If you’ve flown a drone for fun in the USA anytime in the past month, chances are you were breaking the law.
That’s because on June 22nd, the FAA finally released a mandatory knowledge test every recreational pilot legally needs to complete. It’s called TRUST, short for The Recreational Unmanned Aircraft Systems Safety Test, and trust is the operative word since the FAA isn’t planning to start issuing $1,000+ fines right away. Authorities aren’t likely to stop you in the street. But they could. Legally, you now need to carry a test completion certificate to fly a drone for fun.
The good news: The test is free, incredibly easy, teaches you the rules as you go, can be taken as many times as you want, and I’d be surprised if it takes you over 10 minutes to get a perfect score.
After chatting with the FAA last week, here’s a brief FAQ we whipped up about the test, and most every other basic burning question about how to legally fly drones in the US.
How do I legally fly a drone in the US? TL;DR, please.
If and only if you’re flying solely for fun, the federal government has a fairly small list of rules as of today:
- Register your drone if it weighs more than 0.55 pounds (249g) and label your drone if so.
- Take the new mandatory test, and carry a copy of your completion certificate.
- Never let your drone out of your sight, unless you’ve got a buddy right next to you watching it and talking to you the whole time.
- Never fly over 400 feet above ground level.
- Never fly in controlled airspace (typically near airports, but check the B4UFLY app) without using the FAA’s electronic systems to get authorization first.
- Proactively stay away from any aircraft with an actual pilot; emergency response, law enforcement, etc.
- Follow the safety guidelines of either the FAA or a “community-based organization.”
What about flying at night, or over people, or into fireworks? Didn’t I hear those were all illegal?
You might have, and there may be local laws you’ll still need to follow. For example, many stadiums, parks (and all US national parks) have a ban on drones, and some places (like the state of Tennessee) don’t let you fly through fireworks, either. California doesn’t let you fly over another person’s property to snap photos of them, to ward off paparazzi. Here are a couple handy collections of drone laws by state. Most orgs also frown on flying under the influence, near power lines, or other dangerous behavior, and you’ll want to stay far away from protected wildlife. And you’ll need to pick one of those orgs as your model to say you’re flying recreationally — the law doesn’t recognize people just flying on their own.
But flying at night, or over people? Those aren’t necessarily against federal law if you’re flying for fun — only if you’re making money with your drone under the FAA’s Part 107 instead. And even Part 107 pilots have been able to do those things since April 2021, as long as they follow certain additional rules.
How do I never let a drone out of my sight if I’m flying it through my smartphone screen? Or an FPV headset?
Yeah, I’ve had a pretty hard time with this myself. But it’s also something the FAA’s been pretty clear about for years — it expects you, or a “visual observer” right next to you, to be able to see the drone with your naked eye at all times. It’s known as the visual line of sight rule, or VLOS for short.
It makes sense, because it’s still the best way to avoid mid-air collisions right now. Your FPV camera can only face forward, but your drone can move in any direction. And while pricey drones with ADS-B sensors can provide early warnings about manned aircraft, automatic sense-and-avoid is rare. Even self-flying drones like Skydio, with cameras pointed every which way, aren’t generally programmed to dodge other aircraft.
Does that mean I’m breaking the law if I set a self-flying drone to “follow me” mode?
Technically, yes. The FAA says unless you’re looking backwards the whole time or have a visual observer following you, too, you’re not maintaining visual line of sight, and you don’t know if there are other aircraft your drone might hit (or that might hit your drone).
Let’s talk about the test. Why do I have to immediately take a mandatory test I’ve never heard of before?
It came as a surprise to me too! Technically, it was supposed to be here long ago. When Congress reauthorized the FAA’s authority in 2018, it carved out a new chunk of law to make it easier for people to fly drones for fun — as long as they passed an “aeronautical knowledge and safety test” that the agency had 180 days to deliver.
It’s been a lot longer than 180 days, but the test is here now, and the FAA is encouraging every single drone pilot to take it as soon as possible — and carry proof of completion with you. Unless you’ve got a fancier remote pilot certificate like Part 107, anyhow.
What, is the FAA going to fine me if I don’t carry a card?
It absolutely could, even if it’s not terribly likely. The FAA says it’s not like they’re out there writing tickets, and the goal is education. If you aren’t familiar with the law and don’t have a certificate to show, the plan is to explain it to you first. Oh, and you can just save a photo of the card in your phone; a digital copy is good enough.
