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Is it legal to operate a drone (quadcopter or other type) in autonomous mode over private property (either with owner's permission or over my own property)? By private property I mean private real estate like agricultural fields, woods/forests etc. An example usage case would be operating something like a cargo-drone for agricultural purposes.

I am interested in global legal situation, but EU, USA and China are my main areas of interest.

The contrary to autonomous mode would be manual mode where one usually has to maintain line-of-sight when operating a drone. I also guess there is a maximum height that "hobby" aviators are allowed to reach.

A side question - what is the current legal situation for operating a drone in the states listed above? I know about the "Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Registration" in the US only.

  • Does the operator have permission of the property owner? – phoog Apr 8 '16 at 22:27
  • Yes, the whole point of the question is either with owner's permission or over my own property - I added it to the question. – Kozuch Apr 9 '16 at 6:10
  • Thanks for clarifying. I actually suspected the opposite: that you were hoping to find a legal way of spying on your neighbors! – phoog Apr 15 '16 at 18:36
  • I'm somewhat surprised this hasn't been mentioned yet, but in plenty of areas in the EU autonomous drones are only allowed under strict rules. Since the rules change every so often, check them before flying. Even non-autonomous drones' usage is regulated nowadays. – Mast Nov 4 at 7:35
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In the US, courts have generally held that your property rights do not extend into the sky without limit. In UNITED STATES v. CAUSBY et ux. The Supreme Court ruled that the skies above a certain altitude were a public highway. The federal government currently holds that navigable airspace starts at 500 feet from the ground, so above that altitude the FAA gets to regulate how you use them. That would include any limitations on the use of autonomous drones. The situation is in flux though, and the proliferation of small inexpensive drones is putting the issue before the courts again.

  • I know the "autonomous flying" area is still shady legally as you write but does the linked case mean that in general I am allowed to operate anything (manual or autonomous) up to 500 ft of height over private land? – Kozuch Apr 9 '16 at 17:26
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    In fact the linked case held that the US government was entitled to fly bombers 83 feet above someone's property. I think the 500ft limit is just the administrative limit that the FAA settled on in the pre-drone era. My layperson's bet would be that you could probably get away with it if you didn't cause any external problems, but if someone or some agency did take exception, it could end up back before the Supreme Court. – Charles E. Grant Apr 9 '16 at 17:42
  • Ok. What if I want to operate an autonomous ground vehicle (robotic ATV actually) on private land? Do I have to deal with "Freedom to roam" laws somehow (like trying to restrict public access to the area by placing signs or at least warn with signs that there are robots operating)? – Kozuch Apr 9 '16 at 17:48
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    @Kozuch - That's a separate question, and you'll probably find the answer searching for "duty owed to trespassers." – feetwet Apr 9 '16 at 19:09
  • What is your authority on the "500 foot" rule? I have heard FAA people talk about "above the blade of grass on up into orbit." In fact drone operations are regulated from that blade of grass upward, and normally are limited to 400 AGL. – mongo Sep 30 '17 at 1:42

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