Affiliate links are in this article, click here for more info
From strictly military-use to being a common household item, the versatility of drones has become revolutionary; that's why it's unfortunate that due to the poor decisions of few, being a drone pilot is harder than ever not just in Florida, but all over the United States. While I wish that answering where to fly a drone in Florida was as easy as picking the most gorgeous locations around the state, there's a lot more to it than just that. And while it may be disheartening to learn that most of the ideal public places are few and far between, thankfully, there are still some ways to work around it --at least for now.
Before I became a part 107 drone pilot, I was largely ignorant to the ever-increasing small unmanned aircraft regulations not only in the state, but throughout the entire USA --and with how easy it is to access drones, it's not surprising that others don't know much about the rules of the air. And to be completely fair, drones were relatively unregulated for a long time.
But that all changed after some people thought it would be a great idea to fly into areas --like airports-- and cause major problems like crashing into airplanes, disrupting wildlife, and endangering the lives of other humans. It only took a few of these incidents before the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other government entities stepped in to start heavily regulating drone usage in the United States.
This, in itself isn't a bad thing, however, it certainly makes things harder for those responsible drone pilots, like myself, out there.
Of course, that also doesn't mean that responsible pilots don't have issues occasionally too; loss of control of aircraft is a big one, and it's an issue that could potentially be life threatening. Thus, the FAA has implemented a lot of rules (that change often) for drone operators to follow, but what's really wild is that they're not even the worst.
I could rant for ages about the many different regulations, but for the sake of keeping this as short as possible here's the basic rundown:
The FAA has several pages on their website containing the different rules and regulations for drone operation. These rules are FEDERAL, which means they apply in the entire US. Some of their most notable rules include:
And while you may be thinking that list isn't so bad, we haven't even touched on local regulations yet.
Florida + (other) federal regulations
And just when you think you're good to go and you're following all of the FAA rules, you realize that every state down to the county, down to the city, down to the town, down to the property-- has their own rules you need to follow, too. In fact, there are even other federal entities that have a say on where and when you fly!
Take, for example, the US Fish and Wildlife Service. They state that "it is illegal to operate unmanned aircraft on Refuge property without special permits. In addition, if a drone operator stands beyond Refuge boundaries and flies the vehicle over the Refuge, fines can be levied if the drone is observed disturbing wildlife." So, yes, national parks are majorly off-limits unless you acquire special permitting.
Okay - so you won't fly in a national park, and you'll just take the drone to a city or state park, no big deal right? Not so fast.
Florida state parks also have a regulation of drone usage which states, "No person shall takeoff or land an aircraft on managed lands, except at a runway or a helispot and only with authorization from the Service, and such authorization shall be based upon a determination that the takeoff or landing will not endanger the health, safety or welfare of any person; potentially damage the forest resources; or interfere with management objectives of that forest as provided in that forest’s management plan."
Alright, so no state and national parks--got it. That just leaves county parks...
Well, unfortunately, most Florida counties heavily regulate drones at their parks too. While each county may have different limitations, we will exemplify Pinellas County (since I cover a lot of this content in my blog). Pinellas County Park rules, according to this website, states that "Remote controlled devices (drones, planes, cars, trucks, or boats)" are prohibited in all county parks. UAVCoach does a really good job of putting together municipal drone laws in Florida.
Additionally, privately-owned property and parks (such as Devil's Den) are subject to implementing their own drone rules that you are expected to abide by.
Now, I know what you're thinking. With all of these limitations, how does anyone still fly a drone over property that is so heavily regulated?
The answer? Loopholes and permitting
Loopholes + permitting
I'm not a lawyer, I'm not giving any sort of legal advice and I highly discourage using loopholes, but I know that a lot of people exploit this method while it still exists. Currently, there are some grey areas with airspace ownership; the FAA is technically the only entity allowed to regulate airspace usage, but states and private property owners are trying to make it harder for people to fly over their land by not allowing launching and landing.
Take, for example, the one time when I was at Crystal River (a federal park) and one of the volunteers told me that because launching/landing inside the park was illegal, the only way I could do so was to fly into the park by launching from the streets/neighborhoods in the area.
As another way of explaining this, say your property line butts up to a state park and you launch from your own property, there's nothing inherently illegal about flying over said state park (as long as you're not invading privacy or causing harm) --usually you just can't launch or land from the park (as noted by the USFWS regulation: "In addition, if a drone operator stands beyond Refuge boundaries and flies the vehicle over the Refuge, fines can be levied if the drone is observed disturbing wildlife." This article explains this loophole in greater detail.
Alternatively, and the best way to go about flying drones over regulated land is to just apply for permits where necessary or ask for explicit permission in the case of private properties. It might not be the "easiest" option, but it'll ensure you're in good-standing with local ordinances.
What's more, it's not just rules and regulations that can make flying here a PIA; depending on your equipment set up, you may find yourself having a hard time reaching any substantial heights without the Florida breeze (especially near coastlines) blowing your craft away.
I have a Mavic Mini that struggles a LOT with this in addition to the exceptionally short battery-life. The slightest gust of wind is enough to blow it off-course, and being so close to the coast, this becomes a never ending battle. I can hardly ever take my Mini with me to the beach, and rarely does it go higher than a couple hundred meters without spotty signal.
There are many heavy-duty and smart drones on the market today with features like object avoidance, tracking and GPS landing --all of which may be a necessity for coastal conditions. Be sure to get a craft that's appropriate for the locations you want to take it.
And even when you think you're doing everything right, you will always have those couple of people who think they know more than you, telling you where you can and can't fly, wanting to shoot down your drone, you know --that fun stuff.
For all of these reasons, I have to say, being a Florida drone pilot can really suck sometimes; thankfully, the pictures and videos really do make it worth it.
I highly suggest research, research, research BEFORE you start your airspace adventures. Check out not only the FAA pages, but also your local state and county regulations. Know what you're getting into before you take the dive into being a Florida drone pilot.