On the left: a sign outside of Grand Traverse Light in Northern Michigan. Michigan is one of the 16 US states that doesn't allow local governments and cities to make their own drone laws. On the right: a sign outside of Navy Pier, Chicago, Illinois. You cannot launch your drone inside this property, but you can fly in the airspace above it.

At the beginning of this year, I was traveling through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula when I decided to capture a bucket list image with my DJI Mavic 3 drone. Kitch-iti-kipi is this US state’s largest natural freshwater spring and since it maintains a constant temperature of 7ºC (45ºF) throughout the year, it never freezes. I thought it would be cool to get a contrast of snowy trees set against a crystal-clear blue body of water.

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The shot resonated with a brand that has a large presence on Instagram and with my permission, it was shared with the account’s 100,000+ followers. While many users left compliments, one particular gentleman declared that because this was a ‘No Drone Zone,’ my image was ‘illegal.’ He continued on with his tirade, in his Instagram Stories, saying that no one was ‘above the law.’ Unfortunately, even though a sign was posted on the park grounds, his claim was incorrect. Not a single law was broken.

This image of Kitch-iti-kipi was legally captured as I launched outside the park grounds, maintained visual line of sight with my drone, and didn't fly over moving cars or people.

I thought this was an isolated incident but then something peculiar happened. Everywhere I looked for the next several months in my online browsing, from drone-related forums to general travel sites, a specific type of comment, asking why the original poster was flying in a 'No Drone Zone' would appear, without fail, when someone shared an aerial image.

‘There’s a misconception on the droning community’s side and on the general public’s side. The droning community looks at it [the ‘No Drone Zone’ sign] and says 'There’s no way a landowner, apart from stopping us from taking off and landing on their own land, could possibly want to, or try to, control the airspace,' ' says Sean Hickey of Geeksvana.

'Almost everyone agrees that a noticeable uptick became apparent around the time DJI’s sub-250g Mavic Mini drone was released in 2019.'

‘When you speak to a member of the general public who isn’t a 'drone-experienced person' in any way, they feel it’s just as absurd that a drone can fly over their property and potentially photograph or take video of them. Basically, the ‘No Drone Zone’ signs are a product of the public and drone pilots not understanding each other,’ he adds.

How it started

'Historically the false NFZ [No Fly Zone] takes root back in the original communication from the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] in September of 2015 that called out an area of 5 miles radius around airports. 'Within 5 miles of an airport' reverberated so well as a simple and understandable phrase that elected officials, police officers, and even many drone pilots took that portion and applied it as a literal No Fly Zone,' says Ryan LaTourette.

There aren't any laws that would hold up in court that could be quoted on this sign. This means some people don't want drones flown. This sign is not legally enforceable. Photo: Ryan LaTourette

'Congress got in on the act by calling out 'Critical Infrastructure' in the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016. Suddenly to state and local officials and their police departments, this new phrase of “critical infrastructure” meant denying drone flights near power plants, railroad yards, police stations, manufacturing facilities, and more,' he adds.

Hickey, and a few other industry experts I consulted with for this article, aren’t quite certain of the exact date ‘No Drone Zone’ signs started to make a public appearance. However, almost everyone agrees that a noticeable uptick became apparent around the time DJI’s sub-250g Mavic Mini drone was released in 2019. It was a response to the fact that more hobbyists and people who weren't familiar with drone laws were interested in, and able to fly with no registration required.

This sign in Australia is legitimate because it has a law stated on the bottom. Photo: Fiona Lake

‘Unfortunately, the media has been playing up the narrative of 'creeps fly drones to look in your windows' and of course the public doesn’t understand how rare this is, so it’s likely that drone paranoia will increase,' says Fiona Lake, a remote pilot and instructor. Drones also tend to be portrayed as militaristic, causing some individuals to see them as both a privacy and safety threat.

The source of confusion

Misconceptions aside, another issue stems from the fact that event organizers, for example, designate their own ‘No Drone Zone’ by posting signs without any regard for airspace regulations. Chicago-based drone professional, Antoine Tissier, encounters ‘No Drone Zone’ signs in front of corporations, festivals, and parks that have no legal basis.

