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Can You Fly a Drone in a Built-Up Area?

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Built-up areas are all around us. The term refers to roofed buildings or structures, which you’ll find in cities, towns, villages, and municipalities across the United States.

Can you use your drone in a built-up area?

You can use your drone in a built-up area if you stay within the height altitude limits (400 feet) per FAA guidelines. You can fly over the building but refrain from trying to land or launch your drone from the building. Avoid contacting the structure whether a residential or commercial building.

Interestingly, the UK has its own definition of built-up area that varies quite a lot from the definition used in the US, so in this article, we’ll delve into both types of built-up areas and whether you can use your drone.

You’re not going to want to miss it!

Can you fly a drone in a built-up area? (US definition) #

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development[1], a built-up area in the US “is defined as the presence of buildings (roofed structures). This definition largely excludes other parts of urban environments or human footprints such as paved surfaces (roads, parking lots), commercial and industrial sites (ports, landfills, quarries, runways), and urban green spaces (parks, gardens).”

Considering how most of us in the country are surrounded by buildings, it wouldn’t make much sense for the FAA to prohibit drone use around buildings.

Indeed, whether we’re talking about residential buildings, such as a collection of homes in a neighborhood, or commercial buildings like an office complex, you can fly a drone in a built-up area.

Well, with some exceptions, of course! Let’s go over them now.

You must fly within 400 feet #

Whether a commercial or recreational pilot, you can’t keep up with the height of all the buildings you’ll see on your drone adventures.

You can only fly 400 feet into the air according to the FAA, so if a building has an altitude of 1,000 feet or more on you, then that’s just how it is.

You shouldn’t keep ascending into the sky to try to reach the building’s rooftop.

Your drone has to stay within your line of sight whenever you use it, and at that altitude, keeping an eye on your drone would prove nearly impossible.

The higher into the sky you get, the greater the risk of collisions with manned aircraft. Your drone could come careening out of the sky, and you’d have no control over where it landed.

The drone could seriously hurt someone or cause property damage, and you could be on the hook for the consequences!

You can’t launch or land on private property #

If we’re talking about your own built-up areas, such as your home or any other building you own, then it’s yours, and you can do what you want with it.

As the property owner, you can launch your drone from a level point of the building and even land it on the building (provided you can access it again!).

However, that only goes for the property you own. Whether it’s a seemingly abandoned warehouse in town or a neighbor’s home, these buildings don’t belong to you.

You’re trespassing if you step foot on them to launch your drone or collect it after a flight.

If the owner catches you or someone else does, they can call the authorities, and you’d be charged with trespass. It’s just not worth it, so don’t go on someone else’s property to launch or land your drone.

Now, if you have the building owner’s permission to launch or land a drone from their property, that’s a different story entirely.

However, obtaining that permission in writing is always a good idea.

This way, if someone else does see you on the property and happens to contact the police, you have an airtight alibi.

You can’t use your drone to invade someone’s personal space in a built-up area #

Flying a drone around a built-up area gives allows you to investigate urban environments, but you have to do with respect for others’ privacy in mind.

This goes double for recreational areas but also applies to commercial built-up areas. If you spot windows, don’t use your drone to try to peer into them and see what’s going on inside the building.

That’s an explicit violation of privacy.

The same goes for using your drone to try to learn more about the inhabitants inside and then following them around when they leave the building.

In many cities and towns across the US, you’re also prohibited from photographing or videoing someone without their consent.

Can you fly a drone in a built-up area? (UK definition) #

As we mentioned, built-up areas don’t only mean one thing in every part of the world.

For example, in the UK, a built-up area is a settled road area with an automatically-set speed limit of 30 miles per hour.

Built-up areas go by another name in the UK: restricted roads. You can tell these roads apart from others in the UK because they have streetlights and sometimes sign reminders.

So, knowing that, can you fly a drone over a built-up area in the UK?

You already know about the Operations over Moving Vehicles law, but that’s the FAA’s law for US drone pilots only.

The UK has a similar law prohibiting pilots from getting closer than 50 meters or 164 feet to property, people, and vehicles “that they don’t have control over.”

You’re also not supposed to fly your drone in or over congested areas.

Following the UK’s definition, you can’t legally fly over a built-up area.

Tips for using a drone in built-up areas #

For the rest of this article, we’ll use the US definition of a built-up area, meaning a roofed structure or building.

You already know what the FAA has to say about flying over built-up areas, so here are some tips that will ensure safe flights for you whenever you use your drone around a building!

Don’t fly too close to a built-up area #

The closer your drone lingers to a building, the greater the risk of an accidental collision.

If you cause property damage with your UAV, especially if someone documents that damage, you’ll more than likely have to pay for the cost of repairs to the building or structure.

The only time that doesn’t apply is if you damage a building you own. Well, you’d still be on the hook for repairs, but you wouldn’t have the obligation you would when you damage someone else’s property.

It’s not only the property damage you have to worry about in a situation like this but your drone as well. When colliding against hard materials such as concrete, stucco, or brick, your drone will come out worse for wear.

You’ll have to pay to repair it if your drone is seriously banged up. Even still, that’s a best-case scenario, as hitting a building too hard with a UAV could destroy the drone.

Take heed of power lines #

Power lines in your city or town can suspend as low as 50 feet over the street and as high as 180 feet or over.

Since you can fly your drone up to 400 feet above the ground, there exists the possibility that your drone could get entangled in power lines.

When this happens, your drone could end up fried, and you might end up knocking out the power for everyone in your neighborhood.

Fly lower or higher than the power lines (but still within the 400-foot limit), but make sure you avoid them!

Only launch your drone from a level surface #

The appeal of launching your drone from some buildings is that they offer flat surfaces. That said, please only make sure you choose a flat, level area for launching.

If you don’t, your drone might not take off at all, and if it does, its upward trajectory could set the UAV on a bad path that could put it at risk of crashing.

Don’t use your drone in inclement weather #

Navigating buildings with your drone can prove challenging enough on a clear day, especially for beginner pilots. Don’t complicate matters by using your drone around town when the weather is bad.

The FAA prohibits this anyway.

Conclusion #

Built-up areas refer to buildings and structures, at least in most parts of the world. For instance, in the UK, a built-up area is a road where you can’t surpass 30 MPH.

Using the standard definition of a built-up area, you can fly around and over them, but you’re required to follow FAA guidelines all along!

References:1. OECD (link)


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