Purchased a drone? Here’s everything you need to know before you fly in Michigan

Failure to follow FAA regulations can result in fines up to $27,500, jail time

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DETROIT – It’s finally warming up in Metro Detroit and that means it’s time for fun outdoor activities, but if you aren’t careful with the proper procedure of a drone, you could be hit with serious criminal charges.

Drones definitely look fun, but as a type of unmanned aerial vehicle, they're regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration and improper use can result in federal criminal charges or a potential felony.

Read the manual

Unless you’ve purchased a drone model that you’ve already owned, read the owner’s manual. Even jumps between the same generation of a drone can change how it flies. The DJI Phantom 3 Standard and the DJI Phantom 3 Advanced have different battery expectancies, weights and positioning systems, impacting how they handle and control.

Register your drone with the FAA

You're going to need to register your drone with the FAA. The only situations where you aren't required to register is if your drone weighs less than 0.55 pounds or if you only fly your drone indoors. Failure to register can result in fines up to $27,500 and even jail time.

There are two registration options when you register with the FAA -- Part 107 and Section 336.

Section 336

If you plan to fly exclusively for hobby and recreation, Section 336 is the one for you. However, you cannot use the drone for any business-related activity. Taking photos and videos to sell or for promotional purposes, inspecting the rooftop of a property you own (or could own), even using footage in a self-financed independent film production or social media use (if your accounts are monetized) are all considered commercial uses and are not allowed under a Section 336 registration.

Registration costs $5 and lasts three years.

Part 107

If you plan on flying recreationally and to use for any sort of commercial purposes, Part 107 is mandatory.

In order to apply for a Part 107 registration, you need to be a certified remote pilot by passing an aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved testing center and undergo a Transportation Security Administration security screening.

You can find a licensed testing center here.

Once passing the test, register an account at IACRA and start an application for a remote pilot certification. You will be asked to enter a 17-digit identification code that shows the FAA you passed the knowledge test. Some hobby shops teach courses on the test and more resources to help study can be found online.

The FAA has two different study guides available.

You can register and fill out the remote pilot certification here.

Label your drone

The FAA requires drones to be clearly labeled with its registration number before flight. The number can be engraved, affixed with a permanent label or written in permanent marker.

You can find your drone’s registration number here.

Follow the federal rules and regulations

It important to note that it is possible to have criminal charges brought up while flying within the rules if the FAA considers your actions to be reckless. Irresponsible uses include flying in areas where a loss of power or control could damage property or injure someone, and flying in areas where first responders such as police, medical or fire personal are working.

FAA rules for flying under Section 336

  • Fly for hobby or recreation ONLY
  • Register your model aircraft
  • Fly within visual line-of-sight
  • Follow community-based safety guidelines and fly within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization
  • Fly a drone under 55 lbs. unless certified by a community-based organization
  • Never fly near other aircraft
  • Notify the airport and air traffic control tower prior to flying within five miles of an airport
  • Never fly near emergency response efforts

It is the responsibility of the person flying the drone to contact the airport directly. Sea-based airports and helicopter landing pads located at hospitals, news stations and other businesses should also be notified.

FAA rules for flying under Part 107

  • Unmanned aircraft must weigh less than 55 pounds, including payload, at takeoff
  • Fly in Class G airspace
  • Keep the unmanned aircraft within visual line-of-sight
  • Fly at or below 400 feet
  • Fly during daylight or civil twilight
  • Fly at or under 100 mph
  • Yield right of way to manned aircraft
  • Do not fly directly over people
  • Do not fly from a moving vehicle, unless in a sparsely populated area

With the exception of the 55-pound weight limit, every rule under Part 107 can be waived with specific authorizations. The FAA will issue waivers if an applicant demonstrates they can fly safely under the waiver without endangering people or property on the ground or in the air.

More information about waivers can be found here.

Drones registered under Section 336 are not eligible for waivers.

Similar to an automobile registration, you must keep your drone registration with you at all times while flying.

Follow the state rules and regulations

Flying under Michigan Unmanned Aircraft Systems Act No. 992

Michigan's own drone laws and regulations reinforce the federal laws for the most part, but Act No. 992 clarifies some parts add boundaries to some of the more vague FAA rules.

Sec. 21 of Act No. 992 states pilots are not allowed to operate in a way that would affect police, firefighters and medical or search and rescue personnel.

