Did you recently get a drone? Here are 5 things you need to know

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Sub-250g drones like Holy Stone’s models are considered ‘toys’ in some countries. In the US, you’ll still need to pass a quick and free exam before flying this type of drone.

Did you receive a drone as a gift over the holidays? Did you resolve to learn to fly one in 2023? Personally, I know quite a few professional photographers that have added an aerial vehicle to their arsenal in recent months and are determined to master their newfound passion. While the reasons for taking up a drone hobby vary, one universal theme resonates: these compact machines offer an aerial perspective and a lot more possibilities for capturing imagery.

And it’s easier than ever to get started with your exciting new hobby. Pretty much every consumer drone manufactured today is an ‘out-of-the-box’ model, with little to do in the way of setup. Outside of snapping or screwing on some propellers, the user doesn’t need to assemble much or tweak anything to begin flying. At the same time, drones are now equipped with bells and whistles that have made flying safer and less intimidating than ever.

‘With all the new advances in technology and obstacle avoidance features, I figured now was as good a time as ever for me to learn to drone,’ says professional landscape photographer Brooke Ley Thorburn. ‘It has given me the opportunity to capture different views and perspectives of the places and landscapes that I have photographed many times on the ground.’

But before taking the plunge, there are a few things every new operator should be aware of to fly both safely and legally. Failing to do so can result in steep fines and potentially being stripped of the right to fly. We’ll explore a few simple yet necessary steps you need to take before you launch a drone for the very first time.

You must register your drone

If your drone weighs above 250g, you’ll need to register it. You should never register your drone anywhere else than the FAA’s Drone Zone, EASA’s official website for the EU, or your country’s equivalent.

If your drone weighs over 250g (0.55 lbs), you need to register it with your local authority. Some models, like DJI’s Mini series and Autel’s Nano line, are exempt from registration, so long as you are not using them for commercial (paid) work. In the United States, there is only one portal to register a new drone: the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) FAADroneZone.

Registration will cost you $5 per drone. You’ll need to create an account and provide information that includes the drone’s serial number. Do not fall for ads from third-party sites that promise easy registration, that tend to pop up on search engines. These are common scams. Once the $5 fee is paid, your drone’s registration will be valid for 3 years in the US.

Rules may differ from country to country. It’s important to do your research ahead of time.

In Europe, you’ll need to register your drone with the National Aviation Authority (NAA). In this instance, registration happens either in the country you reside in or the first country you plan to visit as a tourist. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) recently made it less confusing for drone operators across all of its 27 member states, including France, Germany, Greece and the Netherlands, by applying uniform registration coverage for drone operators. Iceland, Switzerland, Lichtenstein and Norway have also adopted the EASA drone regulations.

That being said, rules may differ from country to country. It’s important to do your research ahead of time.

The FAA will send you a printable card for your records. While it’s nice to have on hand, it’s not enough to carry this around.

Other countries, such as Japan for example, require that drone operators request special permission before flying by contacting its UA/Drone Counseling service. Overall, at the very least, you’ll need to register a drone weighing more than 250g at take off. The takeaway here is if you plan on visiting any foreign country, it’s wise to do your research ahead of time to ensure you’re complying with its respective aviation rules.

Make your mark

So you’ve taken that first step and successfully registered your drone. Once you’ve paid your drone registration fee, you’ll be assigned a unique registration number (the FAA, at least, gives you a printable card you can carry as well). That should be good enough, right? Not so fast. You’ll also need to label the drone with said registration number. And it can’t be hidden in a hard-to-find place such as inside the battery’s compartment. It must be clearly visible.

I use the standard Mavic 3 as my primary drone. Since I don’t plan to sell it (I’ll eventually have it as a backup), I used a permanent marker to write the number where it’s easily visible.

If I purchase a drone I know I’m going to use until it’s obsolete, I’ll simply inscribe it with a permanent marker. Another popular method, however, is putting the registration number on a self-adhesive label. It’ll stick through a variety of weather conditions and can be removed if you plan on selling the drone.

