Remember these simple safety guidelines when
flying your unmanned aircraft:
- ANY Model Aircraft (UAS) over 455 gms ( About 1 lb.) MUST be registered to fly outside
- Don’t be careless or reckless with your UAS
- Fly below 400 feet and remain clear of obstacles
- Stay away from other aircraft at all times
- Keep your UAS within your sight
- Don’t fly near airports, stadiums, or other people
- Don’t fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol
- Keep away from emergency responders
CAN I FLY? CAN I SHOOT DOWN THAT DRONE? New Rules
So . . . got a drone this Christmas? Weather starting to look nice and you’re ready to try your hand outside. Had one and been flying for a while? Did you know your drone is legally an aircraft and you are a pilot, full-fledged and ready to take on the world! Oh, and you may be running a pirate radio station also, but more on that later.
The FAA has been told to integrate Small Unmanned Air Systems (sUAS) or drones into the national airspace. That said there are laws about operating them, and for the hobbyist and recreational flyer, they are pretty easy to follow. When I was a kid in the 60’s, I built models. I first made a balsa wood frame, then covered it with tissue paper to make my craft, then the day it came, my first powered plane. It was connected to me by a handle with two long strings, and I had to practice going in circles and not falling over! A little different from my daily flier now. Oscar, my regular flyer, has four electric motors in the corners and more computing power than it took to get to the moon. It weighs all of a pound and a few ounces and is supposed to be able to go 85 MPH.
The Federal Court decided that if it is made by people and flies, it is an aircraft. We will use the word drone to mean any aircraft that is remotely piloted. It may have wings, look like a helicopter, or a flying saucer, or even Snoopy’ s doghouse! If it flies and you control it you are a pilot. The FAA has overall control and you get to use the national airspace!
So don’t think your little quadcopter is quite ready for international flights? If you only fly indoors then you are not subject to the FAA’s control. Many drones are sold for indoor use only and aren’t any good with a wind. These are fun but not what we are going to talk about here.
Responsibilities (OMG he used the R word!) on you as the pilot are to make certain the craft is airworthy every trip, that you can fly where you are, and that you fly safely. You also need to know where you can fly, almost anywhere below 400’ above ground level, that almost is pretty important so read on.
First, it is on you as a pilot to check your craft every time you go up. Check your aircraft before putting on the propellers. While very rare, it is much less of a problem to have a motor start without warning if there are no blades attached to it. Check the wires, check the frame. Any cracks, broken parts or bad or lose parts and wires fixed, and secured. That broken wire can cause a short, and usually at the worst time, just as you are making that turn to keep it away from the trees, or people! It vibrates and touches something and poof; you just burned up a control circuit. BTW a lot of frames are made from lightweight, strong carbon fiber, a good electrical conductor, so don’t wrap wires to it thinking you have just separated them electrically. Start the motors, do they sound right? Then once the propellers are on let is run for a minute on lower speed. Bring up the throttle slightly checking that the movement is smooth and the motors don’t rattle or stutter. As it lifts off the ground slowly check the drone ’s movement. There are usually sliders or switches to adjust (trim) the output from the transmitter. If your drone moves left without any movement of the stick, adjust it to the right, etc. Ok bring it back to the ground and stop. OK now before you fly you need to check a few things.
Next, before you fly, check the free app from the FAA called ‘B4UFLY’. The B4UFLY app checks where you are and lets you know if you can fly or have to get a waiver. If you need to inform an airport or hospital, there is usually a telephone number given. Some areas are absolute NO-FLY zones. These include some of the obvious, like military bases, emergency zones (floods, etc.) and active emergencies, all of Washington D.C. and wherever the president may be. There are also some that might surprise you, like every National Park! And no there are no waivers for the general public for National Parks. National Forests have their own rules but have NOT pre-empted the use of Drones.
Other areas are ‘notice required.’ If you are within 5 miles of an active airport you have to call Air Traffic Control. While they have final say on flying in their zone, I have never been denied a request so long as I can tell them where I will fly, how high and when. If you use any of these apps you can now get authority or denial automatically. See your app provider for costs and effectiveness.
