Multirotors and the Law (Specifically the FAA)

by | Sep 23, 2014 | theory, tips | 0 comments

The past couple of years have seen a dramatic increase in the popularity of multirotor aircraft piloting as a hobby, as well as for potential commercial applications. The rapidly decreasing cost of multirotor flight systems, like the KK2.1 flight controller, coupled with their rapidly increasing sophistication, is making a previously niche pastime much more mainstream.

In general, growth in the popularity and accessibility of multiritor aircraft is a fantastic thing. History demonstrates that whenever a new technology sees an explosion in popularity among the public, great innovation and further advances ensue. This happened with personal computer technology in the 1980s, it happened with the Internet in the late 1990s, and it is happening now with 3D printing technology. We are all very excited to see what the near future may hold for multirotor aircraft technology.

However, the increasing popularity of multirotor aircraft brings along with it legal questions, and sometimes legal conflict.

Multirotors and the Law

Meet the FAA

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the agency responsible for overseeing the country’s civil aviation infrastructure. The FAA is primarily responsible for ensuring that the United States’ aviation systems are safe for the American people. Its mission statement reads, “Our continuing mission is to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world.”

FAA Airspace

If you are reading this in the United States, you are in FAA airspace. It really is that simple. There is a widely held belief that below a certain altitude, one is outside the jurisdiction of the FAA. Some say 400 feet, some say 700 feet, but it doesn’t matter because in reality the FAA’s jurisdiction starts at the ground and extends to the edge of space.

It is likely this confusion arises from the concept of FAA-controlled airspace. FAA-controlled airspace is basically the airspace in which manned aircraft operate and it is the airspace of primary concern to the FAA. Because 400 feet is below the safety floor of most manned aircraft, it is generally permissible to fly multirotor aircraft, and other unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), under 400 feet altitude. The rationale here is that if pilots keep UAVs under 400 feet altitude, there is no chance of a UAV colliding with a manned aircraft.

With that in mind though, there are a whole bunch of (mostly poorly defined) rules regarding where one can fly UAVs and for what purposes.

A Nebulous and Shifting Rulebook

You are probably aware that there is a significant amount of confusion surrounding exactly how the FAA treats small UAVs like multirotor aircraft. This confusion exists because to date the FAA as been very very slow in setting forth rules that specifically govern the use of small UAVs. Existing laws are dated and were clearly drafted for unmanned aircraft with capabilities close to those of manned aircraft, rather than for hobby- and consumer-scale UAVs. Currently, there are few laws on the books that explicitly apply to hobbyist and consumer UAVs.

Now, the good news is that the FAA is currently working on a new set of rules that will apply specifically to small UAVs, like multirotor aircraft. The bad news is that the FAA, as a massive governmental organization, operates on a glacial time scale and it will be several years before all the new rules are created and put into place.

In the meantime, many multirotor enthusiasts are frustrated by the arbitrary, and frankly illogical, way the FAA has addressed small UAV flights. The FAA is not being evil or trying to crush an enriching hobby enjoyed by many, a sentiment you will find many places online; the FAA is genuinely trying its best to make sure that this emerging technology is explored safely. It is just unfortunate that the agency is doing a fairly poor job.

Anyway, that is enough background. Even given the lack of legislative specifics, there are a few rules all multirotor pilots should follow if you want to avoid time in court.

More About FAA-controlled Airspace

Before we were discussing how even though the FAA has jurisdiction over everything above the ground in the United States, flying a multirotor aircraft or other UAV under an altitude of 400 feet is generally considered permissible. Unfortunately, it is not quite as simple as that.

FAA-controlled airspace is not simply “the space above 400 feet.” The FAA slices the the atmosphere into different regulatory sections and each section is identified by a letter, A through G. Below is a really ugly and confusing chart created by the FAA that shows each section.

Airspace Chart

The FAA slices the airspace into different sections.

Each different section has different requirements for aircraft entering that airspace. For starters, all the sections apart from G require FAA approval to fly in (which you will never get, even Amazon has been unable to get approval).

Rule 1: Fly Only in Uncontrolled Airspace Below 400 feet

The G classification is the one of primary interest to us as multirotor pilots. The G classification denotes uncontrolled airspace. This is the only airspace in which we can fly UAVs. G-classification airspace is a kind of default classification. Basically, airspace below 700 or 1200 feet that has not been included in any other classification is classified as G.

