Whether you just got your first drone, or have been flying UAVs for a while, you should be well-acquainted with the term “no drone zone”. This term was coined by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates air traffic (including drones) in the US. There are many laws across the states that delineate where you’re allowed to fly, including the FAA’s own list of rules.
To help people navigate all of these no fly zones, the FAA has created designated apps and news posts to keep people updated on where they can and cannot fly. Before you set out with your drone, you need to be informed and up to date on no fly zones and everything that this entails, in particular in the area you want to fly. So let’s take a detailed look at what no fly zones are and what you can expect as a drone owner.
What are No Fly/No Drone Zones?
The FAA restricts certain airspace for safety reasons. This bans unauthorized aircraft, like drones, from being flown in certain airspace or above specific areas, events, or structures. No drone zones are these designated areas and there are both permanent and temporary restrictions. Because of this, drone owners need to stay updated on where they can fly at all times. Luckily, there are a number of resources available, like the FAA’s B4UFLY app, that help keep people informed.
Sticking to the FAA’s Rules
The FAA has done a pretty good job of setting out the parameters for where and how drone operators are allowed to fly. These can differ somewhat depending on whether you’re registered as a recreational or commercial flyer, but generally, you can expect the following:
- Don’t fly higher than 400 feet above ground level without authorization. With “ground level” the FAA means the highest point over which you’re currently flying, which can include buildings.
- Don’t fly within 5 miles of an airport.
- Don’t fly over crowds of people.
- Don’t fly over big events or venues like stadiums.
- Give way to other aircraft and don’t interfere with manned aircraft operations.
- Avoid flying near emergency operations or personnel and don’t have the drone interfere with any emergency workers while they’re on the job.
- Don’t fly near or over critical infrastructure (like oil rigs, water utilities, electricity operators, etc.), military, or government buildings.
Sometimes, the FAA also creates temporary airspace restrictions in certain areas for events like parades, government activities, and the like. This means there could be areas where you’re normally allowed to fly that are off-limits for a while, which is why you need to check the air restrictions in your area before every flight.
New DJI GEO Zone System
DJI, one of the most popular drone makers on the market recently released the DJI GEO Zone System, which restricts flying in FAA-designated no fly zones. With this setting, DJI drones will be prevented from taking off in designated areas such as in national parks, near airports, and other restricted areas.
At the moment, this system doesn’t prevent DJI drones from flying in these areas, only from taking off. These zones are based on the DJI fly safe database on the DJI Go 4 app and are divided according to different colors based on restriction levels. Here are the levels:
- Red zones: These are restricted areas, but you can technically fly in these zones if you put in a manual request and DJI approves your request.
- Yellow zones: These indicate zones that are possibly dangerous but flying isn’t restricted. When you fly into or take off in these zones, a warning will pop up.
- Gray zones: These are areas with altitude restrictions, such as around airports. You cannot get around the restriction for gray zones at this time.
- Blue zones: Almost like yellow zones, blue zones indicate areas where it may be dangerous to fly, but these require a self unlock. Luckily, the self unlock process isn’t too complicated.
The B4UFLY App
The B4UFLY app isn’t just user-friendly, it’s also your best source for finding out whether it’s safe to fly in a certain area. The app was created in partnership with the FAA, so not only does it have the agency’s stamp of approval, but you can trust that it’s providing accurate and relatively up-to-date information.
It’s as simple as opening up the app and choosing a location on the map, and the app will show you relevant information like whether there are any current restrictions, takeoff or landing limitations, and whether it’s safe to fly there. There are a few color-coded overlays available for the map that provide handy information at a glance as well.
Thanks to its crowdsourcing functionality, which allows user input, the app is also constantly being updated with new information. Anyone is free to add new info to the database from within the app or flag any areas that the developers might need to take a closer look at.
Other No Fly Apps
While B4UFLY is the official go-to app for drone owners who want more information about no fly zones, it isn’t the only app that exists for this purpose. Other apps, like Hover, can also tell you where you can and cannot fly in the US.
These also follow FAA guidelines and display restricted zones, but may not be as up to date as the official app. There are many apps with other helpful features, though, like real-time weather condition updates, visibility indicators, and flight logs. Some also include international maps with no fly zone or equivalent information which can come in handy if you travel with your drone.
Be careful when selecting an app other than B4UFLY, however. Make sure it comes from a legitimate source and that it doesn’t make any strange permission requests. Do some research before downloading the app, like looking at reviews and asking other drone enthusiasts what they’re currently using. Sadly, malware and hackers are a real problem that can’t just be ignored. And you certainly don’t want a hacker gaining access to your drone because you downloaded a shady app.
