More people than ever are using drones as they become better built and more affordable. Drones are commonly used by recreational flyers for aerial photography and racing. Drone photography enables amateur photographers to create striking aerial photos and videos without the need for professional training or equipment. Drone racing has become so popular that there is a professional drone racing league.

Drones are used by the military for bomb detection, surveillance and air strikes. Businesses use drones to collect footage for advertisement, survey land and inspect hard to reach places (such as power lines or pipes). Companies like Amazon, UPS and Walmart are rapidly working to make drone home deliveries a reality. Rescue operations use drones to locate lost persons and deliver supplies. Law enforcement uses drones to survey crowds and detect criminal activity at international borders.

The surge in drone use raises safety concerns as drones are being flown in potentially dangerous ways, such as:

  • Under the influence: It is dangerous and illegal to fly a drone after drinking or consuming drugs.
  • Over or near people: Drones weigh up to 55 pounds or more and often have spinning blades. As such, drones can cause serious injury (and even death) when they crash land on people. This is why flying a drone over or near people is illegal, subject to limited exceptions for lightweight commercial drones.
  • Near airports: Flying drones at or near airports is dangerous because it is difficult for manned aircraft to see and avoid drones while flying. Drone operators may be fined heavily for flying near an airport and are liable for any damages they cause.
  • Over sports events or stadiums: Flying drones in and around sports stadiums is prohibited before, during and after stadium events.
  • Near emergency situations: It is illegal to fly a drone near an emergency situations. Emergency aircraft must suspend flights when a drone enters the area to prevent mid-flight collisions. Drones hamper law enforcement and medical aircraft when flown near a crime scene or accident. Drone pilots who interfere with emergency response may be fined up to $20,000 for a first offense.
  • At high altitude: Drones are generally not allowed to fly more than 400 feet high in order to prevent collisions with manned aircraft, who have a minimum cruising altitude of 500 feet. The 400-foot rule is designed to prevent collisions with manned aircraft such as helicopters, who commonly flight at low altitude.
  • As weapons: Drones have been used for years to execute military airstrikes, but they can also be used as weapons by non-military pilots. Explosive drones have been used by terrorists to attack police, sink sailing vessels and attempt assassinations on political targets.
  • As smuggling vessels: Drones are used as smuggling vessels to transport drugs across international borders. Drones are also used to smuggle drugs, tobacco, cell phones and other contraband into prisons.
  • Privacy violations: Drones lend themselves to spying, voyeurism and recording people in places where they expect privacy. Spying on someone with a drone is a crime.
  • In adverse weather conditions: High winds can blow drones off course, making them impossible to control. Rain or precipitation can ruin a drone’s electrical components and cause it to crash. Cold temperatures greatly reduce drone battery life, impacting range and flying times. Flying in low visibility makes the drone harder to see, which increases the possibility of a collision.
  • Outside of the line of sight: Recreational drone pilots may not fly a drone outside the line of sight. Flying a drone outside the pilot’s line of sight increases the possibility of collisions, creates potential for the drone to fly out of range, and may cause the pilot to lose track of the drone completely.
  • Hacking: Drones can be hacked in-flight, causing them to crash.

Drone Laws

Training and Licensing

Prior to registration, commercial drone pilots must pass a knowledge test and obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate. There are no training or licensing requirements for drone pilots who are not required to register.

Registration and Marking

All drones must be registered with the FAA, except drones which are flown exclusively for recreational purposes and which weigh less than .55 pounds. Federal law divides drone pilots into two categories: recreational and commercial users. Recreational use is purely for fun and enjoyment. Commercial use includes things like taking photos to sell a property or service, taking photos for a company website and performing roof inspections to provide estimates. Goodwill and other non-monetary value can be considered compensation, so volunteering to use a drone to film for a non-profit organization could still be considered commercial use.

Drones flown for commercial purposes, and drones weighing more than .55 pounds, must be registered under Part 107 on the FAA website. All drones required to register must be clearly labeled with the drone’s registration number.

Forbidden Areas

Drones may not be flown near airports, emergency scenes, sports stadiums or correctional facilities. Drones may not be flown more than 400 feet off the ground in unrestricted airspace. Drones may not be flown over people or near other aircraft. Drone pilots may not interfere with law enforcement, firefighting, or any government emergency operations.

