More than two years have passed since the Part 107 regulations for commercial drone flight were implemented, and since then hundreds of thousands of people have become licensed drone pilots. Being a licensed drone pilot means having to abide by all Part 107 regulations whenever you fly your drone for commercial reasons. Strangely enough, these rules do not apply for hobbyists who fly their drone just for fun.

This dichotomy has led to a common question being frequently asked by licensed pilots: if I am a licensed pilot but I am only flying for fun, do I still need to follow the Part 107 rules? Read on as we attempt to navigate the twists and turns of Part 107 to answer this question.

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What rules do I need to follow under Part 107?

The Part 107 rules apply to all flights done for commercial purpose. This applies to commercial drone photography, advertising, inspection, remote sensing, and surveillance activities. A pilot who has a drone license under Part 107 AND is flying for commercial purposes is required to abide by the Part 107 rules all the time.

According to Part 107, there are several restrictions to flying commercially, such as:

  1. A drone can only fly to a maximum altitude of 400 feet above ground. Flying above 400 feet can be allowed within 400 feet of a structure.
  2. A drone is only allowed to fly at a maximum groundspeed of 100 mph.
  3. The drone cannot be flown beyond the line of sight of the pilot or an accompanying visual observer.
  4. A single pilot is not allowed to fly more than one drone.
  5. Drone flight is only allowed during daylight. Flight during twilight (30 minutes after sunset and 30 minutes before sunrise) is allowed only with an appropriate anti-collision lighting setup.
  6. Drone flight is not allowed over people who are not participating in the activity.
  7. A drone cannot be operated from a moving aircraft or vehicle.
  8. Drone flight in class B, C, D and E airspace can only be done with prior permission from air traffic control
  9. A drone pilot needs to be physically and mentally sound to operate a drone.
  10. A drone pilot needs to always give way to manned aircrafts.

In addition to these restrictions, a drone pilot is required to keep and maintain detailed logs of their commercial flights. These logs should ideally contain information on dates and times of logs, a pre-flight inspection checklist, and any relevant notes. A licensed drone pilot also needs to report drone-related accidents to the FAA within 10 calendar days of the event, given that the accident resulted in serious property damage or personal injury.

A drone pilot who needs to fly under the restrictions cited above due to business requirements will need to request for a waiver from the FAA. A waiver request needs to include a detailed account of the intended operations, an identification of the potential risks, and mitigating measures for such risks. A waiver request can take up to 90 days to be approved depending on the complexity of the request and on the backlog of the FAA.

What rules do I need to follow if I am flying as a hobbyist?

As noted in the FAA website, a hobbyist drone pilot has the option of flying under the Special Rule for Model Aircraft (Public Law 112-95 Section 336), which states the following requirements:

  1. Fly for hobby or recreational purposes only
  2. Follow a community-based set of guidelines
  3. Fly the UAS within visual line-of-sight
  4. Give way to manned aircraft
  5. Provide prior notification to the airport and air traffic control tower, if one is present, when flying within 5 miles of an airport
  6. Fly UAS that weigh no more than 55 lbs. unless certified by a community-based organization

You will notice that most of the rules under Part 107 and the Special Rule for Model Aircraft overlap with each other, such as those concerning right of way and for maintaining visual line-of-sight. For these rules, there is no ambiguity in terms of the difference in coverage between commercial pilots and hobbyists.

Item number 5 above exhibits the advantage of having a Part 107 license, as licensed drone pilots do not need to notify air traffic control when flying within 5 miles of an airport (or what is known as Class G airspace). Having to call air traffic control every time you want to fly a drone can be very inconvenient, especially if you live near several airports.

