Drone Safety Guide: Everything You Need To Know Before You Fly

Wednesday August 9, 2017

Table of Contents

  1. State of Drones
  2. What Are the Main Risks with Drones?
  3. Safety for Consumer Pilots
  4. Consumer Drone Regulations
  5. Commercial vs. Consumer Use
  6. Commercial Regulations
  7. Safety Resources
  8. TL;DR

The State of Drones

We’ve all seen it. You’re hanging out at the beach, at the park, or down the street, and whizzzzz, a quadcopter zooms above your head. The pilot is hunched over his screen, staring intently at the world below him without even looking up.

No one thought ten, or even five years ago, we’d be living in a world where taxi drones are near and people are skydiving off drones capable of carrying 400 pounds.

Although we think drones are awesome, progressive, and altogether a step forward for humankind, the reality is 53.36% of the general public believe drones will be banned within the next 10 years, and over 7% believe that they’re already banned.

(Based on Google Survey data we conducted)
 Although we believe drones are here to stay, others don’t. If they are going to stay, we need to answer the most important question everyone keeps asking, how can all of this be safe?
The safety of drones isn’t for lack of trying. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has made huge strides in safety regulations, many of which we’ll discuss in detail later on. In June of 2016, they released this PDF file of a new set of regulations in regards to small unmanned aircraft, (sUAS) their title for the common drone. Many questions and fears the general public had in regards to drone safety were addressed and corrected. However, fears still remain (we all have that neighbor who thinks drones are the antithesis of privacy), particularly because technically a pilot can fly an unmanned aerial vehicle any which way he pleases, regardless of the regulations put in place.
Who’s really even enforcing any of these regulations the FAA so adamantly demands?

What Are the Main Risks with Drones?

First and foremost, shared airspace. To point out the obvious here, aircraft collisions are by the far the most dangerous and worrisome fear when it comes to piloting drones. If a drone were to say, fly in the restricted airspace of an airport and collide with a plane (or take out one of its engines), there could be serious and fatal consequences.
It’s dangerous, reckless, and the most volatile aspect of publicly operated drones. The real kicker? Drone sightings near airports increased 46% from 2017 to 2016.
Aside from aerial collisions, ground collisions are a worry as well. Although many drones come in small sizes that (yes could injure) would not feasibly kill a human being upon crashing into them, there are bigger drones with larger payloads that could pose a threat to life if the system were to fail and the aircraft were to drop from a high altitude and onto a person(s). Beyond direct aircraft-to-human collision, the idea of failed drones (of up to fifty-five pounds) dropping from the sky is worrisome any place where there are active people; roads, highways, shelters, shopping malls, and so forth.

As most consumers know, it’s not only the physical aspect of the aircraft that pose threats to the publics’ safety; privacy is the other issue.
Now that most drones are equipped with live-streaming cameras that feed the pilot a first-person-view experience, what is to stop them from invading someone’s privacy and spying on them? From taking illegal pictures or trespassing private property? From equipping illegal devices to the drone and causing harm to others?
Aerial collisions, ground collisions, and privacy are currently the main issues seen regarding consumer drone safety. The drone community faces a serious challenge: how do they find the sweet balance between much-needed government regulations, and the freedom to enjoy their hobby without the cost of regulations overbearing or limiting the enjoyment of the craft itself?

Safety for Consumer Pilots

To examine drone safety we first have to define what drones have become, and the utilities in which they have come to serve. Why do people use drones?

We’ll start with recreation first. In terms of unmanned aerial vehicles, hobbyist’s have been flying remote control air crafts since the 90’s (think model planes and helicopters). The most prominent difference between those aircrafts and a drone is that drones are generally perceived to have autonomous components.

RC Helicopter Taking OffIn a nutshell, RC aircrafts (generally) are flown purely for fun, while drones can be flown both for recreational and commercial use. To expand on this, the addition of the camera is usually a drone-specific installment; it’s not common to hear of RC helicopters or planes flying around at high speeds capturing footage.

