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California Commercial & Recreational Drone Regulations

drone regulations

Consumer purchases of unmanned aircrafts, also known as drones, have been on the rise with some estimates showing that this year alone, some 700,000 will be sold.[1] It is important to know and understand which laws and regulations govern the recreational use of drones.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), with state and local governments, regulate the recreational use of drones. The main purpose of these regulations is to ensure public safety.

The FAA has set specific limitations for such use. For example, the FAA limits recreational drones to daytime use only. Other limitations set by the FAA for recreational drone use are[2]:

  • Maximum altitude of 400 feet above ground level;
  • 5 miles from airports without prior notification to airport and air traffic control;
  • Must ALWAYS yield right of way to manned aircraft;
  • Must keep the aircraft in sight (visual line-of-sight);
  • Must be under 55lbs;
  • Must follow community based safety guidelines;
  • Must notify airport and air traffic control tower before flying within 5 miles of an airport[3].

In addition, the FAA requires recreational users of drones that weigh between 0.55lbs (250 grams) and 55lbs to register their aircraft online through the FAA website.

Similar to the FCC rules, the Los Angeles City council has recently passed an ordinance that regulates both commercial and recreational drone use.[4] The Los Angeles City ordinance mimics the FAA rule as it limits recreational use of drones as follows:

  • Daytime operation only;
  • A maximum altitude of 400 feet above the earth’s surface;
  • Not operate within 5 miles of an airport without the prior express authorization of the airport air traffic control tower;
  • Not operate in a manner that interferes with manned aircraft,
  • Shall always give way to any manned aircraft;
  • Not operate closer than 25 feet to any individual, except the operator or the operator’s helper(s), except for takeoff and landing.

On the state level, the California legislature has recently passed three bills concerning recreational drone use, which the governor has signed into law. The first bill, A.B. 856 was signed into law in October of 2015. The bill expands liability for physical invasion of privacy to additionally include a person knowingly entering into the airspace above the land of another person without permission.[5]

The second bill, A.B. 1680, was signed into law in September of 2016. This bill expands the scope of the crime of “going to or stopping at scene of emergency for purpose of viewing; interference” under California Penal Code § 402 to include the operation or use of an unmanned aerial vehicle, remote piloted aircraft, or drone, regardless of the operator’s location, in the definition of a person.[6]

Lastly, S.B. 807, which was also signed into law in September of 2016, limits the exposure to civil liability of an emergency responder, volunteer or private entity, for damage to a drone, if the damage was caused while the emergency responder was performing emergency services and the drone was interfering with the provision of those emergency services. It also limits the exposure to civil liability of a local public entity or public employee for damage, if the damage was a result of specified emergency services.[7]

Because of the increasing popularity of recreational drone use, it is important to know and understand the laws and regulations that govern the activity. It is expected that more acts, regulating drone use, will be enacted both on federal and state level.


[1] http://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-hiltzik-drones-20160807-snap-story.html

[2] http://www.faa.gov/uas/getting_started/fly_for_fun/

[3] Rules are subject to waiver

[4] L.A. Mun. Code, §56.31(b).

[5] 2015 Bill Text CA A.B. 856

[6] 2015 Bill Text CA A.B. 1680

[7] 2015 Bill Text CA S.B. 807


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