As it stands, the FAA controls all of the airspace in the United States. You can only be prevented from flying in airspace when the FAA deems it hazardous. If a landowner or special interest doesn't want you flying in a particular area, they can only really prevent you from physically taking off and landing on their private property.

You can only be prevented from flying in airspace when the FAA deems it hazardous.

The FAA provides a No Drone Zone sign that can be downloaded and printed out, free of charge, on its official site. The site explicitly states 'The sign is not for private landowners.' There is also a fact sheet for state, local, and tribal entities to understand where they have authority and where they can't enforce certain rules.

Notably, the downloadable sign on the FAA's website is missing the government organization’s logo – because it is trademarked. Aviation attorney Dean Greenblatt recently called out one Detroit-based organization on its overreach. It read:

'What is interesting to some of the members is that [the organization] is apparently producing the sign with the FAA's logo printed upon it and giving the impression that this is an official declaration by the FAA. I suspect that it is not the intent of the FAA or the local FSDO (Flight Standards District Office) to declare this facility as a 'NO DRONE ZONE.''

Aviation attorney Dean Greenblatt called out a Detroit-based organization for their illegal usage of the FAA's logo on a 'No Drone Zone' sign. It implies that the FAA approves of the restrictions when, in fact, it doesn't.

'My suspicions were supported by the fact that the location at issue is not listed anywhere officially as being subject to any flight restrictions,' the letter continues. 'In fact, popular drone manufacturers do not geofence this location. I am not aware of any private enterprise that is empowered to implement its own flight restrictions and invoke the seal of the FAA to lend credibility to its publications, are you?’

Greenblatt correctly asserts that people would likely notice the FAA logo, believe that the sign and its placement were approved by the agency, and either a pilot would not operate in the area or a member of the public might get upset if a drone was spotted flying around.

The FAA discourages, and for the most part prohibits, the use of its logo on websites, pamphlets, marketing or educational materials, and, yes, signs, unless approval is given by the government agency. Anyone using the FAA’s logo without permission runs the risk of legal recourse.

What the FAA actually says about 'No Drone Zones'

A No Drone Zone resource is readily available on the FAA's official site. It contains three main points remote pilots need to understand before launching. For one, as mentioned earlier, the FAA controls all airspace and has put restrictions on certain areas for valid reasons. Operating in airspace that the FAA has designated as controlled and more is illegal.

There are certain states that allow cities and territories to create their own ordinances around drone use. Others, such as Michigan, allow the state to make the final rules. Drone use is permitted in all Michigan state parks with a small set of guidelines to be obeyed. Other states, like New York use their land use jurisdiction to disallow drone operations within their state parks. This point is being highlighted once again: you may be restricted from physically launching or landing your drone in a specific place, but you can still fly in its airspace.

The FAA attempts to clarify its intentions with 'No Drone Zone' signage.

Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) are established often during major sporting events (think the National Football League's Super Bowl and even a Major League baseball game) or in the event that the President or Vice President is traveling in a vicinity. Checking a UTM (unmanned traffic management) app such as the FAA’s B4UFly or AirControl is imperative. It is also highly recommended to check for late-breaking TFRs directly on the FAA’s TFR site.

Violating Temporary Flight Restrictions can lead to arrest, a hefty fine in the tens of thousands of dollars, or jail time.

A TFR notice will appear and the designated area, along with its starting and ending times, will be outlined clearly. If you are caught operating in any area with an active TFR in place, an arrest, a hefty fine in the tens of thousands of dollars, and jail time are all possible consequences. In this case, a 'No Drone Zone' sign serves its purpose.

The question is, how can you tell if a 'No Drone Zone' sign was put in place by a government agency versus a private entity acting in their own self-interest?

How can you tell if a ‘No Drone Zone’ sign is legit?