You are probably wondering now why we have been using the 400 foot altitude all this time if G-classification airspace extends as high as 1200 feet. Well, this is a good example of the outdated and non-specific set of rules the FAA is currently using to regulate UAV flights. In 1981 the FAA suggested that model aircraft pilots fly below 400 feet. Even though this document was just advisory, not a law or anything, and it really has nothing to do with the FAA’s airspace classification system, it is probably a good idea to obey this suggestion unless spending your time in court establishing a new legal precedent sounds like fun.

So rule #1 for flying multirotors is, only fly in uncontrolled airspace and stay under 400 feet.

Rule 2: Stay Far Away from Airports

We already mentioned that there are exceptions to the “fly under 400 feet” generalization. One of the most notable exceptions is the airspace surrounding airports. The airspace surrounding airports is classified into the B, C, or D classifications pictured above. These classification areas look like inverted wedding cakes, and their size depends upon a number of factors including the size of the airport and geographical features.

As a rule of thumb, always stay at least three miles away from any airport, even small regional airports.

Airspace around Dane County Airport

A three-mile zone surrounding the Dane County Airport near where I live in Madison, Wisconsin

This can actually be a bigger problem than it might at first seem. For example, my home town, Madison, Wisconsin, is known for its two huge lakes, Lake Mendota and Lake Monona. Many people like to fly multirotors near these scenic lakes. However, the presence of the Dane County Regional Airport on the northern side of the city technically means that multirotor pilots cannot legally fly anywhere in the northern part of either lake.

In the New York city area there are three airports: John F. Kennedy International Airport, LaGuardia Airport, and Newark Liberty International Airport. The presence of these three airports basically means that there are very few places in New York city where one can legally fly a multirotor.

So rule #2 for flying multirotors is, stay at least three miles away from all airports.

Rule 3:  Do Not Fly for Commercial Purposes

We come now to what is by far the most controversial rule the FAA enforces on UAV pilots.

Technically, the FAA does not ban flying UAVs for commercial applications. It does, however, require aircraft to get FAA approval. Only two UAVs have thus far been granted FAA approval: the $250,000 AeroVironment RQ-20 Puma, and the $3.2 million Boeing Insitu ScanEagle. These very sophisticated, very expensive aircraft are used by various branches of the U.S. military for surveillance missions, including missions during armed conflicts, as well as for environmental surveillance missions in Alaska related to the fossil fuel industry.

These are the kind of vehicles the FAA hand in mind when it drafted its current UAV laws, full-scale aircraft that come close to manned aircraft in terms of size, capabilities, and the damage they could do in a collision. A 14-ounce RC quadcopter should clearly not be governed by the same set of regulations.

AeroVironment RQ-20 Puma

AeroVironment RQ-20 Puma

Boeing Insitu ScanEagle

Boeing Insitu ScanEagle

Hubsan X4 FPV mini

Not really the same thing (Hubsan X4 FPV mini)

This blatantly obvious mismatch has done nothing to stop the FAA from attempting to block the commercial use of consumer UAVs though. A famous example of the FAA’s illogical policies is the case of a photographer, Raphael Pirker, who got in trouble with the FAA for flying a camera-equipped UAV over the campus of a university that had paid for his services. Pirker was fined $10,000 for flying “in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.” The FAA levied this massive fine against Pirker citing the same regulations that govern the conduct of passenger jet pilots. Pirker was flying a 4.5 pound Styrofoam glider.

The FAA claims it is simply trying to carry its mission to protect the American public, which is likely true, but it is clear that drawing a line between commercial and non-commercial use has nothing to do with safety. Consider another example: many farmers wish to use multirotor aircraft technology to monitor their crops. An bird’s eye view of their fields could enable farmers to determine how best to distribute water and fertilizer in order to minimize waste and maximize the health of their crops. However, the FAA says such activities are illegal. If a farmer flew a UAV for fun over a corn field, doing barrel rolls, loops, and other acrobatic stunts that would be perfectly legal. But methodologically and slowly flying over the same corn field for the purpose of monitoring crop health would be illegal.

There are a lot of other reasons why the FAA’s ban on commercial flying really doesn’t make any sense. For example, there are many, many companies now that sell consumer-scale UAVs to the general public. Does the FAA’s ban on commercial flights mean these companies cannot test their aircraft prior to putting them on the market? Are all the people on Kickstarter looking to fund (commercialize) quadcopter projects opening themselves or their companies to massive fines from the FAA? Are the videos these people put on their Kickstarter campaign pages evidence of crimes?

Luckily, the very illogical prohibition on commercial UAV flying is being legally challenged in several court cases, including that of Raphael Pirker. Should Pirker and others be successful in their cases, the ban on commercial flying might well be lifted. But in the meantime, unless you want to get into a legal battle with the FAA as well, don’t fly UAVs for commercial purposes.

