Now I get it: The rules for drones

Every time I review a drone for Yahoo Finance, some of the reader comments are utterly predictable. “You fly one of those things over my house, and I’ll shoot it down!”

Actually, you probably shouldn’t. It’s a federal crime to shoot at an aircraft—even a drone.

But there are laws about flying drones, too. And since the rules are fairly new, and most people don’t know what they are, I thought maybe I’d recap them for you.

The FAA has two sets of rules: one for amateurs—people who aren’t paid to fly, who do it for fun—and one for anybody who gets paid to fly.

Commercial drone rules

First up: The commercial rules.

  • The pilot. You have to be over 16 and speak English. You have to pass a knowledge test at an FAA-approved test center, which are listed here. (If you already have a pilot’s license—a “part 61 certificate”—you can take this test online.) You also have to get a drone operator certificate (a “remote pilot certificate” that never expires), or be supervised by someone who has one. You have to take a flight-knowledge test every two years.
  • The drone. You have to register the drone with the FAA, which costs $5. The drone must have “aircraft markings” (an ID number that can be traced back to you, the owner) and weigh less than 55 pounds. There must be at least one pilot for every drone.
  • The site. You can’t fly the drone while you’re under a roof (of a building or a parked car, for example). You also can’t be in a moving vehicle if you’re in a populated area. You have to keep the drone within your sight at all times, or at least within the sight of an observer who’s in communication with you.
  • The flight. Before you fly, you have to inspect the drone to make sure it’s safe. You can’t fly at night unless the drone’s lights are visible for three miles. Once you take off, you have to keep the drone below 400 feet, unless you’re within 400 feet of “a structure.” (That’s a loophole that lets drones inspect towers and buildings.) You can’t fly the drone over people (except your own team), you have to avoid other flying craft, and you can’t exceed 100 miles an hour.

Amateur drone rules

The “safety guidelines”—not rules—for amateur drones are very similar, but there aren’t as many.

If your drone weighs between .55 pounds and 55 pounds, you have to register the drone with the FAA. You have to keep the drone below 400 feet, you can’t fly over people or cars, you have to keep the drone at least 25 feet away from people, you have to keep it within your sight, you have to avoid other flying craft, you can’t capture images where there’s “a reasonable expectation of privacy,” you can’t fly over infrastructure like power stations and prisons, and you can’t fly within five miles of an airport without permission.

So there you have it. If someone is flying a drone over you or your property without permission, they’re breaking the rules—and now you know enough to explain that to them.

David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. Here’s how to get his columns by email.