Russell Hebets Sept. 15, 2016

Drones or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) are an increasingly popular hobby for some people and they serve as a valuable tool for others; however, they are so new that regulation is evolving too. In fact, journalist Kjell Redal recently created a beautiful aerial video of Boulder but also got some flak for violating Boulder’s drone rules. While the Federal Aviation Administration now regulates drone use, there are also laws concerning drones in many states and in municipalities and sometimes these rules differ from the FAA ones. It makes sense that increased use of drones requires some regulation, so here’s what you need to know.

FAA rules

The FAA has determined that drones need to be federally regulated to avoid a “patchwork quilt” of rules across states which could undermine their authority. Consequently, the rules they have set forthare primarily for commercial use of drones but there a few for the private hobbyist. Private use is considered educational or recreational. The reason the videographer got in some trouble is because his drone flew over open spaces in Boulder as well as the CU campus, both of which are restricted according to Boulder rules. However, he has stated that he was mindful of the FAA guidelines and they should take precedence. This is exactly what the FAA wants to avoid by creating federal guidelines.

Colorado Rules

In Colorado, the guidelines for use require that the drone be no more than 55 pounds and not flown above 400 feet. For either personal or commercial use, a drone heavier than 55 pounds must be registered. You are required to keep the drone in your sight and stay away from any manned air crafts. Additionally you must be at least 5 miles away from any airport unless you have contacted the airport and the control tower and you must fly away from people or stadiums. These are exactly the same as the FAA guidelines on recreational use and on some commercial use. However, the rules in municipalities may vary a bit, so while following FAA guidelines should suffice, it will help you to double check local restrictions.

Safety and Privacy Considerations

In Colorado there are several requirements related to ownership and use. You are expected to have insurance, but insurance is still evolving when it comes to privacy violations, so you are expected to avoid situations that invade someone’s personal space or private moments. You will need to refer to your insurance if you have a drone accident, so confirm you are already covered or get that coverage and handle any accidents like you would a car accident, where you exchange information with others involved and notify the authorities.

Operating rules emphasize safety by requiring that UAS operators always yield the right of way to manned aircrafts in addition to the aforementioned weight and altitude limitations. The speed limit for flying commercially is 100mph or less. In addition to the rule of avoiding people, you cannot fly from a moving vehicle either. Neither personal nor commercial flying allows the use of a gun or any other weapon on the drone. If you fly commercially you have to become a certified remote pilot and be at least 16 years old. Lastly, commercial drones are also subject to pre-flight inspections.

The situation in Boulder is interesting as it describes the very conflict that the FAA wanted to avoid. If Boulder pursues any action at all, then it will be a first impression case so there is no way to be sure how the court will rule. It’s also possible that nothing happens. But it does appear that Redal was mindful of regulations and safety concerns which are paramount; and Boulder officials have stated at this point they are more concerned with informing the public about these regulations than enforcing them strictly.

As long as you follow these guidelines and use common sense and consideration, you should be able to have plenty of fun using drones.