Penalties for Flying a Commercial Drone Without a License

As you will see, Mark Sheehan is very knowledgeable about the penalties you can incur for flying a commercial drone without a license. You can’t say you weren’t warned!

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Penalties for Flying Without a License

Commercial drone flying is a hot topic in the United States. This technology has quickly penetrated a number of sectors and caused many debates in the process.

If you are a professional pilot or considering becoming one, the best thing you can do to help move the profession forward is to understand the regulatory environment and abide by it.

This guide describes the legal requirements for registering a drone and getting a pilot’s license, and it breaks down the penalties for not following the laws described in the Summary of Part 107 of FAA Regulations.


First, we need to understand some of the terminology used by the Federal Aviation Administration in regards to drone flying, which includes:

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV):

  • This is what the FAA calls a single drone.

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS):

  • This is what the FAA calls drones when referring to more than one as a class of drones. For drones that weigh less than 55 lbs., the FAA calls them small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS).

Remote Pilot Certificate:

  • This is what the FAA calls a drone pilot’s license.


  • The FAA requires a drone pilot to have a certificate if the pilot receives any form of compensation for the drone flight. Compensation includes money and non-monetary rewards such as benefits, discounts, freebies, or in-kind services. If a drone pilot receives anything of any value, directly or indirectly, for providing drone flying services this is considered compensation. Being compensated for commercial drone flying requires the pilot to have an FAA certificate.

Here is the link to the full FAA Part 107 Rules (as of Feb. 13, 2019).

Legal Requirements

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Penalties #2

The FAA has specific legal requirements for drone registration, pilot’s licenses, and safe operations. In May/June 2017, the FAA published a safety briefing entitled You & UAS, which summarizes all the rules.

Guidance has been issued by the FAA to local law enforcement agencies across the United States for their use in enforcement of FAA rules in a publication that was published on 8/14/2018 entitled Law Enforcement Guidance for Suspected Unauthorized UAS Operations.

Drone Registration

Any drone that weighs more than 0.55 lbs. must be registered with the FAA. If the drone weighs less than 55 lbs. this registration can be done online at the FAA Drone Zone.

Drones weighing 55 lbs. or more, including any payload that they carry, must be registered by filling out a paper application, adding the notarized signature of the drone owner to the application and mailing the form to the FAA. This registration cost $5 and is good for three years.

Each drone registered with the FAA is given a unique number that starts with an “N” or “FA.” This registration number must be placed on a drone in either a visible place or in the battery compartment along as no tools are required to open it.

Pilot’s License

Any commercial flight of a drone, when the pilot receives anything of any value for the flight, requires the pilot to have a remote pilot’s certificate issued by the FAA.

The drone pilot obtains this license by paying a fee ($150) and passing a written test. This certificate is good for two years.

Safe Operations

Examples of safe operations include no night flying, no drone flying out of the line-of-sight, and no flying over people.

Flights are allowed only in unrestricted airspace up to 400 feet altitude with a maximum drone speed of 100 mph.

Avoiding restricted airspace and giving right-of-way to manned aircraft is among the many other requirements. All the rules are described in the Summary of Part 107 of FAA Regulations.


Violation of any FAA rules may result in a warning letter, suspension/revocation of a license, denial of an application for a pilot’s license, civil penalties (fines), and incarceration for criminal convictions.

There have been a few instances of significant civil penalties being applied. One company had to pay a substantial fine. The company is SkyPan International in Chicago.

On October 6, 2015, the company was charged with the civil penalties of $1.9 million by the FAA for flying unregistered drones over restricted areas in illegal ways. The company eventually settled the case with the FAA by paying a $250,000 fine.

Drone Registration

Under the law known as 49 U.S.C. section 44103(d), a drone operator who is flying a drone that weighs more than 0.55 lbs. must register the drone. The drone pilot must be able to show the registration document to any law enforcement officer who requests to see it.

Failure to follow this law may result in civil penalties of up to $32,666 per incident. The FAA may also impose criminal sanctions, which include a fine of up to $250,000 and/or a prison sentence of up to three years upon conviction.

Commercial Drone Flying Without a Pilot’s License

The civil penalties for flying a commercial rig without first obtaining a remote pilot’s certificate from the FAA are up to $32,666 for each incidence.

This fine is charged per day for continual illegal use of a drone for commercial purposes, after receiving a warning letter from the FAA.

The FAA may also impose criminal sanctions, which include a fine of up to $250,000 and/or a prison sentence of up to three years upon conviction.

Unsafe Operations

Any unsafe operations include violations of FAA rule 107 operational regulations and/or operating a drone under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

These violations have basic penalties. The penalties for unsafe operations are revocation or suspension of a remote pilot’s certificate or denial for one year of an application for a remote pilot’s certificate.

The FAA may impose civil penalties for more serious violations of up to $32,666 per incident. The FAA may also impose criminal sanctions, which include a fine of up to $250,000 and/or a prison sentence of up to three years upon conviction.