Drones are generally prohibited in national parks without a special use permit. Recreational drones are currently allowed in California State Parks and State Beaches except where specifically prohibited. Commercial drones are prohibited in California State Parks without special authorization from the FAA, a permit from the appropriate State Park District and a permit from the California Film Commission. Drone flight is allowed in local parks by default, but many San Diego neighborhoods such as La Mesa have enacted laws to prohibit drone use in local parks.

Reckless Flying

Reckless flying which endangers other people or their property is expressly forbidden under federal and local law. Pilots who fly their drone recklessly are liable for any damages they cause.

Privacy Violations

Using a drone to spy on people without their consent is a serious crime (Eavesdropping, Trespass, Concealed Recording, Stalking). Drone pilots who spy may also be liable for civil damages including monetary compensation (Trespass, Private Nuisance, Injunction, Restraining Order).

Accident Reporting Requirement

Drones accidents must be reported to the FAA within 10 days unless the accident caused less than $500 in damage. Any drone accident that causes serious injury or lost of consciousness must be reported.

Liability for Drone Accidents

Serious injuries have been reported from drones crashing into people. A collision with a large drone that weighs 50 pounds could easily be fatal. Even a collision with a lightweight drone could be fatal, such as if the drone fell from a high altitude.

Liability for drone crashes depends on the circumstances of the case. In most cases, the drone pilot is liable for any damages caused by a crash. However, it’s rare for drone pilots to carry insurance. This means even if you take the pilot to court and obtain a judgement, they may not have sufficient assets to compensate you for your injuries. If a person is injured by a commercial drone, potential defendants include the pilot, the company that hired the pilot, the owner of the drone and the owner’s insurance policy. The designer and/or manufacturer of a drone may also be liable for accidents caused by defective parts or designs.

What to Do if a Drone is Spying on You

“Can I shoot it down?” No. Downing a drone is illegal and falls under the same statute (and penalty) as taking down a manned aircraft. If you think that a drone is spying on you, note the color and type of drone, along with the registration number. Report the drone to the FAA and contact local law enforcement. If there is an immediate threat to life or property, call 911.


Federal Aviation Administration – UAS by the Numbers

Code of Federal Regulations – Title 14, §91.17

Code of Federal Regulations – Title 14, §91.19

Federal Aviation Administration – Recreational Flyers

Code of Federal Regulations – Title 14, §107.39

Federal Aviation Administration – Operations Over People General Overview

Federal Aviation Administration – Flying Near Airports

Federal Aviation Administration – Stadiums and Sporting Events

San Diego Municipal Code §52.5403

Federal Aviation Administration – Drones and Wildfires are a Toxic Mix

Federal Aviation Administration – FAA Targets UAS Violators for Enforcement

Code of Federal Regulations – Title 14, §107.51

Code of Federal Regulations – Title 14, §91.119

James S. Iagmin Practice Areas – Sexual Assault

Federal Aviation Administration – Commercial Operators

Federal Aviation Administration – Become a Drone Pilot

Federal Aviation Administration – How to Register Your Drone

Federal Aviation Administration – Getting Started

Federal Aviation Administration – FAA Drone Zone

Federal Aviation Administration – How to Label Your Drone

Code of Federal Regulations – Title 14, §107.43

California Legislative Information – Senate Bill No. 1355

Code of Federal Regulations – Title 14, §107.39

Code of Federal Regulations – Title 14, §107.37

United States National Park Service – Policy Memorandum 14-05

California Department of Parks & Recreation – Unmanned Aircraft System (Drones) in State Parks

Code of Federal Regulations – Title 14, §107.23

California Legislative Information – California Penal Code §632

California Legislative Information – California Penal Code §634

California Legislative Information – California Penal Code §647

California Legislative Information – California Penal Code §646.9

California Legislative Information – California Civil Code §1708.8

California Legislative Information – California Civil Code §3481

California Legislative Information – California Code of Civil Procedure §526

California Legislative Information – California Code of Civil Procedure §527.6

Code of Federal Regulations – Title 14, § 107.9

City of San Diego – Drone Operator GuideFederal Aviation Administration – FAA Hotline Reporting Form