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Playing by the (drone) rules

Responsible use of drones on golf courses requires a thorough understanding of the regulations, along with registration and passing the FAA’s test for the safe operation of drones.


A map showing no-fly and restricted-fly zones in Los Angeles. The different levels and different types of restrictions are based on a variety of factors. Image courtesy of

I have written about drones and their applications on the golf course many times in the past. How many of you have joined the growing list of superintendents who own drones and fly them around the golf course for business purposes? How many of you fly your drone to check out trees, lakes, bunkers and to simply see your course from a different perspective? Have you uploaded a video you’ve recorded from one of those flights to YouTube to share with your members?

If you’ve done any of those things, chances are you’re using your drone illegally. If you are flying your drone for anything other than recreational purposes, you are most likely breaking at least a few rules. But how do you know whether the way you’re using your drone is OK? How do you comply with the rules?

The image above shows the no-fly or restricted-fly zones in Los Angeles, where my course is located. As you can see, there are different levels and different types of restrictions. Each one allows you to operate drones differently — some things are allowed, others are restricted. You can find maps of your area at Know Before You Fly.

While the specifics in your city might differ slightly, the overall rules and regulations related to drone operations are about the same. That’s because your drone is sharing airspace with airplanes, helicopters and other drones, or simply entering airspace that might fall under general restrictions, such as that of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

As Thomas Bastis, CGCS, a PGA Tour agronomist, pointed out to me, “You’re flying in their airspace. You need to speak their language.” Bastis is an avid drone user, and in his previous job as the superintendent at California Golf Club in San Francisco — better known as the Cal Club — the facility he managed was pretty much in the direct flight path of San Francisco International Airport.

As a result, Bastis passed the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Part 107 test, which certifies your knowledge of everything that goes into safe operations of a drone — FAA rules and regulations, aviation terms and definitions, the impact weather can have on a flight, and so on. 

Another person I spoke with for this article, Stephen Tucker, the equipment manager at Tranquilo Golf Club at Four Seasons Resort Orlando, has also passed the Part 107 test to operate drones on his property.

Bastis estimates that about a third of the test is simply common sense, such as questions about flying drones over groups of people or over residential buildings. Tucker was particularly struck by the weather portion of the exam, calling it “interesting.” But both took their preparations for the exam seriously, saying they spent 20 to 30 hours studying for the test, including using online resources to take practice exams.

I have spent about 10 hours preparing for this test, and I agree that quite a bit of what I’m studying is common sense. Still, I’m learning a great deal about flight zones, ceilings and even the weather. It’s worth doing, and if you operate a drone, you should consider the experience educational and necessary.

In the past, I have written about registering your drone with the FAA. This is a simple and easy first step to take, but it should not be confused with the Part 107 test, and it does not allow you to fly your drone for work in any way. If you are using your drone in even passive work uses — agricultural evaluations, mapping, or even recording videos to promote your club or document a project — you are required to pass the Part 107 exam.

Bastis emphasized that having knowledgeable, responsible superintendents piloting drones on golf courses is not only the law, but it also reflects well on the golf industry, and I agree. It’s best for everyone sharing airspace to speak the same language and follow the same rules.

In a future Technology column, I’ll get into another aspect of drone ownership and operation on your golf course: insurance.

Bob Vaughey, CGCS, is the director of agronomy at Rolling Hills Country Club in Palos Verdes, Calif., and a 13-year member of GCSAA.