Skip to content

Best Practices

Overhead shot taken by a drone
Photograph courtesy of Estlin Haiss

Drones open the door to amazing new opportunities and allow virtually anyone to access to the skies.  Innovating in aviation used to be the territory of large corporations and deep-pocketed industrialists but drones have democratized flight technology in a way that has not been seen in generations.

Though with access comes responsibility.  We must make sure that flights are conducted in a way that is both safe and legal.  This page attempts to compile a brief primer on drone policy and practice.  You should read and understand all federal, state, local and institutional rules regarding UAV flight.  This page does not attempt to shortcut that recommendation but instead, give you a good place to start.

Common FAA Infractions:

  • Commercial vs Recreational flight.  Drones may be flown recreationally provided that you do not engage in anything related to commercial activity.  Educational activities can still be considered commercial if you are receiving pay and using the drones for work.  The FAA considers virtual all exchanges, even bartering, to be commercial activities.
  • Flying with Visual Line of Sight.  You or a member of your team in contact with you must be able to see your drone at all times when flying.  Video screens, headsets, and other technologies are not a substitute for the VLS requirement.
  • Flying in class-restricted airspace.   All airspace is divided into “classes”.  You are only permitted to fly in Class G airspace unless you have a Remote Pilot Certificate or approval from an air traffic controller.  Remote Pilot Certificate holders are still bound by airspace class rules but have fewer restrictions.  We recommend using airspace planning services such as Skyward to check locations for airspace restrictions.
  • Flying in other “No Fly” Zones.  There are numerous circumstances where drone flights may be restricted outside of class A-E airspace such as military operational areas (MOA’s) or areas of national security (such as the Whitehouse).
  • Flying without a waiver at night.  You cannot fly drones at night.  According to the FAA “night” is any time 30 minutes after sunset to 30 minutes before official sunrise.
  • Flying greater than 400′ AGL.  Simply put, you cannot go over 400 feet without an FAA waiver.
  • Flying over people.  It is against FAA rules to fly over any person or persons not involved in flight operations or without a waiver.  Essentially this means you can’t fly over spaces where people are.

Common State Infractions:

  • Flying in “No Fly” Zones.  Many states, including North Carolina place limits on where you can fly your drone.  For instance,  you cannot fly a drone over a prison or in a location where it might interfere with public safety activities.   This is especially true of activities that involve other aviation assets such as life flight helicopters, police helicopters or firefighting planes.
  • Taking footage where other people “have a reasonable expectation of privacy”.  Many states, including North Carolina, have laws that prohibit you from recording video in private places.  Though the definition is open to considerable interpretation it is generally not a good idea to use a drone to peer through windows or over privacy fences.  The FAA has compiled a best practices document related to privacy that is a good source of information.

Common Municipal Infractions

  • Flying in “No Fly” Zones.  As with state and local restrictions, counties, cities, and towns may also put restrictions on when and where you can fly a drone.  Local agencies commonly bar flights from some parks, over schools, over police stations, and other areas.
  • Noise Ordinances.  Drones can be loud, especially larger ones.  Flying a large drone low to the ground can be easily heard and may draw a crowd.  It is not unusual to have complaints regarding the noise that comes from the systems.
  • Municipal Enforcement of FAA Policy.  This is not technically an infraction but good information to know.  Most of the law enforcement officers we meet in our daily activities will be from local agencies.  Rarely do we see state law enforcement and even rarer still, federal law enforcement.  Even from this primer, you may have noticed laws exist on many levels of government.  To make enforcement more effective, many municipalities, such as Chapel Hill, have enacted ordinances that give their officers powers to act upon FAA rule infractions.