With these autonomous components and the multicopter design that can sustain large payloads (payload = how much weight a single device can carry) and stabilization systems for cameras, drones have taken on a completely new set of recreational and professional uses.

Aerial footage is the most progressive feature of commercialized drones. Because of the built-in cameras (or the larger hexacopters or octocopters that can sustain the payload of a heavy-duty external camera) many photographers and cinematographers use drones to capture aerial footage, track along action sequences, and take photos that would otherwise be impossible without the flight capability of drones. You’ll want to take your drone along on your adventures to capture the beautiful landscape of your destinations. However, as explained by Sundance Vacations, you’ll need to know these regulations and especially the restrictions of your destination in order to not face serious punishment.
Drone Flying Over Security FenceThe camera immensely improved the recreational use of drones as well. The thrill of flight is more rewarding than it was for hobbyists who flew RC aircrafts. Before you’d have a model aircraft, and you would fly it within your line of sight, watching as it soared through the sky. Now, with live-streaming cameras, you can fly your drone with a headset and using FPV feel as if you were sitting in the cockpit yourself. Beyond that, racing leagues are growing in popularity. Consumers are racing drones in competition around obstacle courses, zooming through stadiums and fields alike..
Now you might think ‘well that would be incredible, to fly my drone over the hill and look on at things Ican’t see from here,’ but with the rapid advancement of drones comes new rules. That’s a given. For recreational aircraft, the FAA has released a set of regulations one must follow if they’re to pilot a drone. To not do so could result in heavy fines or even jail time, dependent on the violation.

Consumer Drone Regulations

While some new rules are common sense, i.e. ‘remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations,’ there are some that are tediously technical. We’ll expand on this.

The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) developed community-based safety guidelines that can be found and studied in this PDF document. They define a model aircraft as:

“a non-human carrying aircraft capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere.”

Here are the most important MUST-KNOW rules:

You cannot fly more than 400 feet in the air and you must keep your drone in eyesight at all times. You cannot fly over unprotected persons or moving vehicles and you have to keep a 25-foot minimum distance between the drone and individuals or property. If you ‘re going to fly within five miles of an airport or heliport you need to contact the respective control tower.

More on the common sense side, but do not fly in harsh weather conditions that reduce visibility and pose a higher risk of crashing, and refrain from flying when high or drunk.

Don’t fly recklessly. After all, while the pilot is in a sense disengaged from the aircraft, it’s still an aircraft. It’s still a moving vehicle that can seriously injure or cause damage. It needs to be treated as such.
One must ensure the operating environment is safe and that the operator is competent and proficient in the operation of the unmanned aerial system.
You can’t fly near or over sensitive infrastructure or property like (again, common sense here) power stations, water treatment facilities, correctional facilities, heavily traveled highways, government facilities, etc. You should always check local laws and ordinances before flying over private property (it will differ place to place depending on the leniency of the state, city, or county).
But aside from flying safely to avoid any sort of collisions or crashes, as a pilot or member of the drone community, it is your duty to respect the privacy of others.
Can’t remember all of this? We created a simple infographic on the recreational use guidelines:
To help with accountability and security, pilots are now mandated by the FAA to register their drones if they’re between .55lbs and 55lbs. Failure to register a drone could allegedly result in punishments of up to $277,500 in civil and criminal fines, or as many as three years in prison. Registering your drone is easy, and now free!
There are a few exceptions to the registration requirements:
  • Flying your drone indoors? No need to register
  • Under 13? Have your parent or guardian register for you
  • Drone over 55 pounds? You’ll need to register in a separate process and receive approval
  • Flying for commercial purposes? You’ll need to register in a separate process, more to come on this soon (JUMP TO THIS SECTION NOW)

If you’re wondering what to do if you have an entire arsenal of drones, worry not – when you register, the FAA gives you a registration number and that single number covers the entirety of your drone collection so long as they’re all listed.

