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Is It Legal to Fly Drones for Mapping in the United States?

November 11, 2013  - By 13 Comments

There is no doubt about it: drones (also referred to as UAVs and UAS) are a disruptive technology that will significantly impact geospatial professionals not only in the U.S., but around the world. While the mainstream media has mostly pushed the panic button with regards to privacy and drones, you don’t often read a discussion about using drones for mapping.

3D Matterhorn image produced from senseFly's drone mapping effort

3D Matterhorn image produced from senseFly’s drone mapping effort.

In Switzerland, where drones weighing less than 30 kg (66 lbs) are legal to operate without a license as long as the operator maintains line of sight, drones mapped the famous Matterhorn Mountain (4,478 meters/14,692 feet) in the Swiss alps, at a resolution of 20 cm. This illustrates the power of drones for 3D mapping, and mapping in general. More efficient and less costly than traditional photogrammetry and airborne lidar, there is no doubt in my mind you will begin working with drones and/or data collected via drones in the near future. Of course, mapping the Matterhorn in 3D at 20-cm resolution is a monumental effort. Even using drones, senseFly reported that it took 11 flights, 5 hours and 40 minutes of flight time, and a total of 2,188 images to process covering 2,800 hectares (~6,920 acres). senseFly didn’t report how many manhours of post-processing the Matterhorn project required, but you know it must be a healthy number. Also, remember that Swiss regulations require that the drone operator must be within “direct eye contact” of the drone at all times, so you can bet the senseFly team had to do some serious mountain climbing.

While generating precise 3D images of a mountain certainly push the limits of drone technology, there are plenty of uses for mapping drones that make a lot of sense and are less complex. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems (AUVSI) reports that in the United States, in the first three years of UAS integration more than 70,000 jobs will be created with an economic impact of $13.6 billion. AUVSI further reports that by 2025, the jobs number will increase to 100,000 jobs, and the economic value to $82 billion. Earlier this year, The Daily Beast reported that agriculture may end up being the largest user of drone technology. Other uses, according to AUVSI, include wildfire mapping, environmental mapping, disaster management, power-line surveys, oil and gas exploration, and general aerial mapping.

So what are we waiting for? Let’s start flying!

Not so fast. In many countries in the world, you can purchase a drone mapping kit and start flying tomorrow. Last month, I witnessed the massive offering of drones at the Intergeo 2013 conference. Copters and fixed-wing aircraft in all shapes and sizes were on display.

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However, in the U.S. it’s not so easy. In fact, it’s illegal to operate any drone for mapping unless you have a special permit from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). If you think XYZ Corp. down the road who is using drones for mapping have such a permit, you are wrong. Despite the rumors and gossip you may have heard, and the fact that many companies are using drones for mapping in the U.S., it is not legal, by any stretch of the imagination.

Let’s have a look at what the FAA regulations state.

The FAA divides drone users into two categories: public and civil.

Public Users

Examples of public users by the FAA include the U.S. military and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, as well as other government agencies. Public users must apply for a Certificate of Waiver or Certificate of Authorization (COA) and adhere to the following guidelines:

  • The operator is required establish the drone’s airworthiness either from FAA certification, a Department of Defense airworthiness statement, or by other means.
  • The operator must demonstrate that a collision with another aircraft or other airspace user is extremely improbable.
  • The operator must comply with appropriate cloud and terrain clearance requirements.
  • The PIC (Pilot in Command), the operator in control of the drone, must maintain minimum qualifications and currency requirements.
  • An observer must be present to observe the drone and surrounding airspace via line-of-sight on the ground or via chase aircraft.
  • The PIC and observer must be within, generally speaking, one mile horizontally and 3,000 feet vertically of the drone.
  • Direct communications between the PIC and Observer must be maintained at all times.

As you imagine, these requirements are not easy to meet and issued to a select few entities. if you want to take a look at the list of Certificates of Authorization issued by the FAA, click here and scroll down to find links to redacted CoA awards that aren’t exempt from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

As of February 15, 2013, the FAA reports there were 347 active COAs.

Civil Users

Civil users include any entity other than Public users, and includes commercial users.

Civil users must obtain an FAA airworthiness certificate just like you would need for any type of aircraft such as an airliner.

