How to know where not to fly your drone

It's easier than ever to get your hands on a ready-to-fly quadcopter to send buzzing around the skies. But there are definitely some guidelines you'll want to follow before taking off.

Joshua Goldman Managing Editor / Advice
Managing Editor Josh Goldman is a laptop expert and has been writing about and reviewing them since built-in Wi-Fi was an optional feature. He also covers almost anything connected to a PC, including keyboards, mice, USB-C docks and PC gaming accessories. In addition, he writes about cameras, including action cams and drones. And while he doesn't consider himself a gamer, he spends entirely too much time playing them.
Expertise Laptops, desktops and computer and PC gaming accessories including keyboards, mice and controllers, cameras, action cameras and drones Credentials
  • More than two decades experience writing about PCs and accessories, and 15 years writing about cameras of all kinds.
Joshua Goldman
3 min read

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Editors' note: What follows is not legal advice. Please contact officials in your area or consult an attorney for laws, rules and regulations for where you plan to fly.

The current furor about drones and what you should and shouldn't be allowed to do with them is another case of technology being ahead of laws and regulations (not unlike the controversy over 3D-printed firearms).

Spurred by concerns about privacy and public safety, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has initiated an awareness campaign, including a new site, Know Before You Fly. That's in advance of more concrete consumer drone legislation expected from the agency by the end 2015. At the moment, however, current regulations for where and under what conditions you can recreationally fly radio-controlled drones -- quadcopters, multirotors, flying cameras, unmanned aircraft systems or vehicles (UAS or UAV) or whatever you want to call them -- are a bit confusing.

So before you take your new toy out for spin in the park, here's what you need to know. And this goes for everything for recreational use: from palm-size toys that can be flown around your living room to large multirotor aerial photography and videography models that can carry dSLRs.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

The basics

The FAA claims responsibility for the safety of US airspace from the ground up. For RC hobbyists (read: noncommercial pilots), the FAA safety guidelines limit recreational use of model aircraft to below 400 feet, within sight of the operator and more than 5 miles away from airports and air traffic without prior FAA notification. These guidelines fall in line with the National Model Aircraft Safety Code of the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA).

Other no-fly zones include military bases and national parks. Though some models, such as DJI's Phantom 2 , use GPS to help avoid flying too close to an airport, in general you're on your own in following these guidelines. Custom map developer Mapbox created a Don't Fly Drones Here map for the US if you're curious about the area where you plan to fly. DJI has a global No Fly Zones map.

Drones of 2014: Quadcopters that give you a view from above

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Common sense

Outside of those FAA and AMA guidelines, though, finding a safe place to fly comes down to common sense. This includes avoiding things like flying near power lines or over crowds of people, vehicles and buildings such as stadiums, schools and government buildings or in densely populated areas in general.

While there is nothing in place from the FAA legally stopping you from flying in those areas outside of its guidelines, you certainly run the risk of causing property damage or injuring someone. Similarly, using your drone's camera to record over private property where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy might get you in trouble as well.

The bottom line is for recreational use, you can currently fly your drone anywhere within the limits of the FAA guidelines. But, before you go out to fly somewhere new, it's best to check with local officials to make sure you're in the clear and not breaking any local or state nuisance laws.

Also, I recommend joining the AMA and becoming a member of a local aeromodeling club. There are several benefits to becoming an AMA member, not the least of which is liability coverage. Joining your local AMA charter club will give you access to a safe area to fly and other hobbyists to talk to and learn from.