According to Sean Hickey, local governments use ‘No Drone Zone’ signs a lot, even though one isn’t distributed by an official regulator in the United Kingdom – in this case, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). If you want to know if a sign is legitimate, look to see if there’s a law or regulation quoted on the sign. If there isn’t, it’s basically the landowner, a corporation, or an event planner stating they don’t want drones in the area.

If there's a law or regulation quoted on a sign, chances are it's a legitimate warning. Photo: Ryan Lackey

In the case of Kitch-iti-kipi, back in the United States, launching and landing a drone on the raft (or platform) visitors use to cross the natural Spring in Palms Book State Park is prohibited. Otherwise, flying in and around the area, at or below 400 feet AGL (above ground level), is perfectly legal so long as the drone pilot follows all FAA regulations for UAS flight.

You may see a ‘No Drone Zone’ sign without any law or specific regulation printed on it and assume you can still take off outside the area and operate overhead in its airspace. Even though the sign may not be official, it doesn’t mean that you’re clear to take off anyway. The sign could be in an area with an active TFR.

This year, the Lollapalooza music festival in downtown Chicago was able to secure a TFR for all three days of the festival unlike years past. In the event of unofficial-looking 'No Drone Zone' signs hanging around the area, it would be foolish to assume they're unauthorized and not check your UTM app beforehand.

No Drone Zone signs elsewhere

We’ve covered ‘No Drone Zone’ rules in the United States and the United Kingdom. Since DPReview’s audience is global, I was curious about how these signs are implemented and received in other countries. In Australia, drone rules are similar to most Western countries but the citizens have a more relaxed and self-governing attitude.

This is a 'No Drones' sign posted outside the Lollapalooza Music Festival in Chicago. Back then, this sign was posted because event planners didn't want drones in the vicinity. Recently, they were able to secure a TFR, making any drone flight illegal. Photo: Rich Wickersty

‘In addition to controlled airspace restrictions, (airports and defense force areas) drone flying restrictions apply to conservation parks, security-related facilities, ports, and other infrastructure. A few local councils in tourism hotspots are strict also – requiring drone owners to apply for permission to fly and charging a fee,’ says Fiona Lake.

‘Random members of the public who tie a ‘no drones’ sign to their gate – the signs are meaningless – people can still fly a drone above their land (as long as they’re abiding by other CASA rules). However, "No Drone Zone" signs aren’t as common. I have never seen a private landholder "no drones" sign. That’s not to say there are none at all but the rarity of private signs would be due to having a population 15 times less than the US but in the same sized landmass.’ There are also cultural differences.

Australians tend to be self-regulating – following rules when the reasons are clear/understood, and ignoring rules if there isn’t a good reason for them. As a culture – we tend to ask ‘why’, and then weigh it up. If some random person put up a "no drones" sign without an apparent reason (aviation rules, public safety/amenity, asset or wildlife protection) – many Australians would be inclined to ignore it (albeit with care).’

To the South, however, New Zealand doesn’t have any need for private ‘No Drone Zone’ signs as their unusual rules stipulate that drone owners must obtain permission from all private landowners before flying over their property. Then there are countries and territories that don’t have many drone regulations in place yet.

A 'No Drone Zone' sign, spotted in Australia. Australians generally heed formal signs belonging to government entities managing vital infrastructure such as ports. But many Australians will ignore signs belonging to private landowners unless there's an obvious risk to people, wildlife or property, as privately erected signs have no legal foundation. Photo: Fiona Lake

In a smaller and less populous country such as Guyana, you won’t see any ‘No Drone Zone’ signs simply because you don’t even need to obtain a permit for your drone if it weighs less than 15 pounds and isn’t being used for commercial purposes. 'Fortunately, there are not many laws which restrict us because drones are relatively new here. There are constant revisions to the rules and directives which can cause worry in the operator Community,' native remote pilot and entrepreneur André Smith explains.

Try challenging 'No Drone Zone' signs at upscale resorts, however, and the outcome could be bad – even if you are in the right. 'Resorts in Bora-Bora, such as St. Regis and the Four Seasons, display "No Drone" signs as you enter and require guests to sign legal documents acknowledging the drone ban. Failure to comply with these regulations may result in expulsion from the hotel premises without any refund,' says photographer Larissa Rolley.

