Drone (UAV) laws in Reno

Posted on 16 July 2020

I recently picked up a drone, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), and would love to fly it in areas I regularly run and hike for the purpose of shooting video and photos to document the trails, mainly because I love the style of overhead photography, but also because I love that just off the ground perspective that adds the 3-D element to the video as you make your way up a canyon or along a ridge.

However, I struggled to find a definitive place online that detailed where I could and could not fly the drone with regard to all applicable laws in the area. Searching turned up some information, some rumors, and a lot more people asking questions. My drone is small enough to not have to be registered, which makes life a bit easier, but all drone operators have to adhere to the basics. Here is what I found on This Is Reno:

Here are four regulations you may not know about flying drones:

  1. They must be kept under 400 feet.
  2. They may not be flown in public areas, such as schools or parks.
  3. They must not be flown within 5 miles of an airport.
  4. Users must have visible contact with their drone at all times.

Items 1, 3, and 4 are totally verifiable through Nevada Revised Statute 493, but item 2 was not. NRS 493 also has a few additional things in there that the general public should know, namely that flying over private property at an altitude of under 250 feet from ground level can be considered trespassing (just don't do that) and that you can't fly within 500 feet (horizontally or vertically) of what are considered "critical facilities" without written consent from the facility's owner:

NRS 493.109  Unmanned aerial vehicles: Operation near critical facility or within 5 miles of airport prohibited; exceptions; penalty.

  1. A person shall not operate an unmanned aerial vehicle within: (a) A horizontal distance of 500 feet or a vertical distance of 250 feet from a critical facility without the written consent of the owner of the critical facility. (b) Except as otherwise provided in subsection 2, 5 miles of an airport.
  2. A person may operate an unmanned aerial vehicle within 5 miles of an airport only if the person obtains the consent of the airport authority or the operator of the airport, or if the person has otherwise obtained a waiver, exemption or other authorization for such operation pursuant to any rule or regulation of the Federal Aviation Administration. A person who is authorized to operate an unmanned aerial vehicle within 5 miles of an airport pursuant to this subsection shall, at all times during such operation, maintain on his or her person documentation of any waiver, exemption, authorization or consent permitting such operation.
  3.  A person who violates this section is guilty of a misdemeanor.
  4. As used in this section, “airport” means any area of land or water owned, operated or maintained by or on behalf of a city, county, town, municipal corporation or airport authority that is designed and set aside for the landing and taking off of aircraft and that is utilized in the interest of the public for such purposes.

That's pretty straightforward stuff. It also opens the door to flying within five miles of an airport with easily-obtained clearance from the FAA. I use a site called AirMap to obtain that authorization. I have asked for permission twice and received it immediately each time. Both times I asked I was planning to fly over my own house.

Where I was confused was Item 2 on This Is Reno's list: flying over parks and schools. Nowhere in the Nevada statute does it say that parks and schools are "critical." In fact, it names as examples facilities such as power plants and water treatment facilities, but not schools and parks, which I would consider important enough exclusions to warrant calling out in the law. So, understanding that state laws are often left a bit more vague in order for local laws to provide more specific detail, I contacted the City of Reno to get clarification.

I used the city's public records request page and sent them a question: What are the Reno-specific laws governing drones?

The response I got back told me that there are no documents responsive to my request, and that I should reference Assembly Bill 239 from the 2015 session of the Nevada Legislature. Assembly Bill 239 from 2015 became NRS 493, so according to the City of Reno, the only laws governing drones within the city limits are in that law. Again, no mention of schools or parks.

To be sure, I combed the city's municipal code Title 6, which governs vehicles and traffic, and Title 8, which governs Public Space, Safety and Morals to see if there was any way the response could be incorrect. I searched terms like "drone," "UAV," "unmanned," and "aerial" and there were no results that pertained to drones in any way in the code. I also did the same for Washoe County, specifically because Rancho San Rafael is a county park and I would like to fly at the northern edges there. Same result. Nothing at all that I could find.

With the exception of Section 24.4 of NRS 493, which prohibits flying over "heavily populated areas or public gatherings," it seems that flying in public parks is completely legal, as long as you follow the permissions granted by the FAA.

My apologies for the long post to basically say that the perception of some rules might be wrong, but I wanted to add as much context to my interpretation as possible. I am not a lawyer and I definitely struggled to understand a lot of this as I was researching, but I think I've come to the proper conclusion here. I welcome any additional context that either reaffirms what I've said or completely blows it up. I want to follow the rules and I definitely do not want to disturb anyone's time on the outdoors with my own activity, and I think following the rules along with using personal discretion is the best way to do that. If you know of something that is incorrect here, please contact me on Twitter (@mrjerz) or by email (ryanjerz@me.com) and I will rectify it.

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