Commercial vs Recreational Drone Flights

If you spend any time at all on the various drone forums it won’t be long before you see a question like this:  “A realtor friend asked me to take picture of a house as a favor.  Is that legal?”

You will then have people with no idea what they are talking about weighing in with their opinion as fact.  The most common response is that if you are not being compensated then the flight is not considered commercial.  This is completely wrong!

So, let me clear this up right here.

There are only two ways to fly a drone in the United States in the National airspace system and be legal:

  • Fly under part 107, which requires you to take a test to become certified.
  • Fly under the rule for model aircraft.

The rule for model aircraft states that you are only allowed to fly for your own recreation and enjoyment. There is no mention of payment that makes the determination for the section.

If someone asks you to fly and provide a product, whether you are getting compensated or not, you are no longer flying for your own recreation are not covered under the model aircraft rule.

If you are not under the model aircraft rule the only other way that you may fly legally is under part 107.

But you’re just a Part 107 certified remote pilot, what do you know?

Good point so here is a page from the FAA:

It says

“To fly under the Special Rule for Model Aircraft you must:

  • Fly for hobby or recreation ONLY

It goes on to say

“If you do not meet these requirements, you must fly under the FAA’s small UAS Rule (part 107).”

So here are a few examples that might help:

  • A friend is a realtor and asks you to take pictures of a property as a favor and for no payment – Commercial
  • You take some pictures that you think will be awesome on your own website – Commercial
  • A company hires you to take video of an event and pays you for the footage – Commercial
  • You fly with some friends, taking cool video and having fun and post it on YouTube  – Non-Commercial
  • You are flying for fun and you happen to capture video of Bigfoot and Elvis dancing.  After the flight, you contact the media and CNN offers you a million dollars for it.  – Non-Commercial

That last one can confuse people.  What causes the confusion is that it is the intent of the flight at the time of the flight that determines whether it is commercial or not.  If you fly for fun, happen to capture something cool and CNN offers you a million dollars for it, that is totally fine.

Now, go out there and intend to have fun!

Update:  The FAA keeps moving things around on their website and the rules continue to change.  The new link to the official rule is here…but basically says the same thing as above.


5 thoughts on “Commercial vs Recreational Drone Flights”

  1. Barry,

    You’ve literally “cleared the air”

    Excellent way of defining flying for recreation versus flying for commercial purposes.

    Like your examples of separating work from fun.

    Thank you,


    1. If the


      of your flight was not commercial (e.g. you were flying for your own enjoyment) then this is non-commercial as far as the FAA is concerned. The flight is still considered non-commercial even if they pay you, so why not ask for some money? You may have a tax implication, but it is not a commercial flight, which is all the FAA cares about.

    1. Hi Rick,

      That’s a great question.

      If you are flying just for fun then the registration should be under 336. However, to be clear, you don’t register the bird for 336, you register the pilot and are then covered for all birds flown under 336. That is different from Part 107, where you have to register each bird individually.

      Hope that helps!


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