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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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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