Item number 2 above states the need to follow “community-based guidelines”. The community in this case refers to the Academy for Model Aeronautics (AMA), which is the national body for model aviation. This means that hobby drone pilots are required to abide by the safety guidelines of the AMA, which include the following rules:

  1. A pilot should not fly in a reckless or careless manner
  2. A pilot will not operate a model aircraft when under the influence of alcohol or any drug that can adversely affect his/her ability to fly
  3. A pilot will avoid flying directly over people, moving vehicles, or occupied structures
  4. A pilot will maintain visual contact with the aircraft at all times
  5. A pilot can only fly at night with a lighting system that provides the pilot a clear view of the aircraft’s attitude and orientation at all times.

As you can see, most of the AMA safety guidelines align with Part 107 rules and the Special Rule for Model Aircraft. However, item number 5 of the AMA safety guidelines states that hobby model aircraft pilots are allowed to fly at night, as long as they have the appropriate lighting systems. This is in direct contradiction of the Part 107 rule against nighttime flight.

Why not just follow the Part 107 rules all the time?

The discrepancy regarding nighttime flight between the Part 107 rules and hobbyist rules has been a focal point of argument between licensed drone pilots since the start of Part 107 implementation. After all, licensed drone pilots also just want to fly for fun sometimes, and they don’t want their leisure time to be encumbered by the restrictions brought about by their licensed status.

So, can licensed drone pilots fly their drones at night if they are doing it strictly for fun? Yes, they can, as long as they are flying with no intent of doing it for commercial purposes. Should they be flying for leisure, they will be subject to the Special Rule for Model Aircraft, as with other hobbyists.

Another reason to temporarily “turn off” the Part 107 rules for licensed drone pilots when they fly for fun is the lack of documentation requirements for hobbyists. Pilots who fly for leisure do not need to keep an extensive log of their flights, although the AMA still recommends doing pre-flight inspections of your aircraft.

However, take note that keeping a log of your flights (even those done for fun) can go a long way towards proving your experience as a drone pilot. These logs can be very useful if you should decide to request for a Part 107 waiver. 

When is intent to fly commercially or as a hobby determined?

There is a little bit of gray area when distinguishing between flying for fun and flying for commercial purposes. Technically, the intention of the flight is determined at take-off. You cannot suddenly decide to switch from leisure to profit in the middle of the flight. With that being said, there are a number of scenarios that you need to watch out for to avoid running into problems with the FAA if you don’t have the appropriate waiver.

  1. You cannot start a gig in the morning and suddenly shift to “hobby” mode when the shoot or the job extends into the night.
  2. You cannot take night photos for fun and post them into a commercial photography site.
  3. You cannot take night photos for fun, post them into your personal social media account, and agree to a client making an offer to buy them.

All it takes is one law-abiding citizen seeing your night photos and deciding to call the FAA on you for you to get in trouble and possibly have your license revoked.

Keep in mind that it is also very easy to fall outside the banner of “flying for fun”. You might be thinking of taking photos of a sports event just for fun, but if a photo you took somehow makes it way to an online article or publication, then your flight may be classified as “commercial” even if you did not get paid for the photo.

What are the penalties for violating Part 107?

According to the FAA, pilots who violate the licensing requirements of Part 107 may be fined for up to $30,000 per violation. So far, nobody has been fined this amount yet, but it’s generally not a good idea to be challenging laws. Even if you do not get fined, any violation gives the FAA or local enforcement the right to confiscate your drone or revoke your Part 107 drone license.

Final thoughts

It does seem strange that the implementation of the Part 107 regulations has made flight restrictions that apply only to commercial drone pilots and not to hobbyists. However, we like to think of it as a system of increased accountability that comes along with the privilege of being able to earn from drone flight. Much like any business owner, commercial drone pilots have a responsibility to the welfare and safety of the people and property around them.

The Part 107 regulations do not necessarily restrict the capability of licensed drone pilots to have fun. They can still fly under the less restrictive hobby rules, but they must keep in mind that the line between leisure and profit can be very easy to cross.

Even when flying under hobby rules, a drone pilot will still need to follow guidelines on safety and right of way. After all, having fun is not an excuse to be reckless. Public perception of the drone industry is still at a very tenuous state over privacy and safety issues and maintaining a good image for the industry is the responsibility of every drone pilot.