We thought we’d step back for a moment and look at the rules for sub-250 gram drones. Why? Because some pilots are under the impression that none of the rules apply… and that’s not the case.
We’re going to focus this one on North America, though we suspect some of the same principles apply elsewhere. We also suspect there are plenty of pilots who might also have some of the common misconceptions around 250-gram drones. We know of people who believe the rules simply don’t apply to these lighter drones, and that you’re free to fly them anywhere, anytime.
That’s not really the case, though sub-250s definitely have some advantages.
The Federal Aviation Administration and, a little north, Transport Canada (TC), place drones weighing less than 250 grams in a separate category. That’s because it’s been determined that drones in this class are less likely to cause damage or injury than drones weighing more. So far, so good.
Because of this distinction, many pilots have flocked to buy the DJI Mini or its Mini 2. And that’s understandable. Drones of this size, if used recreationally, do not require registration. If you are flying commercially with a Part 107 certificate, however, you do need to register this drone if you’re using it for commercial operations.
In Canada, Transport Canada is the federal department that makes the rules for manned and unmanned aviation. We contacted TC to discuss how sub-250 gram drones differ when it comes to regultions – and also to get a better handle on which rules do apply.
The basics? Well, you do not require a Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPAS) Certificate to fly these drones in Canada. You also don’t need to register them. However, TC is pretty clear that the common sense rules that apply to heavier drones also apply here. As Transport Canada wrote to us in an email:
All drone pilots, whether commercial or recreational, are responsible to fly their drone safely, in accordance with the rules, and to ensure that their drone is not flown in a manner that is reckless or negligent, negatively affects aviation safety or the safety of Canadians. All drone pilots must respect the Canadian Aviation Regulations and are also subject to the Criminal Code and to all provincial, territorial and municipal laws governing areas such as privacy and trespassing. Using a drone in a reckless and negligent manner could cause damage or bodily harm, resulting in lawsuits, fines and jail time.
So there’s no exclusion there for lighter drones. TC goes on to say this:
“Pilots of drones weighing less than 250 g are responsible for making sure they fly in a way that doesn’t pose a danger to people or aircraft but are not required to register or have a drone pilot certificate.”
Transport Canada has made up a handy chart to keep the rules fresh in your mind. You can download it in pdf form at the link, and you’ll see it below:
Wait, there’s more!
An additional TC document, the Transport Canada Aeronautical Information Manual, goes into slightly more depth.
Transport Canada – Aeronautical Information Manual – AIM 2021-1
(Pilots of sub-250 gram drones)… must adhere to CAR (Canadian Aviation Regulations) 900.06 and ensure they do not operate their RPA in such a reckless or negligent manner as to endanger or be likely to endanger aviation safety or the safety of any person. While there are no prescriptive elements of the regulation that inform the pilot how to accomplish this objective, there is an expectation that the pilot of an mRPA should use good judgment, identify potential hazards, and take all necessary steps to mitigate any risks associated with the operation. This should include having an understanding of the environment in which the RPA pilot is operating, with particular attention paid to the possibility of aircraft or people being in the same area.
That document then goes into specifics, offering this list of guidelines as a “rule of thumb” to follow:
- (a) Maintain the mRPA in direct line of sight;
- (b) Avoid flying your mRPA above 400 ft in the air;
- (c) Keep a safe distance between your mRPA and other people;
- (d) Stay far away from aerodromes, water aerodromes, and heliports;
- (e) Avoid flying near critical infrastructure;
- (f) Stay clear of aircraft at all times;
- (g) Conduct a pre-flight inspection of your mRPA;
- (h) Keep the mRPA close enough to maintain the connection with the remote controller;
- (i) Follow the manufacturer’s operational guidelines; and
- (j) Avoid advertised events.
So you can see where this is going: Although the rules carved in stone for drones weighing from 250 grams to 25 kilograms do not specifically apply, you’re still expected to follow common sense. And that common sense happens to align with many of the specific rules for drones weighing more than 250 grams. So you still need to maintain Visual Line of Sight, avoid exceeding 400 feet, etc.
In short: Follow the same guidelines that are in place for heavier drones. One of the notable exceptions here is for operations in controlled airspace. With a larger drone, it’s not only required that it be registered with TC and that the pilot have an RPAS operator’s certificate, but that the pilot must also notify and obtain clearance from NAV Canada, which regulates the movement in Canadian airspace for manned and unmanned aircraft.
To recap, the FAA does not require you to register a sub-250 gram drone, unless you are using it for commercial operations under Part 107. Then it must be registered.
After that, you’re kind of following the same principles laid out by Transport Canada: Don’t carry out any kind of mission that would cause a danger to manned aviation or to people or property on the ground. You must also obey municipal laws that might be in effect in your city. Some cities, for example, have a blanket ban on drones in city parks and make no distinction regarding weight.
Can you fly sub-250s over people?
Good question. And the answer is yes, providing the drone has propeller protection and does not weigh more than 250 grams with those protectors on. That’s going to exclude the Mavic Mini and the Mini 2. Specifically, here are some of the requirements the FAA says must be met:
- Weigh 0.55 pounds or less, including everything that is on board or otherwise attached to the aircraft at the time of takeoff and throughout the duration of each operation.
- Contain no exposed rotating parts that would cause lacerations.
The drone must also be compliant with the new Remote ID rule, which goes into full effect in October 2023. Plus, of course, if you are carrying out commercial operations you’ll need to have registered your sub-250 drone and be carrying a valid Part 107 Certificate.
You can get more details on the rule for flying over people here.
Not all sub-250s are the same
This is also worth pointing out. There are now plenty of small toothpick-style quads with carbon frames capable of pretty incredible speeds. Though there hasn’t yet been testing on these models that we’re aware of, we can tell you we’d sooner be hit by a Mini 2 at full throttle than one of these, which we believe could indeed cause serious harm, especially if it connected with your head or another vulnerable part of a person’s body.
Remember: You’re the pilot-in-command. And even if you don’t have to register your drone, you do have to use common sense when flying.
So follow the rules, including federal, state/provincial and municipal regulations.
Happy – and safe – flying.
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