You’ve got it all planned. You’ll launch your drone from the grass beside the Eiffel Tower. When it reaches the top, you’ll circle around the tower once, then end the video with a perfect landing. It’s the kind of thing you bought a drone for. It’s the kind of thing that makes for epic Instagram videos.
It’s the kind of thing that’s illegal and could get you fined thousands of dollars.
We’re in a weird time when it comes to drones. The devices are still relatively new, but their popularity is booming, and as such many cities, companies and managerial agencies are all erring on the side of no. Their concerns are numerous, including noise issues, the potential for property damage and personal injury, and other safety concerns. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bring your drone when you travel, it means you should consider several factors before you do.
Research local laws
If there’s a place you want to fly a drone, chances are someone already has and likely got in trouble for it. To avoid a similar experience, start your research with an online search of where you’re going, and specifically the exact spots where you want to fly. A few places to start are Airmap.io, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Where Can I Fly? and Knowbeforeyoufly.org.
DJI, the largest manufacturers of drones, also recommends some preflight research: “When traveling with your drone, it’s always important to check the rules and regulations for the countries you are visiting so you are aware of what is allowed or what is not.” DJI also has an interactive map that lets you select your drone and location for any alerts or restrictions.
In the example above, most of Paris is a big no-fly zone. It’s safe to assume that many well-known tourist attractions, major landmarks or high-density pedestrian zones will likely be off limits. Washington, D.C., is a no-drone zone. In Britain, you’re not allowed to fly within approximately 50 meters (about 164 feet) of any building, person or vehicle, or 150 meters (492 feet) from built-up or crowded areas. Japan has similar restrictions, as do many other countries. There are mix of laws in Europe currently, but one European Union-wide set of rules will be in effect starting July 2020.
If your travels are within the United States, the F.A.A. recently updated its B4UFLY app for iOS and Android. You can search locations, or it can use your current one, to see if there are any restrictions in place. Another option is the AirMap app, also on Android and iOS. This app, which shows restrictions overlaid on your location, works both in the United States and in 20 other countries, but since no app can be 100 percent accurate for all locations, always double check with a web search.
What about a permit?
Generally speaking, the more touristy a place is, the less likely you’ll be able to fly a drone. You might be able to apply for a permit in advance, but often those are only available to professional drone pilots. You’ll need to contact the location, or that country’s civil aviation administration (For the United States, that’s the F.A.A.).
In the United States, if it’s near an airport or other controlled airspace, the F.A.A. has set up a program called the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability, to grant drone pilots faster authorization to fly near airports all across the country. This program is available in several apps, including AirMap.
And if you haven’t already, most drones require registration with the F.A.A.
You’ve done your research, you’re free to fly, but which one to fly? A small, highly-portable drone might be a better option for travel. Wirecutter, The New York Times company that reviews products, recommends a few camera drones, including the DJI Tello, for around $100. The photos and videos produced won’t be quite as high quality as their larger counterparts, but their low cost and small size make them a great option for travel.
On the plane
Drones typically use lithium ion or lithium polymer batteries, and the F.A.A. prohibits any type of spare lithium batteries in checked luggage. Batteries in a device are fine, but spare ones are not. You can bring most of those in your carry-on, however. The F.A.A. has a handy PDF to explain what’s allowed and where, but check your actual airline for any additional rules.
What to expect if you get caught
Law enforcement authorities and governments of all sizes take the potential threats drones pose very seriously. Flying your drone in a national park, for instance, is classified as a misdemeanor, with a maximum fine of $5,000 and six months in jail.
Countries have implemented similar fines. Depending on the infraction, in Britain you could be fined between a few hundred British pounds on the spot to £2,500 (over $3,000). In Japan it’s up to 500,000 yen, or about $4,700. Motherboard, part of Vice Media, used a Freedom of Information request to get a list from the F.A.A. of all the fines it has levied so far.
If your drone is confiscated by the police or local authorities, there’s no guarantee you’ll get it back. So it’s smart to know local laws before you fly and look for any “no drone” signs, often very visible near parking lots, entrances and ticket booths.
Always consider your fellow travelers
Signe Brewster, a Wirecutter staff writer and expert in drones, wrote the Wirecutter guide referenced above. She offers one last piece of advice:
“I like to err on the side of extreme respect when flying drones. If I’m at a tourist destination and other people are within earshot, I won’t fly. I wouldn’t want to hear 10 drones buzzing around, so I’m not about to be the first. Never fly over crowds and always heed signs banning drones.
“Public opinion is still developing on U.A.V.s, and I want to do my part to ensure I can still be flying 10 years from now.”
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