Can UAV's or drones (consumer/commercial scale) operate over international waters (12 miles out from the shore) without being regulated by the FAA?

Just wondering if companies can do things like BVLOS* testing out in international waters if they wanted to, instead of getting exemptions or leasing private airspace.

* Beyond Visual Line Of Sight


1 Answer 1


My conclusion is yes, the FAA regulations do not directly apply. However ICAO takes over and the FAA is in charge of enforcing ICAO rules. Thus, while you can fly without FAA jurisdiction, High Seas Airspace is not a Wild West where anything goes.

The FAA remains in charge of all US civil aircraft even in High Seas Airspace:

Sec. 91.703 - Operations of civil aircraft of U.S. registry outside of the United States.

Each person operating a civil aircraft of U.S. registry outside of the United States shall--

(1) When over the high seas, comply with annex 2 (Rules of the Air) to the Convention on International Civil Aviation and with Secs. 91.117(c), 91.127, 91.129, and 91.131;

Note that all US drones are required to be registered with the US, so they would fall under this clause.

The upshot is that ICAO regulations are in force in international waters. A circular can be found here: https://www.icao.int/Meetings/UAS/Documents/Circular%20328_en.pdf. It describes required BVLOS navigation aids.


6.26 As a general statement, all aircraft, whether manned or unmanned, must meet the navigation performance requirements for the specific airspace in which they will operate.

6.27 RPA that utilize VLOS as the basis for navigation would not require an on-board means for determining position or the ability to fly an instrument approach. Operations of these aircraft are usually conducted under VMC to ensure the remote pilot can maintain continuous and direct visual observation of the RPA and its surrounding environment.

6.28 RPA that traverse several airspace volumes may operate for the most part under IFR. Such RPA will have to meet the communications, navigation, and surveillance requirements and have an appropriate aircraft operational certification associated with the airspace.

6.29 In cases where small RPA have a requirement to fly beyond VLOS, they will need a means to meet navigation capabilities for the airspace within which they are operating. This could involve an alternate means of achieving the navigation performance.

In addition,


7.8 Remote pilots and other members of the remote crew shall be trained and licensed in accordance with Annex 1.

7.9 Licensing and training requirements will be developed similar to those for manned aviation and will include both the aeronautical knowledge and operational components. Specific adjustments may be needed considering the particular and unique nature and characteristics of the remote pilot station environment and RPA applications (from both a technical and flight operations perspective, e.g. VLOS or beyond VLOS) as well as aircraft type (e.g. aeroplane, helicopter). In that context, qualifications for certain categories of remote crew (e.g. VLOS helicopter) may be significantly different from those pertaining to the traditional qualifications pertaining to manned aviation.

7.10 On the basis of the foregoing, current and previous notional designations for personnel piloting RPA will need to be replaced with applicable terms as contained in Annex 1, appropriately modified to indicate their position being external to the aircraft, such as “remote pilot”, “remote navigator” and/or “remote engineer”, each of which is a member of the remote crew. A new crew position unique to some VLOS operations is “RPA observer”, an individual who, by visual observation of the RPA, assists the remote pilot in the safe conduct of the flight. Additional crew positions unique to remote pilot station/RPA operations may be identified over time. These new positions will need to be incorporated into Annex 1 for international standardization.

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    $\begingroup$ The thing is this aircraft isnt a Civil aircraft in US registry. In either case, ICAO says UAV's have to meet navigation performance, and i'm very sure autopilots with gps check this box. So, BVLOS is good to go as long as you have a failsafe RTL on the aircraft. $\endgroup$
    – ohitstarik
    Commented Apr 17, 2020 at 22:18
  • $\begingroup$ Unless it weighs under 250g, it must be registered with the FAA. I would interpret that to mean the "US registry". $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 17, 2020 at 22:20
  • $\begingroup$ "Model aircraft, generally recognized as intended for recreational purposes only, fall outside the provisions of the Chicago Convention, being exclusively the subject of relevant national regulations, if any. " dont understand the difference between an RPA or model aircraft, but man kinda bums me out that you can be in the middle of the pacific and still have the adhere to FAA. $\endgroup$
    – ohitstarik
    Commented Apr 17, 2020 at 22:22
  • $\begingroup$ I think the takeaway is that the FAA does not have jurisdiction over the airspace, but by international treaty it agrees to be the enforcing body for Americans operating US-registered aircraft in intl'l waters. BTW, I don't think that the passage you quoted is valid anymore. The FAA has updated its registration requirements, and I believe even AMA members are required to register. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 17, 2020 at 22:35
  • $\begingroup$ Everyone needs to avoid calling anything which appears to be regulatory in nature however was published by ICAO, a regulation, requirement, or intimate that they somehow "take over". ICAO had exactly no regulatory authority in any locations at any point on the globe. ICAO publishes a number of documents which are agreed upon by the majority of members and which will be utilized as Standards And Recommended Practices, or SARPs. These are simply reccomendations ICAO feels the various state member CAAs should adopt as regulatory standards within their nation. $\endgroup$
    – BigNutz
    Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 2:50

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