Note: I've written a more recent article with up-to-date information about drone regulations right in 2020 here.
The problem is that those same people who are snapping up drones tend to have absolutely zero knowledge of the legalities of flying aircraft. I doubt they even gave it a second thought. All they saw was a cool quadcopter for sale, with promises of piss-easy remote-controlled flight and the awesome possibilities for photography and video and they wanted a piece of the action. And you know what, I don't blame them. I doubt that the sales-person in the shop said anything. I doubt there was any information at point of sale about the legalities of flying. I doubt there was anything at all in the box beyond a tiny piece of paper that could easily be lost in amongst all the other crap you get with electronic products such as warranty details in 57 languages. And who bothers reading some crappy slip of paper when you just spent a grand on a fucking awesome flying gadget? No-one.
So unless you come from a model aircraft background or you've done any actual flying, it's fair to say that you probably know nothing whatsoever about the law and how it relates to your expensive (or not so expensive) quadcopter. You probably won't know anything either, until you start posting your photos and videos online and the self-appointed drone militia will start taking exception to your illegally photographed or videoed work.
The kind of people who will comment on your illegally photographed or videoed work will undoubtedly have all the charm and diplomatic skills of a strung-out meth addict. They will make mention of laws, they will make mention of arcane regulations, they will make mention of civil aviation authorities and they will almost certainly make mention of fines. They will rub you up the wrong way and it will undoubtedly degenerate into a swearing contest. If they're feeling like it then they might even threaten to report you to CASA. Hell if they're feeling particularly shit-headed that day they might even do it. To be a member of the drone militia you have be an anally retentive little-Hitler. So be ready for them, because they will come for you.
So in order to avoid any unpleasantness, and to bring you up to speed, allow me to explain the ins and outs and the ups and downs of flying your drone. I am based in Australia and this is an Australian focused article, but the laws are very similar in most western countries. America, the UK, Canada and much of Europe has very similar legislation. So let's get into it.
There are, broadly speaking, three kinds of airspace in most countries - uncontrolled, controlled and restricted.
Controlled airspace is air through which aircraft fly under the guidance of air traffic controllers usually through specific air corridors and at specific heights. In this airspace standard operating procedures take effect for all aircraft, but it is perfectly okay to fly your drone within it as long as you stick to those rules.
Restricted airspace is air through which you cannot ordinarily fly because it is heavily used or a military zone. Some airspace is locked down 24/7, some is operational during specific hours or as required.
Uncontrolled airspace is everything else. You can do what you want within uncontrolled airspace, but in this era of cheap jet air travel, you might be surprised to discover just how little of this exists.
The kind of airspace you are within trumps all other considerations when it comes to putting a drone up. For instance, keeping under 120m in maximum height is irrelevant within restricted airspace because you are simply not allowed to fly there.
So how do you find out what sort of airspace you're in? You need to consult the maps produced by your country's airspace regulator. Here in Australia that organisation is CASA and we can view the airspace on their website (AirServices) or in one of several apps which use that data (CASA's own 'Can I fly there' app, OzRunways or AvPlan EFB).
The activation of areas of restricted airspace is covered by an official announcement called a NOTAM (Notice to AirMen). They are extremely hard to decipher unless you've had some flight training so instead airspace apps access the NOTAMs and indicate visually on an airspace map when an area of airspace is active.
It is possible to fly your quadcopter in areas of restricted airspace as long as you have permission from the controlling authority. You can get contact information for that controlling authority from a document called the ERSA (En Route Supplement Australia) which is published by AirServices Australia who oversea the administration of the airspace - here's a link to the update current to this post's publication date. Simply click on the local tower in the list on the left and look for the section titled RPAS. For instance in that section for my local tower it says this: RPAS requests and enquires are to be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org with at least 10 business days PN. RPAS approval is subject to all MIL OPS and status of active restricted areas may have additional restrictions imposed or be cancelled at short notice. So as you can see, you need to give 10 days notice to that email address and approval is dependent on any military activity and the status of the airspace.