Regardless, if you're operating in a different country or territory, you should make sure you have the proper certification and understand both the customs and rules for your own safety.

Just because you can, should you?

This was a question posed to me by a well-meaning photographer when a public spat broke out about my Kitch-iti-kipi photo. In the United States, and many other countries, taking off in National Parks or areas of conservation is strictly prohibited – and for good reason. Several people have gotten in trouble for flying a drone over the famous Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park.

LiveNation does not have the authority to use the FAA's logo on their 'No Drone Zone' signage. Photo: Antoine Tissier

This practice is not only illegal, it’s also hazardous. If a drone malfunctions or collides with a bird, for example, and falls in, it could cause significant damage to the geyser’s ecosystem. A temperature of 70ºC (160º Fahrenheit) will melt the drone and its remains would be hard to locate in a pool that’s 150 feet deep. In dryer areas, the lithium ion battery of a crashed drone could spark a wildfire.

As mentioned earlier, the temperature of Kitch-iti-kipi won’t dip below 7ºC (45º Fahrenheit) and it’s 40 feet deep. Hypothetically, if a drone falls in, it’s possible to retrieve it without causing any damage to the spring. The ‘No Drone Zone' sign at this state park simply means the rangers don’t want to risk people flying drones over the lake, even if it's legally unenforceable.

Legality aside, it's always wise to ask yourself if a drone flight is appropriate given your surroundings.

Still, it helps to exercise common sense and intuitively know when a drone might cause a disturbance. A few days before, some friends were photographing snowy owls in an area with one of the highest concentrations of this species in the nation. Even though there wasn’t a ‘No Drone Zone’ sign, and we weren’t in a National Park or protected airspace, I still had enough sense to keep my drone grounded. My friends would have been incensed too. Legality aside, it's always wise to ask yourself if a drone flight is appropriate given your surroundings.

‘We have a lot of special areas of conservation in Ireland and also around heritage sites but they can’t legally be enforced unless referenced by aviation authority,’ explains Fergal McCarthy. 'The IAA has a link to the Heritage Ireland website which has a list of prohibited sites but nothing will stand up in court unless damage was caused, which has already happened. Because someone embedded a drone in an old castle and a cherrypicker was brought on site to remove it, causing damage in the process, there is now a ban on all drones in that particular area.’

What you should do when you see a ‘No Drone Zone’ sign

‘To be fair, it’s rare you’ll see many signs in public that actually have no basis in the law. So when someone unfamiliar with drone laws sees a ‘No Drone Zone’ sign, it’s easy for them to assume that there’s a reason for it to be there,’ explains Sean Hickey. ‘If I went to picnic somewhere and there was a sign saying “No Picnicking,” I would likely go somewhere else.’

This is a sign spotted in Chicago. Class G airspace is legal to fly in by the FAA's standards, making this particular sign baseless. Photo: Antoine Tissier

This is why it's important to engage in civil discourse. 'No Drone Zone' sign or not, it's critical to know everything about the area you're operating in. No matter what, a drone pilot should always use a UTM app to check the airspace ahead of time. This ensures that you're not flying during a TFR or in a National Park. It's also important to follow basic, common sense rules including not flying over crowds of people or moving vehicles.

It's also important to conduct yourself in an upstanding manner and be a good drone citizen. Many people misunderstand drone technology and the rules. Calmly explaining yourself is sometimes necessary and educating others does a service for the drone community at large.

It's important to conduct yourself in an upstanding manner and be a good drone citizen.

Finally, on the flip side, when in doubt about the legality of an image posted online, it never hurts to ask the creator before lashing out or making unsubstantiated claims in a public forum. In real life, calmly ask rather than accuse someone of operating illegally in front of a 'No Drone Zone' sign. A little civility goes a long way.

Hopefully, all this information clears up the misconception of the 'No Drone Zone' sign for both sides.