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Marty and Max: Drone safety

by MARTY WALKER
| December 15, 2023 1:00 AM

I have one of the most dangerous jobs in America. I am a professional drone pilot in Idaho. I am not with the FBI or the government, however, I have had more guns pointed in my direction than I can count. Drones make a wonderful Christmas gift and they are also one of the best real estate tools available. Most folks, however, don’t know the regulations involved with flying one. 

“I don’t fly above 400 feet, so I do not need a commercial license.’ 

“I only take drone images for myself, so I do not need a license.” 

“I bought my drone at Costco, so I do not have to register it.”

Fun Fact: The civil penalties for flying a commercial rig without first obtaining a remote pilot's certificate from the FAA are up to $32,666 for each incidence. Fines are based on missions or incidents, and every time you land and change batteries, you start a new mission/incident and additional fines. One pilot received a fine of $1.9 million, and another was $182,000, alleging that the pilot violated multiple regulations at the same time on each flight. This is how you can rack up a $182k fine quickly. This individual published many videos on YouTube. If you are posting to YouTube, you can pretty much guarantee a license is required. 

Failure to register an unmanned aircraft that is required to be registered may result in regulatory and criminal penalties. The FAA may assess civil penalties up to $27,500. Criminal penalties include fines of up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment for up to three years.

Many folks assume that a recreational flight simply means not flying for a business or being compensated. Compensation, or the lack of it, is not what determines if a flight is recreational or not. Before you fly your drone, you need to know which regulations apply to your flight. 

Non-recreational drone flying includes things like taking photos to help sell a property or service, doing roof inspections, or taking pictures of a high school football game for the school's website. Goodwill can also be considered non-recreational. This would include things like volunteering to use your drone to survey coastlines on behalf of a non-profit organization.

Most folks do not follow the old laws, however, there are new laws, and they apply to everyone. Ignorance is not Bliss.

If your drone weighs more than .55 pounds (lbs.), you must register your drone. 

Any drone that requires FAA registration operating in U.S. Airspace must comply with the final rule on remote ID by September 16, 2023. For most folks this means their current drone is obsolete and cannot be legally flown. This allows the FAA to track all drone flights. Before you make a purchase, ensure it has remote ID.

In the U.S., you can fly your drone as low as you like over private property, but remember, you must stay below 400 feet and always have the drone in your line of sight. For most folks, line of sight is less than 2,000 feet. 

The following rules apply to everyone:

- Fly at or below 400 feet

- Keep your drone within sight

- Don't fly in restricted airspace

- Don't fly near other aircraft, especially near airports

- Don't fly over groups of people

- Don't fly over stadiums or sporting events

- Don't fly near emergency response efforts such as fires

- Don't fly under the influence


Non licensed recreational pilots must comply with all regulations including taking the FAA TRUST exam and obtaining an FAA certificate. They must also download and use FAA B4UFLY.

The US Fish & Game has some things to say regarding drones. Winter is a time for Eagle nesting. Under federal law, it is illegal to pursue, molest, or disturb eagles including getting too close which is defined as a 660-foot buffer around an active eagle nest during the breeding season.

Drones can cause an eagle pair to abandon an active nest for the breeding season, which causes egg failure or the death of chicks. Under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the first offense is up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine for an individual or a $200,000 fine for an organization. The second offense becomes a felony, with up to two years in prison, and a $250,000 fine for an individual or a $500,000 fine for an organization. 

It is also illegal to trail or pace an eagle with a drone while the eagle is in flight, regardless of location or time of year.

Everyone that I know who has a drone has crashed a drone. When I was learning to fly my twin Cessna my flight instructor made it very clear. There are bold pilots and there are old pilots, but there are not too many bold and old pilots. Be safe out there. 

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