So you want to fly drones? Here’s what the law says

Amazon(s amzn) may have big plans to fill the urban air with drones, but many amateurs have already beaten the company to the punch. This month, my colleague Signe Brewster showed off some beautiful footage of her DJI Phantom 2 Vision quadcopter’s flight around San Francisco, and hundreds of other Americans are using drones for photography, farming or just plain fan.

Want to fly a drone without falling afoul of the law? The good news is that while the FAA will soon have new rules on unmanned aircraft, there are now few restrictions for amateur flying fans. Here’s a very unofficial guide, and some graphics, that reflect the current state of the law.

Class G is a go

Airspace is sliced up into different regulatory layers from the ground unto outer space. The Federal Aviation Administration pays a lot attention to Class A — all U.S. airspace from 18,000 to 60,000 feet — where commercial planes fly. Then are the airspaces around airports, called Class B (big airports), C and D (smaller cities), that look like inverted wedding cakes and stretch up from the ground.

Drone fans, pay attention to Class G: an unregulated space from the ground to 700 or 1,200 feet, where the drones can fly below the airport tiers. Here’s an FAA image (I’ve added the arrows):

FAA Airspace

The 700 to 1,200 feet rule is distance from the ground, not sea level — so if you’re in Denver or another high altitude city, you can fly higher. Here’s a partial view of how a Popular Mechanics explainer chose to show the airspace:

FAA airspace by Popular Mechanics

While the FAA suggested in 1981 that model aircraft operators fly below 400 feet, the document was just an advisory, and two aviation lawyers contacted by Gigaom said the agency has no authority below 700 feet — for now.

“The FAA is already looking at it .. but it’s not going to happen for two years,” said John Todd of Todd & Levi in New York, who noted that the number of amateur drones in the sky is growing quickly.

Here for pleasure, not business

When Amazon announced this month that it’s planning to deliver packages by drone, news outlets pointed out that the plan would have to get FAA approval, even though the drones would be flying at a low level. The reason is because Amazon wants to use the drones for a commercial purposes — an important distinction that, in the view of the FAA, gives it special regulatory authority.

But even this point is under debate. As Wired reported, the first lawsuit pitting the FAA against a civilian drone operator is underway in Virginia, where a photographer got in trouble with the agency for flying a drone over the campus of a university that had paid for his services.

The FAA fined him $10,000 for operating an aircraft in a reckless manner, but the photographer is challenging the ruling on technical grounds; saying the FAA didn’t conduct proper hearings, and that the agency’s regulations over commercial drones are invalid. The outcome of the case has implications not just for commercial photographers, but for a thriving drone industry related to farming, surveillance and other activities.

Finally, while your drone hobby may be beyond the reach of the FAA, there are still city and state laws about invasion of privacy, disturbing the peace and so on. This means that using your drone to snoop on people’s bedrooms or to terrorize the local hot dog vendor is probably a bad idea. Otherwise, drone aficionados appear free to enjoy what is still a largely unregulated activity.