Per the FAA, new would-be “remote pilots” must meet the following requirements:
- Be at least 16 years old
- Be able to read, speak, write, and understand English
- Be in a physical and mental condition to safely fly a drone
- Pass the initial aeronautical knowledge exam: "Unmanned Aircraft General – Small (UAG)"
- Once a drone pilot certificate is issued, the remote pilot must keep that certificate easily accessible any time they are flying a UAS
- Must maintain recency by completing an online recurrent training course once every 24 calendar months
Drone Pilot License Requirements for Certified Part 61 Pilots
For a Part 61 pilot to qualify for a small, unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) pilot license under this program, the pilot must have completed a current flight review within the last twenty-four months. Training, testing, and other details for the Part 107 Small UAS initial pilot certification for Part 61 pilots program can be found here.
Pro Tip: Pilots who hold a manned aircraft pilot’s license do not need to take the Part 107 knowledge test.
Where Can You Fly a Drone?
The list of no-fly locations for drones keeps growing as new policies and laws are put in place to make the airspace over locations like national parks and large-scale public events off-limits for drone pilots. All the restrictions can leave responsible drone pilots wondering, “Where can I legally fly my drone?”
Drone flights are banned in controlled Class B, C, and D airspace unless the pilot obtains prior ATC approval. Class A airspace starts well above the 400’ AGL altitude limit which the FAA has set for UAVs. That leaves Class E and Class G airspace.
You are usually free to fly your drone in both Class E and Class G airspace without asking for ATC permission. The only (rare) exception is a lateral surface Class E airspace that is close to an airport.
The easiest way for a pilot to confirm where they can and cannot fly is by using the FAA’s B4UFLY app, available on the App Store and Google Play. Preflight planning can also be done on your computer using a desktop version of B4UFLY.
The app’s interactive map uses a “clear status” indicator to easily show drone operators where they can fly, considering variables like controlled airspace, special use airspace, TFRs, airport locations, and more.
Pro Tip: Before flying over new destinations, do your research and watch for “no drone” signs once you arrive. Also learn about the Operations Over People rule and know when you may need to request a flight waiver. By being respectful of drone flying restrictions, you are helping to foster a positive community image of all drone pilots.
What is Remote ID and What Does it Mean for Drone Pilots?
The newest drone operation policy change takes effect September 16, 2023. Starting on that date, drones flying inside US airspace will need to broadcast remote identification and location information.
This new requirement is known as Remote ID. The FAA says its Remote ID program “helps the FAA, law, enforcement, and other federal agencies find the control station when a drone appears to be flying in an unsafe manner or where it is not allowed to fly.”
What does Remote ID mean for you? Some drones are already being produced with integrated remote ID technology, and if you buy a new drone after September 16, 2022, that drone must come standard with built-in remote ID.
Existing drones without Remote ID will be able to meet the broadcast requirements by attaching a broadcast module to the drone. (Contact your drone manufacturer for specifics). Finally, the FAA will approve “FAA-Recognized Identification Areas” (FRIAs) within which non-Remote ID drones can be flown within visual line of sight.
FAA Drone Laws FAQs
Still have a few more drone-related questions? Here are the answers to some of the most common questions about FAA drone regulations.
· If you are just visiting the United States, do you still need to register your drone?
Yes—all drones over 0.55 pounds need to be registered with the FAA prior to flight regardless of the citizenship status of the drone owner/pilot. If you are a “foreign operator,” when you register your drone, the FAA will issue you a certificate of ownership rather than a certificate of U.S. aircraft registration. You can use the certificate of ownership to legally fly your drone in the United States.
· How much does it cost to register a drone with the FAA?
Drone registration fees are currently $5 per drone. The $5 fee applies to both Part 107 and Exception for Recreational Flyers registrations. Both types of registrations last for three years.
· What happens if you fly an unregistered drone?
Drone law violations are no joke. Operators of unregistered drones can be subject to both civil and criminal penalties including up to $27,500 in civil fines and/or criminal fines of up to $250,000. Criminal punishment could also include up to three years in prison depending on the nature and impact of the violation.
· How do you renew your drone registration?
Every three years when your drone registration expires, you will need to renew it on the Drone Zone site. Log in using the same email address as you entered when you initially registered. Confirm your information and your drone’s information, then pay the renewal fee (currently $5). Print/save a copy of the updated registration to have with you when you fly.
· How long does it take to get an FAA drone license?
It depends if you’re asking about the license for the drone itself, or you as the pilot. Registering your drone can be done online in less than fifteen minutes. You will get a digital registration certificate right away.
Getting a recreational drone pilot license takes a little longer since you need to complete the online training course and quizzes, but you can still have a certificate in hand in about thirty minutes.
Commercial drone operators should allow one to two months to complete their certification process.
· How high can you fly a drone?
In the United States, the FAA limits the maximum altitude of drone flights to 400 feet AGL unless otherwise approved.
As more and more drones take to the skies, the rules to fly small unmanned aircraft are also being expanded. Before you fly a drone in the U.S., make sure your drone is registered, you have the appropriate operator certification, and your flight plan keeps you out of restricted airspace. By following these simple steps, you can continue to enjoy the next generation of remote piloting.
Are you a drone pilot? In the comments, share which type of drone you fly and whether you are a recreational or commercial drone pilot. What are your thoughts on the Remote ID rollout?