California Drone Laws: How to Fly Legally With Your Drone

california drone laws

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Years ago, we may remember, remote control airplanes crossed the line from toy to hobby. Children and adults spent hours in the park, flying their planes–or, more likely, crashing and chasing after their planes. Hobby groups gathered to race their planes, to mimic World War dogfights, and to compete for bragging rights.

Today remote-control aircraft have evolved much the way car phones in suitcase-sized bags have evolved into smartphones. The changes in technology that allow us to carry a computer in our pocket have also changed the world of remote-controlled aircraft.

What is a Drone?

A drone, more technically known as an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS), might be considered a toy by some, but not by most.  Drones vary from the full sized aircraft used by the military to a micro-drone that fits–with room to spare–in the palm of your hand.

Our focus here is on the drones available to the typical consumer. We will not be discussing military-grade drones here.

Technology is improving and the price of drones is dropping, so more and more people are buying drones. If you are considering buying a drone, or if you already own one, there are a few things you should know.

Federal Regulations

According to the FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration, your drone is an aircraft. As an aircraft, your drone, and you as the pilot, are subject to a variety of rules and regulations.

First, drones larger than .55 pounds (250 grams) and smaller than 55 pounds (25 kg) must be registered with the FAA.

The FAA makes a distinction between drones used by hobbyists, for fun, and those used for commercial purposes. The Special Rule for Model Aircraft specifies the conditions that designate a drone as a “Model Aircraft.” These conditions include

  • the drone is flown only for fun and recreation
  • the drone operator complies with a set of community based safety rules
  • the drone weighs less than 55 pounds
  • the drone’s flight does not interfere with any other aircraft
  • the drone yields right of way to any manned airplane
  • the drone operator informs air traffic controllers of any airports within five miles of the drone’s flight

Recreational users must register their drone as “modeler” with the FAA to legally operate the device. Registration for recreational-use drones costs only $5 and can be done online at Once the registration is complete, you must label your model aircraft with the registration number. Registrations are valid for three years.

If you are flying your drone for recreational and commercial purposes, you must register your UAS and get a Remote Pilot Certification from the FAA. Certifications are valid for two years.

Some possible commercial purposes of drone use are selling photos or videos, inspecting real estate or construction, providing security, monitoring progress at your worksite, wedding photography, and land surveys. Providing any of these services with an un-registered drone, or a drone registered as a “modeler,” will subject you to civil fines of up to $27,500, criminal fines up to $250,000 and civil or criminal charges.

The risk of these fines and charges far outweigh the drone registration cost. Each drone used for commercial purpose needs its own individual registration and the drone operators each need Remote Pilot Certification.

State Regulations

In addition to the federal regulations for UASs, each state may have its own distinct laws regulating the use of drones. About half of the states in the US have enacted laws pertaining to the use of UAS, and all fifty states have proposed legislation regarding drones.

California Drone Laws

Disclaimer: We are not lawyers, and, while the following information is accurate to the best of our knowledge, it is not legal advice. If you are seeking legal advice about your drone or the use of your drone, please contact an attorney who specializes in drone law.

California has several laws on the books pertaining to drones. Most of those laws are related to liability.

Civil Laws

California Civil Code 43.101 states that paramedics, firefighters, police officers, or any other emergency responder is not liable for any damages to a drone, or a UAS, during the course of providing the necessary emergency operations. In other words, if they are doing their job, and inadvertently damage your drone, they are not financially responsible.

California Government Code 853 again relieves government, or public, workers and employees, including firefighters and paramedics, from liability for damages to a drone.

There are laws in place to protect privacy. There are further bills being proposed to protect citizens from what is known as “drone snooping.” The ability of a drone to be flown into private airspace and take photos and videos of persons, especially without their permission or knowledge is one of the more controversial aspects of drone usage.

There are defendants of the First Amendment who claim that journalists have the right to get information by any means necessary. There are also limits to how much privacy invasion is acceptable. While drones may be the next tool of the paparazzi, private property is still private.

The legislation is attempting to bridge the gap between existing law and existing technology.

California Civil Code 1708.8 doesn’t mention drones, specifically, but section (a) refers to the expectation of privacy and the invasion of airspace over private property: A person is trespassing and invading privacy when they, knowingly and without permission, enter onto the land or into the airspace of another person. Trespassing, therefore, includes the invasion into private airspace. This wording leaves open to interpretation whether a drone is representative of a person.

Criminal Laws

California also has a criminal law that may apply to the use of drones. Unrelated to the invasion of privacy, this law is relevant to crimes against public health and safety.

California Penal Code 402 does not specifically mention drones or unmanned aircraft. However, like civil code 1708.8, the use of a drone, as representatives of a person, can be inferred from the text: Any person who interferes with, or is even unnecessarily present at, the scene of an emergency, in order to watch the emergency responders, police, or firefighters, or to view the disaster, or to obtain pictures or video, is guilty of a misdemeanor.

Rubbernecking or ambulance chasing are already illegal. It’s not too big a leap to suppose that those activities by the use of a drone will also be illegal in the future.

Acceptable Common Sense Rules

Federal regulations require that drones be operated within the bounds of accepted community safety guidelines. The FAA does not specify those guidelines, but there are some general common sense rules that apply to all drone users. One source calls these the “Neighborly Guidelines.”

These guidelines suggest that drone operators tell other people if you are going to be taking pictures or video of them; don’t violate airspace that could be assumed to be private; don’t fly over private property without permission; don’t harass people with your drone; and don’t do anything that you would be embarrassed to tell your mom you did.

While ownership of a drone becomes easier and more likely as prices drop, the rules and regulations associated with UASs are likely to become more and more complicated and thorough.

Respecting the rights of others is a responsibility we all have. In today’s world, the anonymity of the internet makes people sometimes act in ways that they would not act in person. The physical distance offered by a drone may influence people in much the same way.

The ease with which a drone can cross those property lines might make it easy for the operator to cross the lines of respect. Try to avoid behaviors with your drone that you would avoid in person, and you’ll be following the neighborly guidelines.

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