Safety for Businesses/Commercial Use

Public drones did indeed begin as a recreational product, but their commercial application has increased tenfold in recent years, with the predominant uses being in the field of aerial photography, data mapping, and inspections.

Commercial vs. Consumer Use

Essentially there’s one question, and one question only, that determines whether or not a drone is being used commercially: is the pilot profiting from it? If you’re using your drone in whatever capacity to generate profit, you’re using your drone commercially.

The FAA even considers uploading videos on the internet, particularly YouTube, to be ‘commercial use’ when the photographer/cinematographer profits from the adds played over the video (yes, even if the video was shot legally and on their own accord).

Here’s a quick infographic we made about consumer use versus commercial use:

What does this actually mean?
It means you can’t just buy a drone, take it out of the box, and start using it in your field of work. To pilot a sUAS for commercial purposes there are specific restrictions that don’t apply to strictly consumer pilots. This is all documented in this FAA Part 107 PDF file, which we’ll dive into further below.
In terms of commercial drones, it’s not only photographers and cinematographers that are reaping the benefits of the new technology.
Now that the cameras are live-streaming, scientists are using them to conduct studies on areas too dangerous for the person to venture. Agricultural companies are using them to monitor large acreages of farmland. Construction companies use drones to run safety and maintenance checks on certain parts of buildings – usually at high altitudes – which in turn are more efficient and a safer alternative than sending a manned crew to investigate. Companies in South Africa are developing drones with thermal imaging, in hopes to keep them flying autonomously in the wild, searching for illegal poachers. Amazon and other companies have begun using them for deliveries. Security companies are beginning to substitute human-personnel for drones in areas deemed “highly dangerous.”
Here are a few explanations of drone uses we’ve heard of personally:

“Recently, drones have become an integral part of the real estate photography business. Previously, real estate agents relied on static images and sketches of homes from ground-level as a means to display a homes features such as location and size to potential clientele. With the technological advancements of the drone, agents may now show 360-degree images of the entire home and its surroundings in 3D. This is a huge development that allows both buyers and sellers to access up-to-date, high-quality home imagery at a fraction of the price a professional photographer would charge.”

Sacha Ferrandi

Texas Hard Money & Source Capital Funding

“At Lyft Aerial we utilize drones to solve a number of people’s real world problems. In one instance, we were contacted by an advertising agency in hopes of looking for new unique ways to promote awareness to one of Royal Caribbean’s newest ships. We leveraged the culture of humble bragging and the latest technology to create a dronie booth at the rear of the ship.
Participants strike a pose for the drone as it takes a 15 second video of participant. The drone will start low and close up on guest and will pull back and increase altitude to show off the ship and its surroundings. On top of the dronie booth, we edited videos into a branded templates with epic music in which we sent out to guests via email within an hour. This dronie booth became the talk of the ship and had a social media reach of 1+ million.”
Kevin Whatley
“One of our recent projects came from a Fortune 500 company that had a dilemma. They had a very large construction site that had accumulated a very large “stock pile” of dirt that would have to be moved off of the job site. This dirt pile covered over 19 acres and they had to figure out how much dirt was going to have to be removed, how many trucks, fuel, etc. would be needed to remove it. The traditional way of solving this issue would be to bring in a group of surveyors who would spend severaldays plotting the dirt pile, taking measurements with lasers, etc. This is very time consuming and expensive, and the construction company needed an answer fast.
We were able to come in with our technology and fly the site with an autonomous drone, map the area and then using advanced software we are able to provide the construction company a volumetric measurement of the “stock pile” of dirt so they know exactly how much they will need to spend to remove it. The best part is, we were able to fly the site in less than 15 minutes and then process the data in a couple hours. We were also able to provide them with an accurate orthomosaic map of the area, as well as a 3D map which provides elevation details.”
Adam Andrews
“People often overlook the use of drones for survival and rescue missions. Especially in places with difficult trerrain and limited access to roads, drone use can help guide and support rescue missions. From being an eye in the sky to droping much needed emergency supplies, a drone in the sky is a helpful tool to save a human life.”
Christian Schauf
We’ve received hundreds of inquiries for help with drone services over the years, but the most interesting one is below:
“A friend of mine lives in Bulgaria in a place with ancient history. Gold and silver utensils and coins have being unearthed in that area throughout the years. There is a colony of bats coming out every night, which disappears during the day. No one knows where the bats go to sleep. It is suspected that there is a cave in the mountain with a small entrance. Nobody has succeeded to find it so far. Besides the bats this cavity may contain other valuable artifacts. Is it possible to setup the drone’s “follow” option to go after a bat (approximately 3″x4″ in size)?”
As you can see, the amount of opportunities the camera drone has created have only begun to surface, and among these just named there will be drones assisting multiple different professions in the near future.
The key to commercial safety is to take FAA precautions seriously, as the FAA is really cracking down on people profiting off drones without the proper registration. Under the definition, selling any photos or videos taken by a drone, using a drone to carry out services, and using drones for other professional services all constitute the commercial use of a drone.
Therefore, if you’re doing any of those things, you need to follow their regulations or you could be fined (which has already happened to some people that did not register their drones for commercial use).

