How the FAA’s Drone Regulations Could Hamper Pros and Journalists

Drones Drones & Vehicles
silhouette of airborne drone and pilot's controller against setting sun over ocean.
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The Locomotives on Roads Act was an 1865 British law that required a motorized vehicle to be preceded by a man on foot holding a red flag to warn the public. The vehicle’s speed was limited to 4mph on highways and 2mph in villages and towns. Weight and size limits were also provided, as were fines for violating the law.

If this sound familiar, you must be an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS or drone) pilot, for some of the rules we must follow are reminiscent of the infamous Red Flag Law. For example, if a drone weighs more than 0.55 pounds, it must be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). That’s reasonable. What’s not is that pilots who fail to register are subject to civil penalties up to $27,500 and criminal penalties up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment for up to three years!

Rear view of man in straw hat and woman in hat with bow sitting and driving in Model T car.
© Erika Kyte – Adobe Stock

The registration requirement tops two sets of overlapping regulations that drone flyers must obey. One set is called Part 101, and it applies to aircraft flown for hobby or recreational purposes under the Special Rule for Model Aircraft (Public Law 112-95 Section 336).

Part 107 rules apply to pilots who fly their drones for work, such as photography of property by real estate sales people and cell tower and power line inspections. I’m both a hobby flyer and a freelance writer. So, I can’t include a photo taken by one of my drones in this article, for the FAA has blocked my First Amendment rights and might fine me for not being a Part 107 pilot. Hopefully the FAA will not fine me for writing this article.

Back to Part 101, the Special Rule for Model Aircraft (Public Law 112-95 Section 336) prohibits the FAA from regulating hobbyists and recreational UAS pilots like me. Though educators and their students are not included, the FAA received so many complaints about their blocking of schools and colleges from teaching UAS technology with actual flights that the FAA recently allowed limited educational use under the Special Rule. That’s the good news. The bad news is that their six pages of reasoning and conditions are much too complex and lawyerly for my simple mind to grasp.

FAA Drone Poster
FAA Drone Poster

The Special Rule for Model Aircraft provides that:
• The aircraft must be flown: “. . . strictly for hobby or recreational use.”
• The aircraft must be flown: “. . . in accordance with a community- based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization.” The leading such organization is the Academy of Model Aeronautics. (I’m a member.)
• The aircraft must not weigh more than 55 pounds. (The vast majority of quadcopters weigh under several pounds.)
• The aircraft must be “. . .flown within visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft.”
• The aircraft must be flown so that it does not: “. . . interfere with and gives way to any manned aircraft.”
• When the flight is within five miles of an airport, the pilot must provide: “. . . the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower (when an air traffic facility is located at the airport) with prior notice.” The law goes on to provide that pilots: “. . . flying from a permanent location within 5 miles of an airport should establish a mutually-agreed upon operating procedure with the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower (when an air traffic facility is located at the airport).”

To these rules the FAA has added some basic safety requirements for both hobby and commercial UAS pilots:
• Fly at or below 400 feet
• Keep your UAS within sight
• Never fly near other aircraft, especially near airports
• Never fly over groups of people
• Never fly over stadiums or sports events
• Never fly near emergency response efforts such as fires
• Never fly under the influence
• Be aware of airspace requirements

Some UAS pilots are placing a bad light on the hobby by ignoring some or even many of the rules. Some are even posting online videos of illegal and dangerous flying practices, which can give all drone pilots a bad name. The consequences of ignoring the rules can be a stiff fine and even jail time. The reckless pilot whose drone recently crashed into the top of Seattle’s Space Needle near two workers is about to learn the consequences of his stunt.

According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA): “About 70 percent of the U.S. population lives within 20 miles of one of the 30 major airports. With over 13,000 airports in the United States today, there is a very good chance you live or work within five miles of one of these smaller airports.” I’ve learned that establishing contact with airports is both straightforward and informative, and I’ve reached agreements with three airports within five miles of my flying field. (A fourth is a helicopter pad with a disconnected phone.)

Rear view of plane taking off and drone silhouetted against sunset.
© ASP Inc – Adobe Stock

The FAA’s B4UFLY app for IOS and Android gives pilots the names of airports within 5 miles but does not provide contact information. Fortunately, the AOPA has a website that provides phone numbers and addresses.

This brings us to rules for Part 107 for commercial pilots. If you want to sell a single photo or video taken by your drone, it’s necessary to first pay a $150 or more fee and take a 60-question test to acquire a Part 107 certificate. The Part 107 test has been strongly criticized for including technical questions that apply to manned aircraft but have no connection with unmanned aircraft.

Another major problem is the Part 107 controlled airspace rule. While a hobby flyer can simply make a phone call or two before flying within five miles of an airport, commercial flyers must apply for a waiver before flying within the controlled airspace around most airports. The instructions for this lengthy form state: “The FAA will strive to complete review and adjudication of waivers and airspace authorizations within 90 days . . ..” When I sent the previous two sentences to the FAA and asked if this rule is for real, they replied by quoting the rule.

The background photo might be by one of my drones, but I’m not saying.
The background photo might be by one of my drones, but I’m not saying. Photo by Forrest Mims

An unpredictable delay of up to 90 days makes commercial flights impossible when a client or the news media urgently needs photos of something located under controlled airspace. While a Part 101 pilot can simply call the airport tower, the law blocks hobby pilots from selling their photos. Provisions like this, the FAA’s slow response to change and the broken links on the FAA website lend credence to the increasingly widespread view that the FAA is suppressing drones. The FAA’s interpretation of the Federal statute may even violate the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which prohibits Congress from making a law that abridges freedom of the press.

For much more about drones and the law, visit the FAA and AMA and scan the web. And please protect the reputation of UAS pilots by flying safely and not posting unlawful and dangerous drone flights.

Mr. President: Please Ask Congress to stop overregulating drones!

The Federal UAS law and its interpretation by the FAA have deficiencies that discourage compliance, restrict the advancement of UAS applications and block the First Amendment’s freedom of press guarantee. The Congress should promptly:
• Respect the First Amendment by allowing all UAS pilots to publish or sell images and videos made by their UASs.
• Establish categories for unmanned model aircraft, including (1) toy UASs that weigh less than 0.55 pound and (2) UASs that weigh less than 5 pounds, which are by far the most common.
• Recognize that airport control towers are often busy and much more concerned about UASs flying at 400 feet than toy and other small UASs flying below 200 feet by establishing a national airspace classification for small UASs that permits flights up to 100 feet above the ground when more than 1 mile from an airport and without notification.
• Give commercial UAS pilots the same right as hobbyists to call airports within three miles prior to a flight in controlled airspace rather than submitting a complex waiver application and waiting 90 days for a decision.
• Permit first person view flights and competitions at or below an altitude that does not endanger the national airspace and safety of onlookers.
• Require the FAA to update its B4UFLY app by adding airport phone numbers, identify airports closed on weekends, holidays and other times and removing airports that have been abandoned.
• Require the FAA to compress all UAS rules into a single, well-organized, non-confusing website with no broken links.
• Require the FAA to replace all irrelevant questions from its Part 107 test with questions that apply only to safely flying a UAS in the national airspace.

FAA Disclaimer

For the record, I was assigned to write only an article. Photos were not mentioned. So, I hereby donate my above credited photo to Make: free of any compensation.

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Forrest M. Mims III

Forrest M. Mims III (, an amateur scientist and Rolex Award winner, was named by Discover magazine as one of the “50 Best Brains in Science.” His books have sold more than 7 million copies.

View more articles by Forrest M. Mims III


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