Navigating the surface of the planet and taking photographs can be confusing due to private property, right-of-way and privacy restrictions. Talk about the airspace above and things can get really complex. It doesn’t help that civilian operated drones are taking off in a big way while the regulators consider how to update the rules that previously didn’t see much happening in the space between kits and remote control model aircraft on one end of the spectrum and full size helicopters and airplanes on the other.

Rules vary by country, and in addition there are often local regulation to take into account, especially in national parks and sometimes above coastlines and oceans.

In the United States the Federal Aviation Authority says they will issue revised guidelines in 2014 or 2015. Until then the rule of thumb is to stay below 400 feet (120 m) and not fly within 5 miles (8 km) of an airport. Charging money for flying drones is considered commercial flight and requires a license, although there are no reports of cases that have been brought against individuals yet. Taking photos or video from a drone may or may not be ok depending on which state you are in and whether you can prove that you didn’t intend to snoop on others. A lot of proposed regulation at the state level is being discussed, some of it appearing rather restrictive if it passes.

The FAA has published an infographic outlining their position on unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds (25 kg).

In the United Kingdom“Drones that are under 20kg can fly in normal airspace for private use so long as the operator isn’t planning to use data or images from the flight acquired by flying close to people or objects. UAVs have to remain 150m from congested events or large assemblies, 50m from a person or building, and within line of sight, which is 500m horizontally and 400ft (122m) vertically. Flights beyond this can be permitted but the operators need to show they can fly the plane safely. Live-streaming from the UAV to the pilot is not considered a good enough measure by the CAA to allow drones to be flown beyond line of sight.” [Quoted from Wired UK, 20 February 2014.]

In Canada drones are considered model aircraft if they weigh less than 35 kg (77 pounds) and are flown for recreational purposes; in that case you can fly without a permit. If you are flying for commercial or research purposes you need to apply for a Special Flight Operation Certificate (SFOC) through the relevant regional office. [Transport Canada page on UAVs.]

For more information, including interpretations of regulation in the UK, Canada and Australia see the sUAS page on Regulation.