The FAA is issuing special airworthiness certificates in the experimental category for testing, market survey, and training of drones. The FAA is very clear that no Certificate of Authorization (CoA) or experimental certificates will be issued to commercial users. In fact, the FAA specifically states that drone users awarded an experimental certificate are not licensed to use drones for “hire or compensation.”

That’s it: short, sweet and to the point.

What about model aircraft users?

Interestingly enough, model aircraft users are allowed to operate drones and have a surprising amount flexibility in doing so. The guidelines for model aircraft users can be found here, but essentially the only concrete rules are that the “hobby” drone cannot exceed 400 feet AGL (above ground level), and that when flying within three miles of an airport, notify the airport operator. That’s it!

Even more interesting is that some hobby-class drones can be very useful for businesses. For example, last month I bought an AR Drone 2.o for US$370. The manufacturer calls it a quadracopter. It operates like a helicopter with four rotor blades. It’s controlled by an app that runs on your smartphone or tablet. I use a Samsung Galaxy III to control it. It’s amazingly easy to control with my smartphone.

AR Drone 2.0

AR Drone 2.0

I took the AR Drone 2.0 to the Field Technology Conference to demonstrate it and give conference attendees an idea of what is possible for very little expense. The response from attendees was a little surprising. I didn’t expect geospatial users to appreciate the limited capabilities of the AR Drone 2.0, but attendees spoke of applications like checking birds’ nests for eggs and close-up inspection of structures that aren’t easily accessible. After spending some time flying it, even I began to think about the inspection app and the ability to create video fly-throughs of golf courses, environmental areas, proposed developments, etc. The AR Drone 2.0’s forward-looking, high-definition camera generates stunningly crisp video.

So, that begs the question…

Why can’t a user, following the hobby rules (fly below 400 feet AGL), use the AR Drone 2.0 or any other drone for commercial purposes?

The answer is simple. The FAA rules state that you can use a drone all day long as a hobbyist (following the AC 91-57 rules), but once you start using it for commercial purposes, you are violating the law. Some drone users have said that to skirt the FAA rules, they don’t charge for drone flight time, but just the image processing (data) after the flight. I don’t think this concept has been tested in court yet, but the FAA says this activity is illegal.

“They would be violating FAA rules,” says FAA Spokesperson Alison Duquette. “Please read this policy link. The FAA recognizes that people and companies other than modelers might be flying UAS with the mistaken understanding that they are legally operating under the authority of AC 91-57. AC 91-57 only applies to modelers, and thus specifically excludes its use by persons or companies for business purposes.”
To understand how serious the FAA is about enforcing the no-business-use of hobby rules, I asked the FAA for a list of enforcement citations, cease and desist orders, etc. I was told I had to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which I did, but I’m warned by colleagues not to expect a speedy response.
Check out the following short (three-minute) video news report on a company in Minnesota that was “grounded” by the FAA for flying a drone for commercial use.

The good news is that in January 2012, the U.S. Congress ordered and funded the FAA to figure out how to integrate commercial drone use into the U.S. airspace by the end of 2015. In September 2013, the FAA released a document entitled “UAS Comprehensive Plan” and a document entitled “Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the National Airspace System (NAS) Roadmap“. If you’re really interested in learning more about drone usage in the U.S. and understand the FAA’s perspective, it’s worth a few minutes to scan these documents.

It’s going to be fascinating to see what rules the FAA establishes for commercial drone usage. Don’t be surprised if the PIC (Pilot in Command) must be a licensed pilot, and expect tough restrictions on altitude constraints, flight time, visibility, and control tower communications. I have my private pilot license (although I haven’t flown as PIC in years), and I recall that FAA rules state that you can fly as low as 500 feet AGL over rural areas and 1,000 feet AGL over populated areas. That doesn’t give commercial drone operators a lot of room to work with if they want to map a wide area.

Thanks, and see you next time.

