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  • Writer's pictureTylor Foster

Flying a drone in Reno? Better read this first...

It's no surprise to anyone in the Reno/Tahoe area that drones are here, and they're here to stay (hopefully). The reason we say hopefully is because of the old saying that possibly gained more popularity from the movie Spiderman:

This couldn't be more true when it comes to flying drones. Especially in the Reno/Tahoe area. There's definitely a stigma still out there where drones are viewed as "toys" among a lot of people since there is just as big of a consumer market as there is a commercial one.

With that stigma it can make understanding the safety precautions a bit cloudy, but don't worry! We're gonna try and clear it up a bit!


In the next two sections we're going sum up how you need to approach flying a drone for commercial purposes and recreational/hobby purposes in the Reno/Tahoe area. Yes, there are different rules for both!

Commercial drone activities (Part 107)

Commercial drone activity can be a little grey at times. Basically, it is any operation that is in association with any business purpose either directly or indirectly. Taking photos of the beautiful Downtown Reno cityscape for your new desktop wallpaper or to share on Facebook with your friends or family is not commercial work. Taking photos of that same cityscape to sell or even to promote your own business on social media is commercial activity.

First things first you need to be licensed. That is the Part 107 Certification. We won't bore you with all the technical information on it so if you're not already licensed check out this link.

A large part of the drone market in the Reno/Tahoe area involves real estate and construction, and since the valley isn't that big area wise most of that work lies within a 5 mile radius of the Class C RenoTahoe International Airport (RNO). Because the airport is Class C restricted airspace any pilot who wishes to operate a drone commercially within the 5 mile radius MUST obtain authorization from air traffic control (ATC) PRIOR to commencing any flight regardless of the altitude.

Getting this approval used to be a painstaking process that the FAA advertised would take up to 90 days per authorization. There are horror stories of airspace authorizations (AA's) taking over 6 months! However, these days are long behind us commercial operators for the most part.

phoenix, hot air balloons, sunrise
Phoenix Balloon Races

Recently the FAA released Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC). This gave us commercial operators instant authorization to fly within restricted airspace at certain prescribed altitudes. Check it out here. And guess what?! You're local Reno/Tahoe airport was the very first airport in the entire United States to turn on this system!

So as a commercial operator in the Reno/Tahoe area you must request authorization through either Airmap, Skyward, or the FAA Drone Zone Portal. You can click the links and each site will walk you through how to request authorization. If your project only requires an altitude which is under the prescribed max altitude for the grid in your project area then you will get instant authorization. If your project requires you to go to an altitude that is above the prescribed max then you CAN* still request it, but this needs to be done at least 24 hours prior to the start of the mission. We recommend requesting at least 48-72 hours in advance because ATC only has up until 24 hours prior to the start time to manually authorize the operation.

*Note that requesting above the prescribed max grid altitude is allowed, however it is not guaranteed that you will get approval.

If you're already licensed or will be licensed in the future you will know all the rest of the regulations for commercial work so we won't go into that here, but if you have any other questions about commercial operations within restricted airspace or regulations in general don't hesitate to contact us!

Recreational/Hobbyist drone activities (Part 101)

As small or simple as this one may seem off the bat, it's not.

This topic perhaps is more important than explaining commercial drone regulations. Only because commercial operators are licensed. They've studied the rules and regulations, and have been tested on their knowledge. Not to say there aren't any hobbyist pilots out there who know what their doing, but the reality is that most hobbyist pilots just aren't aware of their responsibilities when flying a drone. Partly because of that stigma we talked about. Yes parents, that drone you bought for your kids makes them a hobbyist pilot...

construction, lake tahoe, blue sky
Construction in Lake Tahoe

The FAA has made a huge effort to help hobbyist understand their responsibilities and the rules and regulations associated with flying for fun. With plenty of articles on the web and sites like Know Before You Fly and the FAA Hobbyist site, the information is easily obtained with a little bit of Googling.

We'll save you hobbyists in the Reno/Tahoe are a little bit of time and tell you it all just boils down to being safe. Before you fly you need to know whether or not you are in restricted airspace (that 5 mile ring around the airport). Check out the links above in the commercial operations section. The same tools commercial operators use are great for hobbyists as well. Our most recommended would be the FAA Grid Data that way you know at least what a safe operating altitude is based on where you are.

The reason you need to know if you are in restricted airspace is that you are responsible to notify air traffic control of your proposed flight. You absolutely MUST notify. It may sound a bit daunting at first that you'll be in conversation with air traffic control, but trust us it's not. The Reno ATC is a great group of people and they are most friendly.

The Reno ATC Manager - Karl Scribner is a great guy and has no interest in telling you no. His job and his desire is to keep Reno airspace safe. Being the first airport in the US to go live with the LAANC system is a credit to the "drone-friendly" atmosphere that RNO has created. They have even implemented the Drone Phone which is a phone line dedicated for hobbyist users to call and notify of their operations so Reno ATC can let you know whether or not it is safe at that time. That phone number is: 775-324-8555

If you're a hobbyist user in the Reno/Tahoe area check out the sites we linked above, and if you have any questions don't hesitate to contact us or the Drone Phone (775-324-8555). It's our goal to keep everyone safe so we can all, commercial and hobbyist, enjoy the fun adventures of flying drones.

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