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Getting a drone for Christmas? Here's how to stay out of trouble with the law

Unwrapping a drone this Christmas? Don't take it out for a spin just yet. In the eyes of the federal government, that's not a toy you've got; it's an aircraft. And that means you're subject to Federal Aviation Administration regulations, including their latest rule: As of this week, your drone needs to be registered before its first flight, kind of like a plane would. The process, the FAA says, is simple enough — just an online form that only takes a few minutes to knock out. But the regulations that you'll run into once you get flying can be a little more cumbersome.

Here's what you ought to know:

Okay, I just got a drone. What do I do now?

First things first: Before you fly your drone, you'll have to register it with the FAA and mark it with your registration number.

That's a new rule as of Monday, but it's one you'll want to heed. The FAA says flying a drone without registering it could cost you up to $27,500 in civil penalties, $250,000 in criminal penalties and three years in prison.

The process will cost you $5, but the FAA says it will refund the registration fee until Jan. 20. You can take care of that at registermyuas.faa.gov.

What if I already own one?

You have a little more wiggle room if you were flying your drone before the registration requirement went into place this week, but you still need to register. You'll have until Feb. 19 to do that.

Are there any rules about where and how I can fly my drone?

You'd better believe it.

For one thing, you need to check how close you are to an airport; if you're not at least five miles away, you'll need to tell the airport before you fly. That includes huge swaths of the Tampa Bay region, including all of downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg.

Once you have the go-ahead, there are more rules you should know.

You can't fly higher than 400 feet above the ground, and the drone has to be within sight throughout its flight. And you shouldn't fly it above people or moving vehicles.

So, I'm close to an airport. Whom do I need to talk to before I can fly?

It depends on where you are.

In Hillsborough County, you'll just need to fill out an online form if you're within five miles of Tampa International, Tampa Executive, Peter O. Knight Airport or the Plant City Airport. You can do that at www.tampa airport.com/UAS.

Near St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, you'll need to call the FAA's air traffic control tower, says airport spokeswoman Michele Routh. The number is 727-539-6867.

Drone users near MacDill Air Force Base can call the Office of Public Affairs to request permission to fly at 813-828-2215, said Sgt. Ali Rose.

For other airports, the FAA and a couple of drone trade groups have built a website that can point you in the right direction. That site, knowbeforeyoufly.org, includes a map of restricted airspace and contact information.

Any rules unique to Florida I should know about?

Yes. The Florida Legislature passed a law earlier this year that restricts how drones can be used in the state.

In short, it's illegal to take pictures from the air of someone or their property without permission, as long as they have a "reasonable expectation of privacy."

So spying on your neighbors from the air? As of July, when the law was enacted, that's illegal.

I'd like to use my drone at work. That's cool, right?

Actually, it might not be. This is where the law starts to get murky.

Once a drone is used for commercial purposes, flying it is subject to a different — and more restrictive — set of regulations.

For one thing, it needs to be registered in a different way. But more importantly, a drone used commercially has to be flown by a licensed pilot, says Joel Roberson, an associate at the law firm Holland & Knight who studies drone regulations.

Many of the commercial uses the FAA allows won't run into this problem. Most folks aren't inspecting power lines or surveying pipelines, after all.

But other uses are more ambiguous. Want to take a picture of a house for your real estate firm, for example? That would count as a commercial use, and it would change the rules of how you can use your drone.

Wait, so why do I have to deal with all this red tape anyway?

It really comes down to accountability.

Many of the rules that dictate how drones are used were initially guidelines to keep remote-controlled plane hobbyists out of trouble. But this Christmas, hundreds of thousands of drones are expected to be given as gifts, and that could mean trouble for the FAA, which is charged with ensuring safe skies.

Already, regulators have had plenty of close calls with drones flying close to planes or entering restricted airspace. And until now, they haven't had a good way to track down who was responsible.

Making drone users register is hardly a high-tech solution to that problem, but it's meant to make them more accountable for what they do in the air, Roberson says.

As a bonus, the FAA points out, if you lose your drone, having it registered might help it get home.

Contact Thad Moore at tmoore@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3434. Follow @thadmoore.

Getting a drone for Christmas? Here's how to stay out of trouble with the law 12/23/15 [Last modified: Thursday, December 24, 2015 1:31pm]
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