Flyer beware: Drone regs tighten usage


Seems like you can’t turn a page — or open your curtains — without seeing a drone.

Realtors hire them to provide aerial footage of high-end homes for sale. Farmers rely on them to check irrigation lines for leaks. Videographers love to incorporate fly-over shots in their work. And, of course, Amazon seems to be champing at the bit to use drone technology to get packages to our doors even faster.

The rise in popularity of drones has led to more consumer interest, more commercial applications — and regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration, placing very stringent guidelines on how companies may utilize drones for commercial purposes. These regs apply to only drones weighing more than 0.55 pounds. Anything lighter than that is considered a toy, and you are on your own.

All commercial drone pilots must be licensed by the FAA. To receive a license, you must pass an aviation test that covers general knowledge of airspace, airport operations, weather and FAA regulations.

You also must pass a Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) background screen. Finally, you must also register the drone you intend to use.

But you’re still not ready to fly. You need to understand the new FAA restrictions on commercial usage and, if your usage doesn’t comply, apply for a waiver. Take off unprepared, and you could face big fines.

Rules and waivers

Enacted in August 2016, the FAA regs prohibit a number of things, including:

  • Operating a drone at night.
  • Flying a drone outside of your line of sight.
  • Flying a drone over the head of another person, unless that person is in a fully covered structure, such as a building or covered stadium.
  • Flying within five miles of a commercial airport.
  • Operating a drone from a moving vehicle.

There also are speed restrictions to follow, plus a requirement to stay within 400 feet of the ground or the building you are flying above.

States also have begun enacting laws restricting how drones may be used. In Michigan, pilots may not, for example, intentionally invade the reasonable privacy of others or interfere with an emergency rescue.

These restrictions even apply to drones flown over your own private property, which means drones used to film sporting, student or recreational events may not be flown over people — even when these people are on your property and aware of the drone.

Operators failing to comply with these restrictions are subject to a fine for each violation. Many fines are modest, only a few hundred dollars. But the FAA shocked commercial drone operators in October 2016 when it issued a whopping $1.9 million fine against a Chicago drone company for 65 illegal drone flights in the congested airspace over New York and Chicago. While this was reduced to $200,000 in January, it was enough to make commercial drone pilots everywhere sit up and take notice.

Commercial drone operators can apply to the FAA for waivers from some or all of these restrictions. Pilots looking for a waiver must submit a request, explain why the waiver is needed and detail the additional precautions that will be done to make the flight safer.

Drone regulations still are evolving. And they must evolve to keep up with the rapid technology advances that are destined to make what were once considered unsafe uses to be safe. Only time will tell how these regulations will morph, but there are some things to watch, which may foreshadow how this will play out.

The FAA waiver process itself will provide great insight into what noncomplying uses the FAA views as being safe. It’s reasonable to expect uses commonly approved by the FAA through waivers will be a strong indication of what restrictions FAA may lessen or what uses it may exempt entirely from regulation.

Amazon, Google and other drone industry leaders also will influence these regulations. Coalitions for these technology-forward drone leaders will continue to lobby against current restrictions on flight over another’s head or outside of one’s line of sight. How these regs get to the point of allowing what some say is inevitable — a network of low-altitude, travelable airspace to move people and goods — is unclear. But it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Lance R. Zoerhof is a litigator with the law firm Warner Norcross & Judd LLP who focuses on supply chain and real estate disputes and related regulatory issues. He can be reached at

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