Commercial Regulations

As stated earlier in the article, Part 107, the guidelines released in August 2016 for sUAS pilots by the FAA, clearly defines the rules involved with small unmanned aircrafts.

FAA Logo
To shed some light on the more important rules addressed, we’ll bullet point them here below.
  • Unmanned Aircraft must weigh less than 55lbs
  • You must always have visual line-of-sight to your aircraft
  • You can’t fly the vehicle over 100mph or above 400ft in altitude
  • You can’t fly over people because that’s unwise
  • You can only operate during daylight or civil twilight
  • You must yield right to other aircraft (same as our road rules)
  • You may not operate a sUAS under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • You may not operate a sUAS if you have mental health issues
  • There must be a remote pilot (with certificate) in the command position
  • The certified remote pilot must:
    • A. Make available to the FAA, upon request, the small UAS for inspection or testing, and any associated documents/records required to be kept under the rule.
    • B. Report to the FAA within 10 days of any operation that results in at least serious injury, loss of consciousness, or property damage of at least $500.
    • C. Conduct a preflight inspection, to include specific aircraft and control station systems checks, to ensure the small UAS is in a condition for safe operation.
    • D. Ensure that the small unmanned aircraft complies with the existing registration requirements specified in 91.203(a)(2)

Along with that, there are other rules and regulations stated in this Part 107 PDF document.

Most importantly, you need to pass the Part 107 Exam.

Need help studying for the Part 107 exam?             Get The Part 107 Course
It’s important for the drone community, particularly those within that wish to use drones for commercial purposes, to take these regulations and rules seriously. Why? Because right they’re still manageable. The operational limitations are within reason and the registration process is quick, affordable, and reasonable.
If in large, the drone community refuses to abide by these rules and instead rebels against the fact that they can’t just buy a drone, take it out of the box, and fly it where they please, then the FAA could tighten the rope and take further steps toward the restriction of drones.
There were nearly a million drones sold during the holiday season of 2016. That means, feasibly, just under a million pilots could be piloting their drones throughout the year.
But they’re not toys.
They’re flying vehicles. Accidents do and have happened. We stress the importance of following these regulations and registering your drones to ensure that the technology is not tainted by inexperienced, naive pilots who will crash their aircrafts or fly into illegal airspaces. What happens when all sorts of accidents occur with public drones? Furthermore, what happens when the drones causing the accidents are untraceable because they haven’t been registered?
Further intervention. More laws. Bans, perhaps. If pilots want to continue using their drones in their professional fields, safety, regulations, and registration should be their first priority.
We also have a Part 107 study guide if you’d like to get ahead of the game!