Restricted Airspace Violations

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Penalties #3

The FAA considers drone flying violations of restricted airspace, such as around airports and critical infrastructure, to be serious offenses.

The FAA may impose civil penalties of up to $32,666 per incident. The FAA may also impose criminal sanctions, which include a fine of up to $250,000 and/or a prison sentence of up to three years upon conviction.

If there is a threat to national security, under the Homeland Security regulations and the American Patriot Act these violations may be considered acts of terrorism that may result in decades-long prison sentences or lifetime of incarceration.


Because drone flying is fairly new, the FAA currently has a policy of issuing warning letters and making public-education efforts to create more awareness about the rules.

As of March 2019, civil penalties have rarely been imposed and no criminal sanctions have been enforced by the FAA. Less than five cases so far (through February 2019), have been referred to the FAA’s enforcement division regarding violations involving drones.

There is no guarantee this FAA policy of leniency will continue. The potential fines and penalties for flying commercially without a license are substantial.

About The Author

Mark Sheehan started My Drone Authority to share his knowledge and help people get the most out of this amazing hobby and profession.

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  • may I print and use your article with attribution?

  • The article is a great resource but it must include the attributable USC specific codes that correlate the violation to the penalty.
    In other words, a statement such as, “The FAA may impose civil penalties of up to $32,666 per incident. The FAA may also impose criminal sanctions, which include a fine of up to $250,000 and/or a prison sentence of up to three years upon conviction.” must include the penalty section of the USC that is applicable to the violation mentioned.
    Without that attribution, the statement may be considered to be conjecture. I come from a legal background, have read the USC sections that may or may not be applicable to the violations mentioned herein and I cannot determine a definitive link between the violation and penalty as you have written here.
    It would be gratefully appreciated if those links between violation and penalty could be provide so that those presenting this information may do so in a manner that is commensurate within the legal field.
    If you do not possess those links or are unfamiliar with that process, please add that information to this article – the provided hyperlinks seem to be ambiguous and not specific to the mentioned violations.

  • If my drone is less then .5 lbs and I use if for commercial purposes, an I still required to have an Unmanned Airman Certification?

    • Yes. 14 CFR provides, in pertinent part, that

      (a) Except as provided in paragraph (c) of this section, no person may manipulate the flight controls of a small unmanned aircraft system unless:

      (1) That person has a remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating issued pursuant to subpart C of this part and satisfies the requirements of § 107.65; or

      (2) That person is under the direct supervision of a remote pilot in command and the remote pilot in command has the ability to immediately take direct control of the flight of the small unmanned aircraft.”

      “Small unmanned aircraft” is defined as “an unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds on takeoff, including everything that is on board or otherwise attached to the aircraft.” (14 CFR 107.12).

      This, the requirement to hold a 107 Certification is necessary irrespective of the .55 lbs lower weight limit for UAS registration that you reference in your question.

      • My apologies. I hit send without correcting my citations.

        The citation for requiring a Part 107 certification is 14 CFR 107.12. UAS is defined at 14 CFR § 107.3.

      • Thank you. I have been looking for these codes specifically.

    • Yes I have the same thing and you do need to complete the Part 107

  • I give my drone photos to a buddy of mine that is a real estate agent for free, no compensation is received on my behalf. Can I be held liable for operating without a commercial license? The drone is already registered recreational.

  • Yes! I very highly recommend that you decommission your drone footage ASAP!
    Unless of course would enjoy being institutionalized.
    There is absolutely always a paper trail and it certainly not made of paper. You are jepordising your entire family and friends do you comprehend what you are playing with? It’s literally a witch hunt! I very strongly recommend that you retain council immediately. You are literally begging for trouble and it is not worth the conquences. Go to the FAA website immediately and start the process, it is not even expensive! $5 for a form to fill out, next a bit of studying and $150 for the peace of mind my God!!!

  • So I’m 15 right now but I’ve had my drone for months and I know I could do quality shots of houses. I have my recreational license and I would go through the process to get my commercial but you have to be 16. What do u think would happen if I started taking pics of houses and sold them.


  • I have an FAA Pilot’s license (Single Engine Land) and have for over 30 years. Do I still need to take this test for commercial drone operation ? Can my Private Pilot License suffice ?

  • If a company should knowingly advertise an unlicensed pilot for services or a real estate agent knowingly uses an unlicensed drone operator for their listing (video/photos) are they subject to penalties?

  • It seems to me this is just a scare tactic and theres no ordinance by law enforcement whatsoever. I got a DJI mavic air 2 and took vids of cities in Orange County. This was before I learned I had to register my drone and get TRUST. Before i videotaped I called ALL police stations in Huntington Beach, Newport Beach etc and asked if they had any ordinance and they all said same thing….we currently have no ordinance to enforce drone flight. They said to make sure you are respectful of people and their property and local wild life. It might be different in LA county though.

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  • I am a licensed drone pilot and hold a FAA Private Pilot Certificate. If I bust a drone rule, can they take my Private Pilot Certificate way from me?

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