Now if that all sounds confusing as fuck, I'm not surprised, because it is. The authorities need to find a better way of communicating this information to the general public. In the mean time, if you need someone to give you the explain-it-like-I'm-five version, contact either your local airfield or your country's airspace regulators, or ask an experienced flyer.
Most countries have a baseline list of requirements for drone flights and they're usually fairly similar. The reason they're quite similar is that most of them are just common sense. Here in Australia they are:
The 120m height rule is AGL (that's above ground level). So if you go to the top of a mountain and fly your drone out, it should descend as required so that it is always within 120m of ground level. To be clear about this, you can't take off from a 500m mountain and maintain level flight outwards.
The populous area rule here in Australia applies to any place with as much as a single person in it. So you can't fly over towns, schools, factories or unsuspecting pedestrians.
The night rule is fairly clear cut. Here in Australia you can only fly about 30 minutes before sunrise and about 30 minutes after sunset.
The 30m rule here applies in all directions. Many people mistakenly believe that as long as they're more than 30m up they can fly over people's heads. This is incorrect - the 30m rule applies horizontally as well as straight up. Picture a dome with a 30m radius over the top of everyone and every thing and you're half way there.
The visual line of sight rule means that you're not supposed to fly your drone (with its factory listed 5km range) by means of the video feed it's transmitting to your iPad. You're supposed to fly it only as far as you can safely orient it in the air and fly it back if problems occur. Of all the CASA regulations this has to be the one I see most commonly being ignored.
The 5.5km airfield/helipad rule means you can't fly your drone at all within 5.5kms of the perimeter of the airfield in question.
As I said, a lot of this is simply common sense. Some of it is downright vicious. The combination of the populous area and the 30m rules, in particular, mean that in Australia it is virtually impossible to shoot photography in anything remotely approaching a built up area.
There are three mainland Commonwealth Parks - Uluru, Booderee and Kakadu and three island Commonwealth Parks - Christmas Island, Norfolk Island and Pulu Keeling. You cannot fly your within any of the parks, period. To read a little bit more about this, please see my earlier post on the subject.
National Parks cover a vast amount of Australia and they have a marginally better attitude to drones than the Commonwealth Parks authorities. At least it's not as bad as the US where it's just a blanket-ban. Their drone policy is explained in full here and says that 'Visitors wishing to use drones in parks must obtain consent from the park manager.'
That sounds great doesn't it, however you should be prepared for the park manager to deny your request. Some of them will deny it summarily, some of them will allow it only if you are fully licensed and insured and a tiny fraction may cut you some slack. If you're flying commercially in the park you're supposed to register (that goes for normal photography as well as aerial) and they have a whole raft of legislation (including Civil Aviation Act 1988 (Commonwealth), Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998 (Commonwealth), Filming Approval Act 2004, National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 and the National Parks and Wildlife Regulation 2009) which they will wave in your face should you try and argue with them.
In addition to all the restrictions above, many councils have by-laws in place governing where and how you can fly your drone. For instance in the city of Sydney, all commercial activity requires permission to take-off or land on public land. Some councils (such as Leichhardt in Sydney) have simply banned drones outright, meaning you can't take off or land on council land, which is pretty much everywhere.
So, having read all that, you may be left wondering where exactly you can fly your drone down under. Assuming you are not in an area with a blanket ban on drones (such as the afore-mentioned Commonwealth Parks), you should install one of the better smartphone apps and use it before you fly in order to find out.
The three best apps I've used are Can I Fly There, AvPlan EFB and OzRunways, but only the CASA app is free - there other two come with hefty annual subscription fees of between $100 and $350. UAV Forecast is useful for basic weather guidance, but useless for airspace information. Flight Aware is a useful app that shows aircraft live on the map, though it is not foolproof as small aircraft (microlights etc) do not show up. The most useless app I tried was Safe to Fly which only showed airfields and not all of them at that.
It's a pretty depressing picture here in Australia and if you're new to drones then it might make you want to return your expensive gadget to the shop. I know people who have done exactly that, frustrated by the endless rules, legislation and red tape. Alternatively you might do what many drone fliers opt for, which is the partial adoption of the laws and the fudging of video or photographic meta-data, but look out for the drone police.