A certificate of ‘Trust’

If you live in the United States and plan on flying, even for fun, you’ll need to take and pass the FAA’s ‘The Recreational UAS Safety Test (TRUST).’ The FAA wants to ensure that all pilots understand the basic rules of drone flight. Passing TRUST is a requirement for pilots of all types of drones, even sub-250g. The good news is it’s free and takes roughly 5 minutes to complete. You’ll get a certificate to print out along with a digital copy. Keep it with you in case any authority figure such as law enforcement or an FAA official asks to see it.

The European Union does not have the equivalent of a TRUST exam. Instead, exam requirements for training depend on the type of drone you plan to operate and for a specific purpose. There is also no age limit in certain circumstances. In the US, for example, the minimum age to fly is 16. Classes of flight and safety measures are categorized as Open, Specific and Certified, or A1, A2 and A3, respectively, and are contingent on how much the drone weighs at take off. A drone under 250g is considered a ‘toy.’

The EU breaks down its drone rules very clearly with this handy chart.

The United Kingdom is separate from the EU, since Brexit passed, and has its own online theory exam for General VLOS flight and registration guidelines. Make sure to check in with the Civil Aviation Authority and expect to pay 10 pounds for the privilege to fly. Your registration will be valid in the UK for 5 years. If you leave for a neighboring EU country, you’ll need to re-register and follow those respective rules.

Know where you can fly

Now that you’re registered, you can fly your drone anywhere, right? Nope! Besides controlled airspaces, there are special events that come up, such as a sporting event or a presidential visit, where a temporary flight restriction (TFR) is put in place. If you get caught flying in any of these conditions, heavy fines in the ballpark of $25,000 are almost guaranteed (and jail time is possible).

Luckily there are a variety of free and easy-to-use Unmanned Aircraft Traffic Management System (UTM) apps that help you figure out where you can operate. Simply open a free UTM app such as Aloft or the FAA’s B4UFly where you plan to launch your drone. You can also plan ahead and input the location before heading out.

LAANC allows you to apply for approval in controlled airspaces, typically areas surrounding airports. The little 0-400 numbers represent grid and heights limit for flights as you get closer to the runway.

If your launch point happens to be in controlled airspace, a free service called Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) can grant both recreational and commercial pilots near-real-time approval to fly. All you do is enter the date, time period, and maximum altitude once you draw a square around your planned area of operation. LAANC is available in all free-to-use UTM apps.

Walk through your settings

While it’s tempting to launch your drone and start flying around immediately, it’s wise to check your settings in app to make sure everything is properly aligned. What if you’re looking at distance or altitude in imperial units instead of metric? It’s easy to panic and get confused while the drone in the air versus when it’s grounded. If you have the wrong stats on your screen, you could unwittingly be breaking some laws.

Besides this, you’ll want to set distance and height limits. Unless you have a Part 107 (an FAA clearance for professional and expanded types of flight), you can’t fly above 400 feet. Setting a height limit in your app will ensure that the drone doesn’t breach this altitude. You’ll also want to keep your drone in your line of sight. You can set a distance limit in the same menu.

Make sure you walk through all of your drone settings in app, so you don’t get any surprises. You can disable sideways flight and toggle between Metric and Imperial for displaying altitude and distance.

It’s also important to understand that if your drone has built-in obstacle avoidance sensors, they won’t always be active. If you switch to ‘Sport’ or ‘Ludicrous’ mode, those sensors will be disabled. A lesson I learned, nearly the hard way, is if you’re capturing video on certain models at a resolution of 2.7K/60p or 4K/30p, obstacle avoidance will be shut off – even if you’re operating in a cinematic mode.

Wrapping it up

More and more photographers are discovering how easy it is, with a little practice, to have the thrill of capturing their favorite spots from an entirely new perspective. Given that a drone with a decent 20MP camera and Type-1 CMOS sensor will set you back about $1,000 or even less, the barrier to entry is lower than ever. And once you discover this new world of possibilities for capturing footage, you might wish you had picked one up sooner.

Hopefully in all the exhilaration of getting started you’ll take the time to follow the above recommended steps. They’ll help you not only to be compliant with your local laws, but to be a much safer remote pilot and have more confidence.

Happy flying!

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