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This article is tagged with and posted in GSS Monthly, Imagery, Mapping, Opinions, Technology, UAS/UAV
Eric Gakstatter

About the Author:

Eric Gakstatter has been involved in the GPS/GNSS industry for more than 20 years. For 10 years, he held several product management positions in the GPS/GNSS industry, managing the development of several medium- and high-precision GNSS products along with associated data-collection and post-processing software. Since 2000, he's been a power user of GPS/GNSS technology as well as a consultant with capital management companies; federal, state and local government agencies; and private companies on the application and/or development of GPS technology. Since 2006, he's been a contributing editor to GPS World magazine and the Geospatial Solutions website. He is the editor of Geospatial Solutions Monthly, a weekly newsletter focused on geospatial technologies. Follow Eric on Twitter at @GPSGIS_Eric.

13 Comments on "Is It Legal to Fly Drones for Mapping in the United States?"

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  1. “There is no about it” ??? No __what__ about it? LoL? The first line is an error? C’mon…

  2. John Hamilton says:

    I definitely believe a drone operator should be a licensed pilot. Maybe they will have a separate “drone endorsement” as they do now for complex aircraft, multi-engine, etc.

    • Eric Gakstatter Eric Gakstatter says:

      It’s going to be fascinating to see what regulations the FAA comes up with. Perhaps less restrictive below 400 ft AGL and more complex at more than 800 ft AGL in rural areas.

      Weight limitations will be part of the equation too. Hitting a 4kg (8 lb) drone with a small airplane wouldn’t be unlike hitting a bird so perhaps there will be more freedom for a lightweight class of drone.

  3. Jason Sedroc says:

    There’s no data to support 100,000 new jobs will be created. Just the opposite as has happened in other industries.

    There’s a false presumption that if drones can be flown in someone’s back yard it will compel the home owner, stadium owner, or farmer to open his wallet and go crazy buying aerial photos. Has it happened with free photos available on google and other aerial vendors? No.

    Old jobs will be destroyed. A small number of aerial photographers will be put out of business or be left to pick up scraps between free satellite images and .50 cent drone images. This happened in editorial and assignment photography when iPhones and almost free images were available on line at places like Bing and Flicker.

    There is no vast market for UAV photography. Its been done, the cost to do it and the thousands of hobbyists with thrill of getting paid a few extra bucks for something they’d do for free will saturate a market and the thrill will be gone. Nothing special, just another aerial view with another toy.

    The only beneficiary will be YouTube low altitude videos saturating the internet with UAVs and drones flying through houses, schools, public places, through cars, along side buses, into government spaces, into bathrooms and stores… all for the thrill of how many people will click on them. A ton of stupid tricks awaits us.

    You and I, your neighbor, your free chimney inspection, your aerial video of a birthday party or wedding… all these things will be at a new saturation level that will have no value because it will be common place and boring.

    I’d rather the drones and UAV’s do a few worthwhile practical things like inspect power lines and crops, some movie sequences, some documentation and marketing… leave the rest out of the sky. Otherwise we’ll have a cluttered mess in the sky that we all look at.

    My prediction… a thousand attempts to launch some toy GoPro video heli over the Grand Canyon, a thousand car accidents with five pound payloads causing drivers to hit other cars, a thousand security violations, a thousand intentional mis-uses of airspace and nobody getting any new jobs after the rush is over.

    The landscape doesn’t change that much to hire that many people.

    I’d rather have a nice unobstructed view through the atmosphere.

    Last, someone above said hitting a drone wouldn’t be worse than hitting a bird. What? Perhaps nobody has seen a birdstrike up close or knows that a bird can cause a small helicopter to crash.

    “CAMP PENDLETON, CALIF. – A bird strike caused a deadly helicopter crash at Camp Pendleton last year that killed two Marines, according to a Marine Corps investigation.

    The AH-1W Cobra attack helicopter collided Sept. 19 with a red-tailed hawk that had a wing span of about 4 feet and probably weighed about 3 pounds, according to a report obtained by U-T San Diego ( )”

    Hundreds more:

    A drone of small size will take out passenger carrying aircraft.


  4. Eric Gakstatter Eric Gakstatter says:

    I agree the value is the commercial markets, not consumer. The consumer market already exists for RC modelers. They are free to buy them and fly them up to 400′.

    I disagree that it won’t create jobs. In the commercial markets, the UAV will be another tool in the box like other professional measurement tools. Depending on the FAA rules, it might require an FAA pilot certificate. Will it create 100,000 jobs? I doubt it, but will certainly create increased revenue for drone makers, drone dealers/distributors, drone trainers, drone operators as well as the same value chain for image processing.

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