National Park Rules on Drone Flying
Drones are not allowed in most national parks. This isn’t exactly a new rule, since the national parks system banned drones all the way back in 2014, but a lot of people still seem to have missed the memo. According to the national park service, violating the ban on unmanned aircraft is a misdemeanor that can land you a fine of up to $5,000 or a penalty of up to six months in jail.
As beautiful as our national parks are, they are sadly off-limits. Yes, even the Grand Canyon. In some ways, this rule is up to the discretion of the individual park directors, which means there are some national parks that (sort of) allow drone flying. There are special permits that let drones fly for, well, special cases – like firefighting and rescue operations. So naturally regular drone pilots likely won’t see a special permit issued to them.
However, there have been exceptions where people have mentioned a ranger telling them that they can fly inside the park so long as they take off and land outside the park. Since the ban only stipulates that drones cannot be launched from or landed within the park, some people have gotten around this law that way. While this may be the case, don’t just assume that you’ll be able to do this. If you really want to, have a chat with your park director/local ranger, and if they don’t seem amenable to the idea, don’t keep pushing.
On top of national parks, be aware that drones are also often banned from being flown at popular tourist and historical destinations like the Statue of Liberty and Hoover Dam.
How About Flying Drones in Local Parks?
Drones may be banned at national state parks, but many local parks welcome drone enthusiasts. That said, not all of them do. Many cities and towns have banned drones in local parks or set out specific rules for drone flight in their parks. Many parks that do allow drone flight have designated UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) zones that restrict flight to a specific area of the park. They often also stipulate additional rules that dictate how drone owners are allowed to fly.
Check out the drone laws for your local county/city to see whether there are any restrictions on flying at the parks in your area. Be careful even if there aren’t any known laws, as this isn’t a green light to go ahead and do what you want. Local municipalities pass new laws all of the time, and resources like apps and blogs don’t always catch up quickly enough. So, if possible, contact the local parks and recreation office to be sure or ask other drone enthusiasts/groups about good spots in your area.
Can You Fly a Drone on Beaches in the US?
Like local park laws, this depends on the laws set by the state and local governments. Some states don’t currently have any laws against flying drones on beaches, while others ban it entirely, for example, the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk bans all drones. Some only allow drones during times of the year that are less busy, such as during the fall and winter months.
Generally in California, for example, you can fly non-commercial drone operations on beaches that are relatively deserted so long as you follow all other drone laws, but don’t take that as the rule. Areas that count as nature preserves or have animal populations that are classified as vulnerable or endangered don’t allow drones of any kind.
Always check your preferred no fly zone resource (app or website) before flying. And if you’re still unsure, try to look up the beach and see if there are any known laws against flying drones there. Some parks and recreation websites list drone bans or special drone rules for certain beaches on their websites.
State and Local Drone Flying Laws
As mentioned a couple of times here already, every state and local municipality has its own take on drones. Of course, since legislature hasn’t caught up to this new technology everywhere, not every state or city has defined drone laws just yet. However, there are many drone bills currently in the works, so even if you don’t see any specific drone laws in your area right now, that could change quickly.
One thing to keep in mind is that federal laws always trump any state or local laws. So if you find any conflicting rules, it’s best to stick to what the FAA says on the matter. There may be cases where you’ll need to reach out to a drone forum or group in your area for advice if a law has ambiguous wording that you’re unsure about.
At the end of the day, just make sure to educate yourself on the laws that apply to you, especially if you like to travel around the country with your drone. Don’t assume that the laws at your destination will be the same as those back home, even if you haven’t traveled out of state.
The Future of Drone Flying in the US: Drone ID
The FAA recently announced major changes to drone laws that will require drone owners retrofitting their existing drones with tracking technology. It also forces manufacturers to add tracking (also called Drone ID) to their drones. All of this means that by 2023 at the latest, all drones in the US will be trackable by the FAA.
So what does this law mean for you? It means that if you’re flying, you’ll be broadcasting your location and identification to the FAA and law enforcement. This includes an identification number that law enforcement can cross-reference with your registration number as well as other information like your drone’s model, current flying speed and altitude. At this time, the law only applies to drones that weigh over 0.55 pounds (0.25 kg).
So from 2023 on, it will be illegal to fly a drone weighing more than 0.55 pounds in the us without the Drone ID broadcast turned on. The reasoning behind this law is to make it easier for law enforcement to track how many drones are in the air at any given time, and to take swifter action if any illegal activity is going on.