Drones Over America: Is It Legal to Fly Your Own?


Call it trickle-down technology: A growing number of people are creating their own private drones. Building or buying a simple drone really isn't that tough: get a remote-controlled plane with an autopilot system and slap on a camera. One author notes for users to "Do not misuse a spy drone; they are for educational purposes only, not a tool for invading privacy!"

This isn’t the first time a military technology became widely disseminated. You're using a military technology right now. The Internet was developed with government funds, was adopted for academic use, and is now almost a basic human right.

Wide availability of drones will likely be similar, and like the Internet, democratized access will likely help develop beneficial technologies. Drones have a myriad of uses: agriculture, sports coverage, wildlife photography, disaster relief, and monitoring corporate compliance with environmental regulations. The advantages will likely outweigh the harm, but there is a clear need for regulation.

Garage scientists may well find even more uses for drones in the coming years. Already, Chris Anderson, formerly of Wired magazine, has launched a website called DIY Drones. His prediction: "the sky will be dark with these things." The forum at DIY Drones is full of questions of legality 452 at the time of this writing.

However, as of yet, drone use (whether private, corporate, or public) exists in a legal vacuum, as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is not expected to come out with drone regulations until 2015. Regulation will be welcome, allowing for safe and non-intrusive uses. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has prepared a report advocating for some common-sense regulations: public notice, democratic control, and Fourth Amendment protections. Some states aren't waiting for the FAA and are already moving to regulate drones.

Maybe someday a presidental candidate will promise a drone above every house. As of now, it seems unlikely. DIY Drones sells 7,500 drones a year, or about the same number as the government owns. In the meantime, recreational use is fine, but if a DIYer wishes to use drones commercially, they must apply for a Certificate of Authorization from the FAA.

The day of the drones has arrived. The FAA expects there to be 30,000 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in the air by 2020. They will perform many helpful tasks, create jobs, and fuel economic growth. But they could also be used for spying, crime, and unlawful search and seizure. Laws governing airspace will be implemented. Until then, DIYers can find rules online and drone away.