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When does flying a drone become a federal offense?

On Behalf of | Dec 5, 2023 | Federal Offenses

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were originally developed for military purposes such as reconnaissance. Nowadays, UAVs, more popularly known as drones, have many more applications outside of war and spying. These include aerial photography, entertainment, monitoring landscapes for threats like forest fire or flooding, making deliveries, and even racing.

But while commercial drones don’t have any dangerous weaponry, they can still pose a risk to flying aircraft, which is why operating drones to disrupt airplanes and airports is a federal offense.

Unsafe operation of UAVs

According to the U.S. Code, any person who uses a drone and does either of the following commits the offense of unsafe operation of unmanned aircraft:

  • Knowingly interfering with the operation of an aircraft (with at least one occupant) flying within the jurisdiction of the U.S. in a way that poses an immediate safety hazard to the manned aircraft
  • Recklessly disrupting the operation of a manned aircraft flying within the jurisdiction of the U.S. in a way that poses an immediate safety hazard to the manned aircraft

Similarly, anyone using a drone without authorization within a runway exclusion zone of any U.S. airport can face charges for using unmanned aircraft near airports.

The penalties for unsafe drone operation

If a federal court convicts a person of unsafe drone operation, they shall face imprisonment for up to a year.

Suppose the offender flew their drone to interfere with public safety or emergency response. In that case, the Federal Aviation Administration may additionally suspend or revoke their certificate to operate UAVs and levy a $20,000 civil penalty for each violation.

The penalties become more severe if the unsafe drone operation leads to serious injury or death, such as causing an aircraft to crash.

If the offender caused serious bodily injury or death through their recklessness with a UAV, they’ll face a fine and up to 10 years of prison on conviction. But if the offender intentionally used a drone to disrupt a plane, leading to serious bodily injury or death, they shall face fines and up to life imprisonment.

The U.S. government heavily regulates the operation of drones. Any reckless or mischievous use can lead to federal criminal charges. Causing a crash resulting in injuries or death also leads to decades – or life – behind bars. If you face similar accusations, a legal professional may be able to help you explore defense options for your case.