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no-fly zone

What is a no-fly zone?

A no-fly zone is a restricted area of airspace over a landmark, event or geographic region in which aircraft are forbidden to fly, unless they have special authorization. Prohibited aircraft can include manned aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicles, also called UAVs or drones. Governments or representative bodies, such as the North Atlantic Treat Organization (NATO) or the United Nations (U.N.), typically impose no-fly zones for military, security, safety or privacy reasons.

No-fly zones are often associated with military actions. The first military no-fly zones were established in 1991 at the end of the Gulf War. The United States, France, Britain and Turkey implemented no-fly zones over Iraq to prevent Saddam Hussein's regime from attacking Kurdish and Shiite populations. In 1993, the U.N. imposed a no-fly zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina to prevent human rights abuses and protect civilian populations. NATO members enforced the no-fly zone in what was their first combat action as an alliance. In 2011, the U.N. imposed a no-fly zone in Libya, which NATO once again enforced.

No-fly zones are also used to prevent unauthorized aircraft from flying over protected landmarks, such as government buildings, nuclear facilities, cultural treasures or special events. For example, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) restricts the airspace over the Pantex nuclear assembly plant; Disneyland and Walt Disney World; the naval submarine base in Kings Bay, Ga.; and the Area 51 military base in Nevada.

The U.S. is not alone in restricting airspace over specific landmarks. For instance, India imposes a no-fly zone over the Taj Mahal, Peru enforces one over Machu Picchu, and the U.K. has them in place over Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. No-fly zones might also be set up for special events or circumstances, such as around the Super Bowl or near forest fires, volcano plumes or other natural disasters that can represent hazards.

example of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)
Insitu Integrator extended range unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) sitting on a SkyHook launcher

No-fly zones and drones

Despite the benefits of drone adoption, some hurdles remain, and UAVs are tightly regulated. In the U.S., drone use is governed by federal, state and local rules, which can often be more complicated than those for other aircraft. For example, the FAA lays out restrictions governing drone use for recreational and nonrecreational purposes. The FAA also defines a set of rules that are specific to nonrecreational use. These are in Part 107 – Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Rule of the FAA regulations.

When used for recreation, drones can fly only at or below 400 feet in Class G (uncontrolled) airspace, unless the drone operators receive prior FAA authorization for flying in restricted zones. The drone must also stay within the pilot's line of sight or that of a visual observer, as long as the pilot and observer are in constant communication. In addition, pilots cannot fly their drones within three nautical miles of major sporting events beginning one hour before they're scheduled to start and ending one hour after they're scheduled to end.

Recreational pilots may not fly drones near airports in controlled airspace unless they have proper authorization. In addition, they must not interfere with operations or manned aircraft around airports in uncontrolled airspace. The FAA enforces many other restrictions, such as staying out of airspace over military bases, national landmarks and critical infrastructure.

Nonrecreational drone operators are subject to many of the same restrictions as recreational operators. However, Part 107 also adds other restrictions. For example, nonrecreational pilots cannot fly their drones over other people unless those individuals are participating in the operation; are beneath protective coverings, such as houses or vehicles; or meet other specific guidelines. However, drone operators can request a waiver for many restrictions if they can demonstrate the ability to deliver a level of safety that meets or exceeds the purpose of the particular restriction.

The FAA's Special Flight Rules Areas (SFRAs) further restrict drone use. For example, Washington, D.C., has its own SFRA that restricts flights within a 30-mile radius of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, an area that covers the entire city. The restricted area is divided into a 15-mile radius inner ring and 30-mile radius outer ring. Drones are prohibited from the inner ring unless they have FAA authorization. Operators can fly drones in the outer ring -- between 15 and 30 miles -- only if they weigh less than 55 pounds, are properly registered and marked, and always fly within the pilot's line of sight.

Other restricted areas in the U.S. include military bases and national parks. State and local laws might further restrict drone use. For example, restrictions might be put into place around prisons, hospitals or other buildings. No-fly zones might also be set up temporarily in emergency response areas, such as a wildfire, or in a region where the U.S. president is traveling.

Some drone manufacturers use geofencing technology to enforce no-fly zones. In this case, the drone uses Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to track its location. If it reaches the boundary of a no-fly zone, it will stop or send the pilot an alert, depending on the manufacturer's settings. However, not all drone manufacturers use the same rules to determine what areas are geofenced, so some drones might be able to fly where others cannot.

Learn seven things to know about professional drone services, and see why autonomous drones come with challenges and great potential.

This was last updated in January 2023

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