What is an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS)?

Commonly referred to as drones, North Carolina law defines a UAS as "unmanned aircraft and associated elements, including communication links and components that control the unmanned aircraft that are required for the pilot in command to operate safely and efficiently in the national airspace system."

What is the difference between a UAS/drone and a model plane?

A model aircraft is a UAS that is flown solely for hobby or recreational purposes and is not used for any monetary or business means.

Do I need an exemption or license to fly if I'm only flying for recreational purposes?

No. However, the Federal Aviation Administration says that UAS/drones should be flown a sufficient distance from populated areas. Recreational users should always fly their aircraft during the day, within their visual line of sight and should only fly aircraft that weigh less than 55 pounds (unless certified by an aeromodelling community-based organization and is not being used for business purposes). For more information, visit the FAA's webpage on hobby and recreational flying.

How do you know if your UAS/drone use is recreational?

Federal statutes require model aircraft to be flown strictly for hobby or recreational purposes. Recreational operators cannot fly for monetary or business purposes.

Can I fly over sporting events, concerts, or air shows for recreation?

No. UAS/drones should be flown a sufficient distance from populated areas. For the safety of those in the air and on the ground, temporary flight restrictions can be enacted an hour before a scheduled event starts and last until one hour after the event concludes. Temporary flight restrictions are specifically requested, so before flying your UAS/drone, you should check the FAA website to see if there are any restrictions in your area. During a temporary flight restriction, you must fly at least five miles away from the center of the stadium.

What are the FAA requirements to fly?
  • To fly your UAS/drone, you must comply with Federal Airspace Authorizations and North Carolina General Statutes.
  • Currently, the FAA's proposed rule governing airspace use for UAS technology has not been enacted. UAS/drone technology is only permitted to access the airspace by way of a waiver or an exemption.
  • The FAA divides UAS usage into three categories: government, commercial and recreational.
  • Government aircraft operators may apply for and obtain a Public Use Certificate of Authorization (COA).
  • Commercial operators must obtain a Section 333 Exemption. When this exemption has been granted, the operator can choose whether to operate within the parameters of the "Section 333 Blanket COA." If not, the operator must apply for a Civil COA from the FAA.
  • If you are operating for recreational purposes only, FAA guidance says that UAS/drones should be flown a sufficient distance from populated areas. Model aircrafts should be flown during the daytime, within visual line of sight of the operator and should weigh less than 55 pounds (unless certified by an aeromodelling community-based organization, and are not for business purposes.)
  • More information on federal requirements can be found on the FAA's website.
Do I need approval from the FAA to fly for business purposes?

Yes. There are currently three avenues you can choose from to obtain the necessary approvals:

  • Obtain a Special Airworthiness Certificate-Experimental Category for the UAS/drone you intend to use.
  • Obtain a UAS type and airworthiness certificate in the restricted category for the UAS/drone you intend to use.
  • Petition for exemption under Section 333 of the 2012 FAA Re-authorization Act, which once received, would allow you to operate under a civil Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) for civil aircraft to perform commercial operations in low-risk, controlled environments.

Of the three avenues, the third – the Section 333 Exemption – is the most popular mechanism for obtaining the necessary approvals.

What are North Carolina's basic requirements to obtain a license to fly a UAS/drone?

In addition to FAA requirements, an operator must be at least 18 years old and possess a valid driver's license issued by any U.S. state or territory. In addition, you must pass the NCDOT's Division of Aviation Knowledge Test.

What is a COA?

A Certificate of Waiver or Authorization is an authorization issued by the FAA to a government or commercial operator for specific unmanned aircraft activity. After a complete application is submitted, the FAA conducts a comprehensive operational and technical review.

What is a Section 333 exemption?

A federal Section 333 exemption is a case-by-case authorization for certain unmanned aircraft to perform commercial operations prior to the finalization of the UAS Rule, which will be the primary method for authorizing small UAS/drone operations once it is complete.

Who needs to take the Division of Aviation's UAS Operators Knowledge Test?

Any individual who plans to operate a UAS/drone within North Carolina for any purpose other than recreation must pass the Knowledge Test prior to operation. The only exemption is for those individuals operating a UAS/drone under the authority of a federal agency of the United States, such as military personnel.

Who has regulatory authority over UAS/drone operations?
  • The FAA and the federal government have exclusive authority over airspace in the United States. The FAA establishes operating rules governing the airspace in the form of federal regulations.
  • The State of North Carolina is responsible for ensuring that anyone operating UAS/drones in the state understand North Carolina-specific regulations to facilitate responsible use of the technology – allowing the benefits associated with various applications of the technology to be realized while also protecting the safety and privacy of North Carolina citizens and visitors.
  • The Division of Aviation is responsible for all public, non-federal, and commercial UAS/drone operations concerning knowledge testing, commercial UAS permitting and stands as a primary point of contact for all state-related UAS issues. The Division of Aviation is not responsible for pilot certification, commercial licensing, airworthiness standards, law enforcement or airspace issues.
  • The FAA does not have jurisdiction over indoor flight, which is governed by North Carolina General Statutes.
What are the limits and exemptions in regard to use of UAS technology by law enforcement?

Law enforcement falls under governmental use and, therefore, must comply with both federal and North Carolina laws and regulations. Law enforcement is only exempt from North Carolina laws related to using UAS/drone surveillance in the following instances:

  • To counter a high risk of a terrorist attack if the secretary of Homeland Security or the secretary of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety determines that credible intelligence indicates that such a risk exists
  • To conduct surveillance in an area that is within a law enforcement officer's plain view when the officer is in a location the officer has a legal right to be
  • If the law enforcement agency first obtains a search warrant authorizing the use of a UAS/drone
  • To photograph gatherings to which the general public is invited on public or private land
What are the regulations on UAS/drones regarding privacy?

A person may not use UAS/drones to conduct surveillance on a person or private property without their consent, subject to the law enforcement exception described above. You may not photograph an individual without their consent for the purpose of publishing or otherwise publicly disseminating the photograph. This does not apply to newsgathering, newsworthy events or places to which the general public is invited. All other state and federal privacy laws must be followed when using a UAS/drone.

Are there laws regarding special imaging technology, such as infrared?

Yes. Special imaging technology, such as infrared and other similar technology, may be used solely for scientific investigation, research, mapping and evaluating the earth's surface. You may not use this technology to survey people or private property without consent.

Who do I call if I see somebody operating a UAS/drone in an unsafe manner?

If you see somebody operating in a dangerous manner, contact local law enforcement. In addition, you can call the FAA Flight Standards District Office in Charlotte, at (704) 319-7020 or in Greensboro at (336) 369-3900.