Flying a Drone: Legally, What Can Happen?

By Brett Snider, Esq. on June 19, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Drones are now available at a more affordable price point, but there are still plenty of legal issues to deal with while flying one.

Whether you're planning on flying one for fun or for profit, these tiny, buzzing aerial copters can be a magnet for trouble -- legal and otherwise.

So what exactly can happen, legally, when you're flying a drone? Here are a few possible scenarios:

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You Can Potentially Be Arrested

The joy of flight is unfortunately coupled by the sinking feeling associated with crashes. And even though most commercially available drones are tiny and lightweight, they can still do some damage when they surrender to gravity.

This is especially true if you decide to do your next drone test flight in a populated urban area. A Brooklyn drone pilot learned this the hard way when he was arrested for reckless endangerment after his crashing drone nearly hit someone. No one is saying you have to be a perfect pilot, just avoid criminal charges by flying your drone away from populated areas.

You Could Get a Nastygram From the FAA

There is currently a federal appeal pending on whether businesses need "airworthiness" certification for drones before using them commercially. While the Federal Aviation Administration is still grappling with the National Transportation Safety Board over these rules, it remains illegal to use a drone for commercial purposes without the FAA's blessing.

Case in point: A whimsical brewery in Minnesota attempted to float the idea of drones being used to deliver its beer to ice fishermen. But the FAA quickly sent Lakemaid Beer a nastygram outlining the potential violations. Amazon has similar plans for drone delivery that faces similar problems.

For the time being, businesses wanting to use drones can apply for certification with the FAA, but the FAA is only granting them for experimental or research uses, not deliveries.

You Could Be Attacked by a Drone-Hater

Another non-legal consequence of piloting a drone in a public area is the chance that an onlooker will become enraged at your use of a drone -- especially if it's equipped with a camera and folks think you're recording them without their permission. People have been beaten for using Google Glass, which arguably has a slightly better track record than aerial drones.

In fact, a Connecticut resident was allegedly attacked by an angry woman for his use of a drone over a public beach; the woman eventually arrested.

If you're flying a drone as a hobby, try to at least abide by the FAA's old rules for model airplanes, and keep your drone "a sufficient distance from populated areas."

And remember not to fly your drone near small Colorado towns.

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