Sec. 22 (1) states a person cannot use a drone cannot be used to harass another person. Act. No. 992 specifies that it uses the definition of "harassment" being defined in section 411h and 411i of the Michigan penal code:

“Harassment” means conduct directed toward a victim that includes, but is not limited to, repeated or continuing unconsented contact that would cause a reasonable individual to suffer emotional distress and that actually causes the victim to suffer emotional distress. Harassment does not include constitutionally protected activity or conduct that serves a legitimate purpose.

A drone would count as an extension of the pilot in some situations, and as a result Sec. 22 (2) asserts a drone would constitute a violation of restraining orders or other judicial orders.

Sec. 22 (3) prohibits the use of a drone to violate Michigan penal code 539j by capturing photos, videos or audio recordings of another person that would invade someone's expectation of privacy.

The majority of Michigan's drone laws and regulations emphasize a drone cannot be used as a potential loophole to violate existing Michigan laws. For example, in Sec. 22 (4), registered sex offenders are allowed to fly drones, provided they do not use them to violate any of Michigan's laws for sex offenders (MCL 28.721 to 28.736). Additionally, breaking the law through the use of a drone can result in being charged twice -- it's a misdemeanor to violate any part of section 21 or 22 and a pilot can be fined or imprisoned for violating Act No. 992 in addition to charges assigned had the pilot broken the law without the use of a drone.

Michigan Compiled Laws Section 324.40111c and 324.40112

These laws focus on how drones could affect hunting and fishing or those participating in either activity.

MCL 324.40111c and 324.40112 state one cannot use a drone as a means to take fish or game or use a drone to obstruct or interfere with someone who is lawfully hunting or fishing.

Be careful and know where you fly

Even if you've you've done everything listed, you still should check an air space map to see what's going on in your area. In addition to airports, hospitals and military bases, many of Michigan's coastlines and parks also regulate drone flights.

Check the U.S. Air Space map at knowbeforeyoufly.org to see what restrictions are active. Users can type in an address and have information come up immediately. Even temporary restrictions due to sporting events, festivals or anything else that could limit your flight is brought up. The site also gives the names of the airports you need to contact in your area.

As of the time of this writing, Detroit had a temporary no-fly zone stretching from Hamtramck to Livernois Avenue, due to Tigers games within the city.

Mobile apps like Hover can give pilots weather and information about the area around you, pulling data from the FAA, U.S. Military and the U.S. Department of the Interior.

It’s best to double check with authorities in your area; some municipalities have their own regulations on top of the state and federal rules. For example, West Bloomfield lists all of its town parks as no-fly zones. Pine Knob Ski Resort prohibits the use of drones for any purpose without written permission from Pine Knob officials beforehand. Mt. Brighton prohibits the use of drones for any reason, except when the pilot has an FAA exemption and has written permission from Mr. Brighton.

The University of Michigan prohibits drones over campus, except when prior authorization has been granted.

In September 2019, a drone flown over the University of Michigan’s Big House during the season opener led to the arrest of two people who were charged with a Federal Aviation Administration violation and a misdemeanor ordinance violation. Ann Arbor’s Michigan Medicine is one of the largest medical facilities in the entire Midwest region and drone flights in Ann Arbor could delay medical helicopters from being dispatched or airlifting patients to the hospital.

A violent crash on I-75 left two people critically injured in 2018 and a medical helicopter was delayed leaving the crash scene because of a drone in the area, causing a life-threatening situation.

Since Michigan is so close to Ontario, most of Michigan falls under a border zone. Within 100 miles of an international border, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers can board and search in any vehicle without a warrant. It’s not an exception to the Fourth Amendment, as the U.S. government views being within 100 miles of the border as probable cause and that the searches are considered reasonable. In addition to Canadian regulations on drones being different than American regulations, U.S. border patrol agents have been paying attention to drones that fly internationally after a drone carrying methamphetamine was intercepted in August, 2017.

Double check everything before you fly

There are federal, state and municipal regulations everywhere and it’s going to take less time and money to know your area and the right way to fly than dealing with a potential felony.

Be safe, Michigan.

About the Author:

Dane is a producer and media enthusiast. He previously worked freelance video production and writing jobs in Michigan, Georgia and Massachusetts. Dane graduated from the Specs Howard School of Media Arts.