But if you’re openly flaunting the law and refuse to take the test, the agency can fine you up to a maximum of $1,548 per violation, possibly including Part 107 violations that you wouldn’t normally worry about when flying for fun. That’s because you’re not actually covered under the recreational exception if you don’t complete the test, the FAA tells us.
Just take the test. It’s so ridiculously easy to comply, you should just get it over with now.
How easy are we talking?
Here’s a sample question. You tell me:
True or false: checking your drone after each flight is a good idea because it is a time when damage can be identified.
The entire test took me around eight minutes to complete, including the time it took to snap a few screenshots. There’s no need to study, either: the test itself shows you the material, then quizzes you immediately after to see if you were paying attention.
Also… I’m not sure you can fail? Each quiz points out which answers you got wrong and why, and you can just take it again.
I see. So… where can I take the TRUST test?
The FAA keeps an updated list of partner websites right here, and you can pick whichever you like best.
Does the FAA keep a log of who’s taken the test?
Not at all, they say. Your certificate doesn’t expire, either, because the FAA doesn’t keep track of anything beyond a unique number generated at the time you take the test. “Neither the test administrator, nor the FAA, will maintain personally identifiable information about the recreational flyer so it is not possible to re-print or re-issue your original certificate.”
If Congress mandated this test in 2018, have I been breaking the law by flying drones before now?
You couldn’t take a test that didn’t exist. Until now, the FAA says, it was good enough to register your drone and follow either the FAA’s published safety guidelines or those of an established aeronautical organization.
I need to register my drone?
Yes — unless it weighs less than 0.55 pounds (249g), like a lot of toy-grade drones and lightweight prosumer craft like the Hubsan Zino Mini Pro and DJI’s Mini 2, which we recently called our favorite drone under $500. If it weighs more, you need to register them and label them with your registration number. FAA pro tip: recreational fliers can re-use the same registration number for every drone they own.
Doesn’t the recreational exception under 49 US § 44809 state you need to register your drone, period, regardless of how much it weighs?
Well, aren’t you well-read! But no, the FAA isn’t suddenly forcing your Mavic Mini into a federal database — I asked, and the agency told me straight-up you still don’t need to register drones under 0.55 pounds. (Legal eagles can follow § 44809 to § 441 and then to 14 CFR 48.15 subpart (b), which says that registration isn’t required if you’re flying a sub-0.55 lbs drone under § 44809 anyways.)
Can I flash my test completion certificate to anyone complaining about my drone?
I guess you could try? The FAA and law enforcement can ask you to show proof of completion, but it’s not a license. If authorities or even local custodians tell you to leave because your drone is bugging people, maybe don’t give the flying community a bad name by insisting you have rights.
I’m vaguely near an airport. Can I still fly my drone?
It really depends on the airport, but if you’re not in the immediate flight path(s) or very close to the facilities, there’s a decent chance you can apply for an automatic airspace authorization just by tapping your info into a smartphone app that supports LAANC, like Aloft or AirMap. (You’ll find more at that LAANC link.)
I’m not particularly close to an airport, but that LAANC app is telling me I can’t fly higher than 0 feet in my own backyard. WTF?
Ever heard the idea that the FAA has jurisdiction all the way down to the tip of a blade of grass? In your case, it might actually be true, and you won’t be able to legally fly even if you’ve got tall trees surrounding your house. It’s not that your drone would necessarily be dangerous below the treeline, but that there might not be enough of a safe buffer if your drone takes off in a direction you didn’t intend for it to go, the FAA explains.
It’s about risk mitigation, giving everyone time to alter course to avoid a collision. Or at least that’s the idea. Just take your drone somewhere else to fly.
B4UFLY says there’s a TFR. What’s that?
That’s a Temporary Flight Restriction, and you’ll want to obey. You don’t want to be the one whose drone got shot down for threatening a government official or interfering with an emergency operation.
Are drone laws really this simple now: take a 10-minute test, check an app, stay under 400 feet, never look away or fly out of sight, don’t do anything stupid?
For now, if you’re flying for fun. But just you wait until 2023, when many existing drones will need to be retrofitted to broadcast your location, your drone’s location, registration number, altitude, and speed — or else only fly in designated safe areas. The Remote ID rule is currently scheduled to take full force in September 2023.