The United States Federal Aviation Administration has been desperately trying to keep up with the proliferation of recreational and commercial drones. They haven’t been as successful as all of us might have wanted, but some progress is certainly being made, most recently with some new rules about flying drones at night and over people and vehicles, as well as the requirement for a remote-identification system for all drones.
Over the next few years, FAA’s drone rules are going to affect you even if you just fly a drone for fun in your backyard, so we’ll take detailed look about what changes are coming and how you can prepare.
The first thing to acknowledge is that the FAA, as an agency, is turning out to be a very poor communicator where drones are concerned. I’ve written about this before, but understanding exactly what you can and cannot do with a drone, and where you’re allowed to do it, is super frustrating and way more complicated than it needs to be. So if some of this seems confusing, it’s not you.
What kind of drone pilot am I?
Part of the problem is that the FAA has separated drone pilots into two categories that have rules that are sometimes different in ways that don’t always make sense. There are recreational pilots, who fly drones “strictly for recreational purposes,” and then there are commercial pilots, who fly drones to make money, for non-profit work, for journalism, for education, or really for anything that has a goal besides fun.
Recreational pilots are allowed to fly under safety guidelines from a “community-based organization” like the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), while commercial pilots have to fly under the rules found in Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations. So, while the Part 107 rules have, for example, prohibited flying at night without a waiver from the FAA, the FAA also says that recreational flyers can fly at night as long as the drone “has lighting that allows you to know its location and orientation at all times.” Go figure.
What are the current rules for recreational and commercial pilots?
You can find these on FAA’s website:
- Recreational Flyers & Modeler Community-Based Organizations
- Fact Sheet – Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Regulations (Part 107)
What are the new drones rules that the FAA announced?
Late last year, the FAA released what it called in a press release “Two Much-Anticipated Drone Rules to Advance Safety and Innovation in the United States.”
The first update is for Part 107 pilots, and covers operations over people, over vehicles, and at night. Currently, Part 107 pilots need to apply to the FAA for waivers to do any of these things, and now you do not need a waiver to do them, as long as you follow the new rules.
The second new rule is about how drones identify themselves in flight, called Remote ID, and applies to everybody flying a drone, even if it’s just for fun. If you’re a recreational pilot, you can skip down to the part about Remote ID, which will affect you.
Can I fly at night?
Yup. The new rule allows for night flying with a properly lit up drone (“anti-collision lights that can be seen for 3 statute miles and have a flash rate sufficient to avoid a collision”). The rule also helpfully notes that these lights must be turned on.
This applies to Part 107 pilots only, and as we noted above, whether recreational fliers can fly at night isn’t as clear as it should be. And Part 107 pilots who want to take advantage of this new rule will need to take an updated knowledge test, which the FAA will provide more information on within the next few months.
Can I fly over moving vehicles?
Generally, yes, if you’re a Part 107 pilot. You can fly over moving vehicles as long as you’re just transiting over them, rather than maintaining sustained flight over them. If you want to maintain sustained flight, you can do that too, although in that case everyone in the vehicle needs to know that there’s a drone around and it has to be in an access controlled area.
Vehicles, as far as the FAA is concerned, includes anything where a person is moving more quickly than they’d be able to on foot, because this rule exists to try and mitigate the likelihood of a wayward drone hitting someone at a higher speed. Vehicles therefore include skateboards, rollerblades, bicycles, roller coasters, boats, and so on.
Is my drone allowed to fly over people?
Part 107 pilots are now allowed to fly over people in some circumstances, under restrictions that change depending on how big and scary your drone is. The FAA has separated drones into four risk categories, based on how much damage they could do to a human that they come into contact with.
- Category 1: A Category 1 drone represents “a low risk of injury” to humans and therefore weighs 0.55 pounds (0.25 kg) or less including everything attached to the drone from takeoff to landing. Furthermore, a Category 1 drone cannot have “any exposed rotating parts that would lacerate human skin,” and whatever kind of protection that implies must not fall outside the weight limit. If your drone meets both of these criteria, there’s no need to do anything else about it.
- Category 2: A Category 2 drone is the next step up, and since we’re now out of the “low risk of injury” category, the FAA will require a declaration of compliance from “anyone who designs, produces, or modifies a small unmanned aircraft” in this category. For Category 2, this declaration has to show that the drone “must not be capable of causing an injury to a human being that is more severe than an injury caused by a transfer of 11 ft-lbs of kinetic energy from a rigid object,” and the declaration must be approved by the FAA. Category 2 drones must also incorporate the same kind of laceration protection as Category 1, although one of the more interesting comments on the ruling came from Skydio, which asked whether a software-based safety system that could protect against skin laceration would be acceptable. The FAA said that’s fine, as long as it can be demonstrated to be effective through some as-yet unspecified process.
- Category 3: A Category 3 drone is just the same at Category 2, except bigger and/or faster, and it “must not be capable of causing an injury to a human being that is more severe than an injury caused by a transfer of 25 ft-lbs of kinetic energy from a rigid object.” Laceration protection also required.
- Category 4: If you think your drone is safe to operate over people but it doesn’t fit into one of the categories above, you can apply to the FAA for an airworthiness certificate, which (if approved) will let you fly over people with your drone (sometimes) without applying for a waiver.
