Let the word ring out: The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not been, is not now, and shows no sign of being in the future, renowned for its “Aww, shucks” sense of humor. It’s a serious administration with a serious purpose, and if it starts to crack a smile and get loose, pretty soon planes start falling out of the sky.
This is not a good thing.
So, when the FAA says you have to do A Thing, you do The Thing, or you expect significant consequences. Clear?
So, in the first instance, if the FAA says you need a license to fly your drone, you get a license to fly your drone. Get used to it now, because more stringent penalties are likely to follow if people mistake the nature of the FAA for Fun Time at Uncle Chucklebrother’s.
But there are also gradations within the law. After all, non-commercial hobby drones shouldn’t be treated the same as commercial, powerful and potentially high-flying drones, right?
Right. The FAA may not have an identifiable sense of humor, but it’s not an ass.
For hobby drones, you don’t actually need a license in the US. You do however need to register your drone with the FAA, mark the registration number clearly on the outside of the drone, and carry proof of your registration any time you fly your drone.
As drones are still fairly new in public ownership, it’s relatively unclear what the ‘normal run of events’ consequences of flying a drone without registration would be – it would tend to depend who spots the drone, or who they report it to, and if you don’t have the registration marked on the drone, it also depends on how they would trace the drone back to you.
Bottom line, unless you do something very stupid with it, the likely extent of the consequences is the loss of your drone if it falls into other people’s hands.
What does ‘something very stupid’ look like? Well, one of the main additional requirements of hobby drone flight is that you stay below 400 feet, and in uncontrolled, or “Class G” airspace.
That’s airspace not directly monitored by the FAA, or in which it is not actively controlling manned air traffic.
Usually, the control app for your hobby drone will tell you when you’re about to leave Class G airspace. If you ignore it and go into controlled airspace, it’s you versus the FAA.
The penalty for that will depend on exactly what you do with your drone – whether you endanger human life, radically inconvenience a whole bunch of passengers (in which case airports and airlines – not to mention individuals – might well take it into their heads to sue you thought he civil courts), or do something more plain annoying than dangerous.
Because of that ‘newness of drones’ factor, the FAA has likewise so far been lenient on hobbyists who do the ‘dumbass with a drone’ thing.
You don’t want to play Red Rover with the patience of the FAA, though. You never quite know when it will be exhausted.
Commercial drone flying is a whole other ballgame.
You’re thinking “But what can the FAA actually do to me?” aren’t you?
As with hobbyist drone misuse, that depends on the degree of infringement and the danger – or repeated violation of the FAA rules – of your actions.
If you’re caught without a valid drone license, you may just get a warning letter.
Alternatively, depending on how serious your infringement of the rules is, you may have any future application for a pilot’s license rejected.
What do you care, right? You don’t have a license right now, why would you need to get one in the future?
OK, how about some civil penalties? That’s fines in ordinary language. D’you want to be dogged with fines for being an irresponsible drone user? Beware – the FAA has quite the power to enforce those civil penalties.
And we’re not necessarily talking ‘slap on the wrist’ fines either – in October, 2015, the FAA pulled out the big guns and fined a company called SkyPan International $1.9 million for flying unregistered drones over restricted areas. The company was eventually able to settle by paying a cool $250,000 fine.
Unless you happen to have a quarter of a million bucks, or possibly more, to drop on infringement fines, you’re going to want to consider flying a commercial drone without a license very, very carefully.
The fines in the SkyPan case were admittedly extraordinary – again we say, you do not want to play Red Rover with the FAA’s patience. There are, you’ll be happy to know, relatively fixed penalties for being caught flying a commercial drone without a valid pilot’s license.
Mm-hmm. Up to $32,666. For each. Incidence. If you happen to have five drones and each of them gets spotted (let’s say you have a bad morning), that’s up to around $150,000 already. And the fine is charged on a per-day basis for continual illegal drone use, after you receive a terse letter from the FAA.
If you really annoy the FAA, it can also go the criminal route, which includes a fine of up to $250,000 and/or up to three years of prison time if you’re convicted.
And that’s before we even consider the potential of your unlicensed drone flights being a risk to national security. If there’s evidence that you’ve beached Homeland Security regulations or the Patriot Act, you’re in a whoooooole other world of hurt. That could get you slapped down as a terrorist. In which case, you could be talking decades of jail time.
As we’ve said, because drone flying is fairly new, and because it has a fairly accurate assessment of the human condition, the FAA has, so far, been pretty lenient in swinging the gavel of justice on unlicensed drone pilots.
It has actually rarely imposed those gigunda-fines that are at its disposal. For right now, it seems disposed to think of you as an idiot, rather than a malefactor if you fly an unlicensed commercial drone.
But to quote Clint Eastwood’s famous Dirty Harry speech… “Do you feel lucky, punk?”
Don’t be the first unlicensed commercial drone pilot to snap the FAA’s patience. Get your license, and live an easier life.