Maybe you have been thinking of getting a drone for someone for Christmas or maybe you recently got one of your own as a gift. As a new drone owner, you may not realize how complex that little gizmo can be. When you open the contents of the box, you may probably see a paper that talks about FAA rules and if you take the time to read it, you may ask, “ What does this new toy have in common with a passenger airplane?” or “Why does the Federal Aviation Administration care about me flying my drone in my back yard?”
In most situations, flying for fun in your back yard or local park is no big deal and doesn’t have any real impact on real airplanes flying overhead. The problem is, all unmanned aerial systems, or drones, have been classified as aircraft and therefore, fall under the umbrella of the Federal Aviation Administration.
The FAA is the sole authority of all airspace inside the United States. That airspace starts where the ground stops. So while you are in your back yard flying your drone, you are technically flying in an area regulated by the FAA. Local communities have doubled down and started passing ordinances that restrict the use of drones in certain areas. That’s why it’s important to know the rules and follow them so you are not on the hook for some hefty fines.
First, the rules vary based on why you are flying. If it’s purely for fun and recreation, you need to follow the rules of a community based organization. This means you need to do some research. The Academy of Model Aircraft and Drone User Group Network are two examples.
The most common rules
Just last month, the FAA Re-modernization Act of 2018 was passed into law, which has turned a lot of heads in the model and drone world. It’s still not perfectly clear how this will change the way you can fly your drone, but here are some highlights that are in the law:
– The aircraft is flown strictly for recreational purposes.
– The aircraft is operated in accordance with or within the programming of a community-based organization’s set of safety guidelines.
– The aircraft is flown within the visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft or a visual observer co-located and in direct communication with the operator.
– The aircraft is operated in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to any manned aircraft.
– In controlled airspace, the operator obtains prior authorization from the Administrator or designee before operating and complies with all airspace restrictions and prohibitions.
– In uncontrolled airspace, the aircraft is flown from the surface to not more than 400 feet above ground level and complies with all airspace restrictions and prohibitions.
– The operator has passed an aeronautical knowledge and safety test described in subsection (g) and maintains proof of test passage to be made available to the Administrator or law enforcement upon request.
– The aircraft is registered and properly marked and proof of registration is made available to the Administrator or a designee of the Administrator or law enforcement upon request.
Many of these rules for recreational flying are pretty self-explanatory. There are some parts that unless you take specific training or are a pilot, it may be unclear. The term controlled and uncontrolled airspace refers to whether an air-traffic control tower is operating. If so, you need to receive permission to fly in their airspace, which is typically 5 miles from the airport and the controller may give you restrictions of where you can operate or how high you can fly. If you are flying within 5 miles of an airport does not have an operating tower, you must contact the airport manager and advise them of your flight. No permission is needed unless you are flying directly over the airport property. If you are flying and there is no airport within 5 miles of your location, there is no need to contact anybody. However, you are limited to stay below 400’ above the ground.
All drones must be registered with the FAA, they should also be unregistered when you crash it or resell it (or both). As long as the drone is registered to you, you are responsible for anything that happens with it. The registration number must be somewhere on the drone that can be easily seen or accessed without using a tool. Some folks will write it on the body with a marker or etch it with an engraver. Others prefer to have the registration a little more discreet and put it on the battery, which is easily removed if requested by the FAA or local police.
The Grey Line
Flying a drone is a fun experience. You get to experience the wonders of flight while keeping your feet safely on the ground. You will probably take some beautiful photos or capture amazing video that you’ll want to share with your friends. This is where many uncertified drone pilots put themselves at risk. While it is perfectly legal to share and even sell a photo or video clip from a recreational flight, it cannot be planned to do so before your flight.
To clear this grey line, ask yourself, why am I flying? If it’s because someone else asked you to take photos of an event or building or anything quite frankly, then it’s not for recreation and now falls under what is referred to as Part 107. Part 107 are the rules where commercial operators fly, but it’s not just for commercial drone pilots. If a flight does not comply with every safety rule for recreational pilots, the flight would default to Part 107.
Often, new drone owners are overcome by the desire to take a fully charged battery, fire up the aircraft and ascend as far as they can. Please don’t do this. Consumer drones have been reported by commercial aircraft at altitudes as high as 10,000 feet! If you want to see this, Google it. There are videos out there of folks who have done this already. At this altitude, airplanes are traveling 280 MPH or faster, certainly not enough time to see such a small object or avoid it until it passes by at high speed. There still isn’t any hard facts about what a consumer drone would do if ingested into an engine or strikes the windshield of a jet. Let’s just assume bad things will happen. The risk you put people in by flying at altitudes higher than 400 feet does not outweigh the benefits of getting a great photo of a sunset from the sky.
This isn’t just happening in other parts of the country, drones are being spotted above 400 feet right here in the Lehigh Valley.
– May 2018: A silver, football-sized drone was spotted 7 miles southeast of Reading Regional Airport at 1,500 feet.
– Oct 2017: A recreational drone was spotted by an airplane descending into Allentown for runway 24.
– Sep 2017: A drone was spotted 3 miles southeast of Allentown airport at 2,000’ by an airplane on approach for runway 24
– Aug 2017: An airplane departing Allentown to the west was spotted at 2,000’ only ¾ miles from the departure end of runway 24.
– Aug 2017: A red drone was spotted just west of the Lehigh River at 1300’ (note: the altitude aircraft approach the airport pattern is 1400’)
– Jun 2017: A drone was spotted by a helicopter at 3000’ 15 miles south of Reading airport.
Drone operators, regardless of flying recreationally or under Part 107 are subject to legal enforcement from the FAA. The Allentown Flight Standards District Office is responsible for investigating reports of unauthorized UAS activity. If you are reported or caught violating the rules, there are a few things that could possibly happen.
The lightest punishment would be in the form of a letter that says you’ve been investigated and would provide you with instructions on how to properly and safely operate your drone.
Next up the line, could be remedial training in the form of mandatory classes or videos. There may be a cost associated with attending these courses which you would be required to pay.
If you hold any FAA ratings, they may take certificate actions against them including suspension and revocation.
The FAA may also impose civil penalties and fines against the operator if, in their opinion, none of the above methods prove effective. Fines can start around $1,000 for each offense and the fines can be compounded for each violation they can prove. Often when violating one part of the regulations, drone pilots violate many others, which can add up to a significant fine.
The National Airspace System is for public use. Every pilot, whether manned or unmanned is expected to operate their respective systems in a safe and professional manner. Even flying in your backyard, you are part of a large system that relies on everyone to do their part to keep our skies safe. This starts with knowing the basics and keep learning more on aviation safety.
The FAA provides many resources and training programs for aviation safety that can be found at http://www.faasafety.gov