Recreational flyers enjoying hobby drones make up the majority of us drone pilots out there. Day six of the FAA Drone safety awareness week is for us! The week runs from November 4th through 10th, 2019. Drone safety is in our hands, you know this, you control your drone and ensure it is handled safely. From the FAA’s perspective, there is more to a safe flight than just making sure you don’t crash, they have many rules and regulations for drones, all designed around safety for other air traffic, as well as for people on the ground below.
Day six of the FAA’s Drone safety awareness week is for recreational flyers.
What is a recreational flight?
First and foremost, let’s make sure we all know the difference between a hobby flight and a commercial flight. The answer is much easier than you might think: If you will receive compensation for your flight, including making money off of any photos or video you capture from the sky, that is a commercial operation, requiring you to be Part 107 certified. If you will not be getting compensation, you’re just flying for fun, then you fall into the recreational flight rules.
The recreational rules are a hybrid based off of older RC airplane rules and the full UAS rules from the FAA. When created, RC airplanes tended to fly only over modeling aircraft clubs’ defined airstrips, where these new drones, with their new camera systems, were starting to go well beyond a visual line of sight. That was one of the first things the FAA stamped out, requiring you to fly only where you can see your drone with your own eyes. The rules we have today, and I mean today, November 9th, 2019, are still in transition. The FAA is working on new rules as we speak, but the rules on the books now are easy enough to understand, even if you don’t like them.
Before you fly your drone
Before you take to the sky, there are thing you need to know. First, you likely have to register your drone with the FAA before you take flight. Second, you need to know affix that registration number to the outside of your craft. Third, you need to know the rules of a local modeling club and be able to prove you are following them. After all that, you can start to look for a place to fly.
FAA drone registration: Registration is an easy process. Visit the FAA’s site, create an account or log in, be prepared to pay $5 to register, and sign up your aircraft. You will need to be 13 year or older, payment is with a credit card and is good for 3 years. You do not have to register any drones that weigh less than 0.55 lbs, 250 grams, but that saves you only this step, all the other rules still apply.
Affix the registration number: This one is easy, we used to be able to tuck our registration number under the battery compartment, but for safety reasons, and ease of identification, that number now must be affixed to the outside of the craft. It can be anywhere on the craft, it simply must be easy to find upon inspection. You can use a marker, stickers, labels or whatever you’d like, as long as it does not rub off.
Modeling club: This is a grey area that we hope the FAA clarifies. According to your registration, you must follow the guidance of a local modeling club. The grey area is in how you prove that you are aware of and following those rules. To be completely safe, you may want to find the nearest AMA modeling club, become a member, sign up for insurance and follow their rules. Again, the FAA does not say you have to join a club, nor that you need to get insurance, but it’s worth looking into.
Ready to fly? Where to?
Navigating the National Airspace used to be straightforward for hobby pilots. Maybe not easy, but straightforward. If you were flying within 5 miles of an airport, you had to notify the airport of your flight plans. If you were outside of that 5 mile bubble, also free of any other protected spaces such as National Parks, the sky was yours to conquer. Today, the task of figuring out where to fly is easier, but way more complicated.
To plan your flight location, use our airspace mapping tool provided by Airmap, or open an app such as Airmap, the FAA’s B4UFly or KittyHawk on your mobile device. As you explore the map, you will see the airspace restrictions for any given place around the globe. Within the United States, you will see a grid overlay for all of the controlled airspace bubbles on the map. There will be a prominent number inside each grid, from 0 to 400. This is the available maximum altitude you may request authorization to fly at.
Backing up, if your map shows no controlled airspace, then you are most likely in Class G airspace, which you are mostly free to fly, at least as far as the FAA is concerned. There are still ground rules to follow, check your federal, state or local authority, or other land owner, for their rules. Note: Only the FAA can tell you where you cannot be in the sky, the ground rules will be trespassing charges for yourself, or disturbing the peace with the drone, but only the FAA (and the military) have a say on the sky.
We all hope to have Class G airspace for our operations, but the majority of us live in Class B, C or D airspace, which are different designations mostly based around airports. Open those apps we mentioned, click the buttons to request airspace authorization through a tool called LAANC, and take it from there. The automated tool usually gives you approval, or denial, in seconds, then you are good to fly.
Hobby drone rules
We will have to break this up into two parts. We’ll cover a couple basics here, but the majority of the FAA’s hobby rules will be in Part 7 of this series, coming out tomorrow. Let’s get started:
Fly below 400 feet
You must keep your drone below 400 feet AGL. AGL stands for Above Ground Level, but that is not strictly true for this rule. If you launch your drone from the roof of a building, you may fly up to 400 feet above the roof, as long as you are within 4oo feet of the building. This exception was made so that drones could inspect radio towers and wind mills that exceed 400 feet, so don’t push your luck. Keep in mind that manned aircraft, such as helicopters, respect the AGL designation regardless what’s on the ground — Many news, medical and police helicopters fly at 500 feet AGL, and it is your responsibility to get out of their way when they come flying in, so it is safest to stick below 400 AGL with your drone.
Keep your UAS within visual line of sight
One of the most difficult commercial drone waivers to get your hands on, grants the right to fly BVLOS. For everyone else, your drone must remain in line of sight to you at all times. An exception can be made with a single Visual Observer, a partner that keeps their eye on the drone and can communicate with you if anything is going wrong. The use of a VO was largely designed to allow for FPV flight. When you stick your head into a set of VR goggles, to get that fun, first-person-view of the craft, you are breaking the VLOS rule. The same could be considered true if you are staring down at a screen, which is a common mistake reported with many crashes.
There is a grey area here that some folks like to exploit, namely, what does “line of sight” mean? As I write this, I have a completely unobstructed view of the moon, does that mean I can fly to the moon? It’s in my line of sight! I lose sight of my craft at around 1800 feet, sometimes less if there are trees or buildings to obstruct my view. My opinion is that if I cannot see my craft, I am breaking the FAA’s VLOS rule. The rule, after all, was designed for safety, as it is still my job to ensure my craft does not collide with anything in the sky, especially another aircraft, how am I supposed to ensure this if I cant see my machine? I urge you to check out the rule, make your own interpretation, but no matter what, keep it safe.
To be continued…
Join us tomorrow for the final day of the FAA’s Drone safety awareness week. We’ll cover the final recreational rules and share a number of resources the FAA has put out to celebrate this week of safety.
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