So rule #3 for flying multirotors is, fly only for recreation and never for commercial purposes.

Rule 4:  Always Maintain Visual Contact with Your UAV

The last rule for UAV pilots is a simple one. Currently, flying beyond visual range (BVR) is forbidden by the FAA. “You are required to maintain visual contact with your aircraft at all times.” Even UAVs equipped with FPV camera technology giving pilots a first-person view from the aircraft, or GPS technology allowing aircraft to fly along pre-configured courses, must always stay within visual range of the pilot. Simply put, a UAV pilot must always be able to see the aircraft and steer it away from buildings, other aircraft, or other obstacles.

So rule #4 for flying multirotors is, always maintain visual contact with your UAV.

Multirotors and Non-FAA Laws

Although the entirety of this page, up to this point, and most of the media attention, concerns FAA laws and regulations regarding UAV use, there are also non-FAA, non-UAV laws that multirotor pilots must consider. In fact, should you ever find yourself in legal trouble as a UAV pilot (hopefully that doesn’t happen), you are more likely to be charged with violating other laws such as:

  • Invasion of privacy
  • Reckless endangerment
  • Noise ordinance violation
  • Trespassing

Privacy

As more and more UAV systems have build-in cameras, or support for the attachment of cameras, legal issues regarding privacy are likely to increase (it seems like every new technology brings new privacy concerns). For now, images and audio captured by UAVs would seem to be covered under existing privacy laws. Most privacy laws contain language allowing one to record in contexts where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.

For example, in public spaces, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy and there is no legal basis for invasion of privacy claims. So it should be generally safe to record in public parks, city streets, or other public areas as these are understood to be public places. It may also be possible that in certain areas of private property which are always visible from public areas, like a front yard, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. Although one should probably not intentionally film another’s front yard or building exterior, should these areas be captured on images in, for example, the background of a shot, there should be little risk of legal repercussions.

Other places are more of a gray area where privacy is concerned. For example, technically there is no expectation of privacy on a public beach, like like there isn’t in a public park; but filming people on beaches is probably likely to raise some objections. As another example, certain exterior surfaces of a private building, like a backyard, deck, or porch, are, on the one hand, not always visible from public areas, but they are also not exactly hidden (provided the back yard is not fenced in or something). But there is a good chance that owners of such spaces would have at least some legal grounds for an invasion of privacy suit if they really had a mind to sue you. So, it is probably best for UAV pilots to avoid filming in areas such as these.

Last, imaging some areas clearly invades the privacy of others and should be absolutely avoided. Fenced in back yards, windows, and the interior of buildings are places where occupants clearly have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Areas like these should not be filmed, even if the UAV is not actually on the owner’s property.

Trespassing

Another legal grey area for UAV pilots is trespassing laws. The specific legal issue of concern to UAV pilots is a property owner’s right to control the airspace above their private property.

Trespassing is not a concern for manned aircraft since they operate thousands of feed above the ground, far to high to be considered trespassing. The law is also clear on air rights at very low altitudes over private property. Hoisting a boom over a neighbor’s property, for example, would certainly constitute trespassing. UAVs, however, find themselves in a grey area. They do not fly high enough to fall under the same logic as manned aircraft (see rule #1 above), yet they fly higher than any normal structure that could be erected over private property. Once again, existing laws do not neatly apply to UAV technology and there is not a large enough body of legal cases to establish legal precedent.

So for now, a UAV pilot should simply avoid flying over private property without the owner’s permission and avoid the risk of legal trouble.

Summary

So in summary, although current legislation either does not apply well to consumer-scale UAV technology, or does not exist at all, there are some rules UAV pilots can follow to protect the safety of others and minimize the risk of legal trouble:

  • Fly only in uncontrolled airspace and under 400 feet
  • Stay at least three miles away from airports
  • Do not fly for commercial purposes, only fly for recreational purposes
  • Stay within visual range of your aircraft
  • Don’t capture images where those images could violate another’s privacy
  • Treat the airspace over private property as private property and do not trespass
  • Don’t fly over crowds or in a situation where your UAV could cause harm to others
  • Avoid flying late at night or in locations where noise from your UAV could be a nuisance to others
  • Stay updated on the latest regulations released by the FAA about UAVs

Disclaimer: This article should not be taken as legal advice. Rather, this article merely reflects the views of its author. I am not a lawyer. Please consult with an attorney to determine what, if any, legal requirements or restrictions apply to the use of UAVs in your area.