In the US, if you fly a drone for commercial use, you are required to operate under a different set of commercial rules, most commonly Part 107. Flying under Part 107 requires the operator to pass a knowledge test and hold a Remote Pilot License. I've received many questions from pilots as to what counts as "commercial" usage. The FAA uses a very broad definition of commercial usage that includes anything that provides value to the operator, even if no money exchanges hands. With that in mind, let's take a look at some popular use cases and discuss whether they fall into the commercial usage bucket.
I do wedding photography on the side and I'm thinking of using my drone to capture some shots alongside my normal DSLR. I plan to give the aerial photos away free.
Even if you give away the aerial photos for free, your relationship with the person is that of a business nature and the aerial shots are considered valuable, so this would definitely be considered commercial use.
I'm not a professional photographer, but would like to take some free aerial shots for a friend's wedding.
This scenario is a bit different than the previous since the relationship is a personal one and there are no related business transactions involved. There is a reasonable argument here that this falls under hobby use, so you would probably be OK without a Part 107 license. However, wedding photography in particular (as opposed to other photography) is tightly tied to professionals and business intentions, so I would exercise caution here and get licensed if you intend to do this long term.
I own a coffee shop and I would like to get some aerial shots to include on my website.
Despite the fact that you own the business and no money is involved, there clearly is value that you are bringing to the business (even if a small amount) by adding images to the website. So, this would definitely qualify as commercial use.
I've been asked by my local non-profit charity to take some aerial photos at the next event.
This one trips up a lot of people. Many honest pilots hear "non-profit" and think that is enough to separate it from "commercial", but you are still technically bringing value to the organization regardless if money is involved. This is somewhat unfortunate since many pilots have the best of intentions.
I bought a drone to use as a hobby and captured some really cool photos with no intention to sell them. People are now asking if they can buy them.
This one falls under the grayest of areas and unfortunately I don't have a solid answer on this one. It seems even the FAA is struggling on how to enforce this. Prior to Part 107 going live, many hobbyists were casually posting their drone videos to sites like YouTube and started to gather a large following of fans. This amount of attention also started gathering ad revenue, at which point the FAA took notice and deemed YouTube a commercial use of drones and in the process sent out nasty letters to pilots - most of whom had no original intentions of making money. Of course, it didn't help that many of these posted videos were clearly breaking Federal airspace rules. The FAA has since backed down a bit, but this should give you a sense of how wide they interpret "commercial" use. All that said, you can probably get away with selling items taken on a "hobby" flight once or twice, since the important part is the intent at the time of flight, but don't think this will be a viable long term plan - the FAA will catch on quick. If you do try to sell old hobby flight photos, getting licensed probably also helps to show you are taking steps towards proper commercial usage.
I own a warehouse and plan to train drone operators within the building.
This one is easy. Indoor airspace is not part of the national airspace, so the FAA does not have any control inside buildings, so do whatever you want as long as you aren't breaking other laws.
As you can see, there are a lot of gray areas in between hobby and commercial usage, but its always better to be on the safe side with this one. Bottom line: If you are using your drone in any way connected to a business (even your own or a non-profit), the FAA will probably consider it "commercial" usage and you should be flying as a Part 107 licensed remote pilot. Oh, and following the airspace rules can't hurt either.
Disclaimer: If you had any doubts, I am not a lawyer and you shouldn't be basing important decisions solely on a random dude's blog on the internet. While I make every effort to provide accurate and reliable information, this is for informational use only and I obviously can't be held responsible for what you decide to do with it.