Want to Fly a Drone? Here’s Where You Can Do It (Legally, at Least)

As personal and commercial drones become more prevalent, how are state and federal legislators responding? Explore with this interactive map

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For years, drones were the domain of the military, referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and used—to much controversy—as a means of targeted reconnaissance and firepower. The United States military first used a drone in a targeted killing in February of 2002, and now, over a dozen years later, more than 7,000 American drones roam the skies, with some 200 equipped to carry out deadly airstrikes.

But drones are no longer the unique province of the military, as small, unmanned aircrafts are proving themselves useful to everyone from farmers to filmmakers. As personal drones become increasingly popular—and easier and cheaper to obtain—states are clamoring to pass regulations on how they are used. Recently, the Federal Aviation Administration revealed a proposed framework of national regulations for unmanned aircrafts, making it fairly simple for businesses to obtain and use small drones for official purposes. The regulations face a lengthy review period, however, and wouldn't be in place until at least early 2017, largely leaving states to dictate how unmanned aircrafts are treated in their airspaces in the interim.

These proposed regulations don't cover drones used for personal purposes—the extant rules allow personal drones to be used at elevations lower than 400 feet and at least five miles away from an airport, though hobbyists are known to break these rules (and sometimes, post videos clearly violating them).  Pilots have complained of a surge in small personal drones flying in their airspace, resulting in numerous close calls. Between June and November of 2014, according to the Washington Post, air-traffic controllers, commercial airlines and private pilots reported 25 incidents of drones almost crashing into a larger aircraft to the FAA.

But drones don't need to crash to cause a stir: In perhaps one of the most famous court cases involving the recreational use of a drone, the FAA fined Raphael Pirker $10,000 in 2011 for using a drone to film a promotional video for the University of Virginia. The FAA charged Pirker, the drone's pilot, with operating an aircraft without a license and reckless flying. Pirker fought the fine in court and won when a judge declared drones to be in a different category than a manned aircraft. For a few short months, in effect, drones weren't considered aircraft, and so the FAA couldn’t regulate them. Pirker’s victory was short-lived, however—in 2014, the National Board of Transportation overturned the judge’s verdict, defining any device used for flight as an aircraft, whether they be manned or unmanned.

As regulations for commercial and personal drones slowly fall into place, the United States seems to be on the edge of a new drone bubble: the FAA estimates that private drones could turn into a $90 billion industry within the next decade. According to the LA Times, the FAA also estimates that within a year of the new rules being in place, more than 3,000 companies would be operating drones—within five years of the rules being in place, the agency expects that number to jump to more than 7,500.

Part of the reason for a personal drone's mainstream appeal is its low price: Consumers can find drones made for recreational use—complete with GPS capabilities—for around $300, but even those that aren’t flying the drones are reaping the rewards of a burgeoning drone hobbyist movement. Aerial videos shot by drones have become a subgenre of the travel video, allowing anyone to catch a glimpse of magnificent national park or bustling urban area.

Here are a few of our favorites: 

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