Great, so can I fly over people whenever I want?
To fly over people, you must be flying under Part 107, your drone must be in one of the four categories above, and you’ll need to follow these specific rules on outdoor flight over people. Note that the FAA defines “sustained flight over an open-air assembly” as “hovering above the heads of persons gathered in an open-air assembly, flying back and forth over an open-air assembly, or circling above the assembly in such a way that the small unmanned aircraft remains above some part of the assembly.”
- Category 1: Sustained flight over groups of people outdoors is allowed as long as your drone is Remote ID compliant. We’ll get to the Remote ID stuff in a bit.
- Category 2: Sustained flight over groups of people outdoors is allowed as long as your drone is Remote ID compliant. The big difference between Category 1 and Category 2 is that with a Category 1 drone, you can make your own prop guards or whatever and weigh it, and as long as it’s under 0.55 pound, you’re good to go. Category 2 drones have to go through a certification process with the FAA. If you buy a drone, the manufacturer will likely have done this already. If you build a drone, you’ll have to do it yourself.
- Category 3: No sustained flight over groups of people. You also can’t fly a Category 3 drone over even a single person, unless it’s either a restricted area where anyone inside has been notified that a drone may be flying over them, or the people the drone is flying over are somehow protected (like under a shelter of some kind). Remote ID is also required.
- Category 4: There’s a process, but you’ll need to talk with the FAA.
What if I want to do stuff that isn’t covered under these new rules?
Part 107 pilots can still apply to the FAA for waivers, just like before.
I fly recreationally and don’t have my Part 107. Can I fly at night, over moving vehicles, or over people?
Definitely not over people or vehicles. Maybe at night, but honestly, best not to do that either?
What’s Remote ID?
The FAA describes Remote ID as being like a digital license plate for your drone. If you’re following the rules, you’re currently required to register your drone (unless it’s very small) and then make that registration number visible on the drone somewhere.
This isn’t particularly useful if you’re someone on the ground trying to identify a drone flying overhead, so the FAA is instead requiring that all drones broadcast a unique identifying number whenever they’re airborne.
Does my drone have Remote ID?
Most likely not. This is a brand new requirement.
What drones will be required to broadcast Remote ID?
Every drone that weighs more than 0.55 pounds (0.25 kg). Drones weighing less than that may be required to have Remote ID if they’re being flown under Part 107.
If you have a drone that weighs under 0.55 pounds and fly recreationally, then lucky you, you don’t have to worry about Remote ID.
What kind of broadcast signal is Remote ID?
The FAA only says that drones “must be designed to maximize the range at which the broadcast can be received,” but it’ll be different for each drone. The target seems to be 400 feet, which is what the FAA figures maximum line of sight distance to be. There was some discussion about making network identification an option (like, if your drone can talk to the Internet somehow, it doesn’t have to broadcast directly), but the FAA thought that would be too complicated.
What information will Remote ID be sending out?
- An identifying number for your drone
- The location of your drone (latitude, longitude, and altitude)
- How fast your drone is moving
- Your location (the location of the drone’s controller)
- A status identifier that says whether your drone is experiencing an emergency
Who can access the Remote ID broadcast?
According to the FAA: “Most personal wireless devices within range of the broadcast.” In other words, anyone with interest and a mobile phone will be able to locate both nearby drones and the GPS coordinates of whoever is piloting them.
Only the FAA will be able to correlate the drone’s ID number with your personal information, although they’ll share with law enforcement if requested.
Can I turn Remote ID off?
Part of the Remote ID specification is that the user should not have the ability to disable it, and if you somehow manage to anyway, the drone should then refuse to take off.
When do I actually have to start worrying about Remote ID?
September 2023. You’ve got some time!
What are drone manufacturers going to do?
Manufacturers have 18 months to start integrating Remote ID into their products.
What happens to my old drone when the Remote ID requirement kicks in?
The good news is that at least in some cases, it sounds like even the current generation of drones will be able meet Remote ID requirements. As one example, we spoke with Brendan Groves, head of policy and regulatory affairs at Skydio, about what Skydio’s plans are for Remote ID going forward, and he made us feel a little better, saying they are tracking this issue closely and that they are “committed to making Skydio 2s in use now compliant with the new rule before the deadline.”
Of course, different drone makers will have different answers, so if you own a drone you should ask the manufacturer about for more information.
What if my drone isn’t going to get updated for Remote ID?
Remote ID doesn't have to be directly integrated into your drone, and the FAA expects that add-on Remote ID broadcast modules will be available.
Can I make my own module?
Sure, but the FAA has to approve it.
Remote ID sucks and I won’t do it! What are my options?
The FAA will partner with educational and research institutions and community-based organizations to establish defined areas in which drones can fly in line of sight only without Remote ID enabled.
Is there an upside to any of this?
Besides the obvious impact on safety and security, Remote ID will be particularly important for drones that have a significant amount of autonomy. According to the FAA, Remote ID is critical to enabling advanced autonomous operations—like routine flights beyond visual-line-of-sight—by providing airspace awareness.
Where can I find more details?
Executive summaries are here and here, and the full rules are available through the FAA’s website here.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.