OK, So I’m cleared for where I want to fly. Now I have to take care of other people and their property. Is there anyone around? We are not allowed to fly over people, moving vehicles and are personally responsible for this. We as a drone, or model aircraft, pilot get to enjoy using (almost) anywhere in the first 400 ft of airspace above the ground. The FAA says you are flying an aircraft, and as such have the right to use the national airspace. You can fly over your neighbors land, but NOT your neighbor. Remember, other rules apply also. Harassing your neighbor can get you in trouble even if you aren’t violating FAA rules.
Another important limitation on flying is the Line Of Sight (LOS) limitation. Line Of Sight means your craft needs to be within your range of vision and seen by you at all times. You can use a visual observer, if you are in constant contact with each other and meet other requirements. By the way, while you may wear medically required corrective lenses, wearing optics to see further away is not allowed.
You also need to have the permission of the owner of the property you are flying from, and unless it’s a close friend I would get it in writing. A simple note can keep you from a lot of trouble. You need to avoid flying over people, especially crowds and amusements/fairs. If there are a large number of people, special rules come into play; you need to start speaking with the FAA about your plans asking for a waiver.
Use a checklist. It only takes a minute, and the first time you find a loose part or wire, you have just saved yourself a long search and possible problems. Have a particular screw that keeps coming loose? After you solve the problem, add it to the checklist, make sure it stays away. As you can see I use this checklist as an ongoing “living” document. Change it, add to it, but mostly USE IT! Most of the problems I have had with remote flying have been due to things that I should have caught on the checklist.
Look at the Academy of Model Aircraft website. They have a lot of resources including checklists for various types of aircraft. Add to the list to make it work for you. I am not an AMA recruiter, but I urge you and other remote pilots to join. So long as you follow their (easy to use and understand) rules you have a great deal of insurance. The day your flight battery dies, and the thing goes through someone’s yard causing damage you will be glad you did. More on damage to others below. More important may be the list of local flying clubs. These people love flying. It may be crazy shape stuff, or vintage planes, or racing quadcopters. They love it, and they love to share it.
Part of your checklist, like for any aircraft, must include having any required legal certificate. Drones over 8.8 oz up to 55lbs must be registered, and have their numbers “on” them, though most people carry the certificate with them, and that has been sufficient to date. It is easy and costs $5 – Go to FAA.gov/uas/ to get started. Unless you are planning to do aerial mapping or photography for hire, stick to the “Recreational” registration. Oh, and be ready to show it. ANY law enforcement officer and a lot of other people have the right to ask to see it, and frankly it just makes people feel better about them.
While at FAA.gov look at all the free information and courses they have ready for you. One of the first things on the website is their safety tips:
- Register your drone
- Fly your drone at or below 400 feet
- Keep your drone within your line of sight
- Be aware of FAA Airspace Restrictions Get the B4Ufly app and use it!
- Respect privacy
- Never fly near other aircraft, especially near airports
- Never fly over groups of people, public events, or stadiums full of people
- Never fly near emergencies such as fires or hurricane recovery efforts
- Never fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol
Notice it doesn’t say anything about flying over other people’s property. As long as you have permission to fly from the spot you take off and land at, and follow the restrictions, you are free to fly where you want. Just be nice about it. Local police may not be able to control your drone but they have a lot of other tools and can easily deal with someone who annoys or harasses others with one.
Drones flying outside are permitted to use Class G airspace up to 400 ft. above the ground, over that is for craft with other certificates.
Need I say you are responsible for the damage your drone does. The FAA wants notice if anything happens that causes serious injury or death or damage over $500 to things other than the drone, within 10 days. Your local officials likely will too, and maybe sooner. Being up front is good, but if there are any question contact a lawyer regarding your own situation. While local officials cannot regulate aircraft, they certainly have a say in any problems that affect their public. Use of the drone in a place you have permission or that otherwise meets the requirements of the FAA may still cause problems for others. Be sensitive to the needs of others.
The police may not be able to enforce FAA regulations, but they sure can enforce other laws, coincidental to your use of that drone. They may not be able to arrest you flying it overhead, but if you cause a public nuisance, use the camera for illicit reasons, or otherwise harass other people they have plenty of tools to use to stop it. Remember that we get to use the national airspace is something that is under attack lately. Lots of people want that space for their own use. Sharing is important. Know your rights, and understand other peoples concerns.
While flying in a public space, I am often approached by people about the drone. Ask if it bothers them and be ready as a matter of politeness to move or adjust what you are doing to make this space work for everyone. Are you required to by law? Not usually. But a small adjustment can go a long way to avoiding public complaints and having to deal with the police!