Safety Resources

To improve the safety of sUAVs, companies have already begun to develop tools that assist drone pilots in not only identifying legal and illegal airspaces, but the regulations involved with flying as well. We’ll see a surge of these types of applications as the drone industry continues to grow, but for now, there’s a select few.

One of the better ones is the FAA’s B4UFLY, a free app that helps pilots distinguish whether or not there are restrictions or limitations in the areas they want to fly. It’s the app listed on the FAA’s website.
The app itself is user-friendly and can help pilots plan out future flights, highlighting different locations and routes that are both safe and usable. It has informative, interactive maps with filtering options and information on the parameters that drive the status indicator. It also includes a full list of links to other FAA UAS resources and regulatory information.
Along with that, Airmap is also an application that assists pilots in flying safely.
Download the iOS version, or the Android version.
It offers a comprehensive airspace map that comes equipped with multiple different features. For both recreational and commercial flying, Airmap presents all the no-fly-zones, national parks, where each airport or heliport is, how many nautical miles the pilot is away from the respective airports, and where they are encouraged to fly safely.
UAV Forecast is another great resource for drone pilots. It’s also an application and details the exact conditions you will be flying in if you choose to fly on that given day. It provides live weather,
Display of B 4 U Fly App
temperature, and visibility data, just to name a few. UAV Forecast is the perfect tool to gauge what sort of flying you can accomplish with the current conditions, and what sort you cannot.
Along with these three resources, there are also a few other platforms out there that have been developed to assist pilots. Foreflight is another application made to assist pilots. Unlike the before
mentioned platforms, Foreflight is all inclusive with highly developed features for pilots and sUAV pilots alike.
With Forelight the user can log all of his materials (documents, safety rules, so forth), plan flights (with an altitude advisor, procedure advisor, route advisor), study the terrain with synthetic vision, and even balance out their UAV with a preloaded flight-support-feature that has over 100 different weight sets for UAVs.
Pilots are encouraged to use these resources to help follow regulations, respect airspaces, and create a safe environment for the public and the drone community. Also, most of the above resources are able to be downloaded for free.


In need of a recap? We covered a lot.

  • Drones are aerial vehicles capable of causing serious damage before they’re toys
  • NEVER fly within five miles of an airport
  • Use precautions to avoid aerial or ground collisions
  • Register your drone!
    • It’s now free
    • One registration number fits all of your drones
    • If not, you could be fined heavily & sentenced to jail time
  • Recreational Users
    • Follow Part 107
    • Respect no fly airspaces!
    • Respect other people’s privacy
  • Commercial Users
    • Follow Part 107
    • If you’re profiting from it, it’s commercial
    • You must be sixteen years or older!
    • You must have, or work with someone who has a remote pilot airman certificate
    • Your drone must be under 55lbs
    • You must pass Part 107 exam
  • Part 107
    • Covers a wide range of regulations
      • Never fly above 400 feet
      • Use common sense, don’t be reckless
      • Never fly 25 feet from a person or property
      • Do not fly over people
      • Only operate during daylight or civil twilight
      • Must always have line-of-sight
      • Commercial flyers must have a pilot certificate
      • Respect other’s privacy!
  • Resources
    • Applications can assist with regulations, flight planning, and airspace legality
    • B4UFLY
    • Airmap
    • UAV Forecast
    • Foreflight

With a new era of unmanned aerial vehicle technology and the surge of drones in the common marketplace, comes a new wave of fears for the public and responsibility for pilots. Safety should be the first concern, and now there are resources you can use to help avoid accidents, follow regulations, and optimize your flight experience.

We encourage you to take these regulations and rules seriously, as without educated pilots the freedom of drones could be contested. That’s not something we want to happen. Have common sense, register your drone(s), be safe, and spread the knowledge to your peers in the drone community!

Now get out there and get flyin’. Just do it safely.