A Guide to Legal Small Drone Flight
Two weeks ago I attended a UAS community round table meeting in which people interested in flying drones asked about legality under FAA regulations. The federal regulatory framework changed with the introduction of the Part 107 rule on August 29, 2016. People wanted to know what they had to do to fly their drones out in the open under federal regulation. This blog entry is to provide that guidance.
Currently most of the regulatory change and granting of permission is for drones less than 55 lbs., so that’s the focus of this column, rather than the much bigger and higher altitude drones. A drone under 55 lbs. can be carried and launched by a single person; can carry a camera and sensor payload useful for photography, surveillance, mapping and search missions; but is not so large that crashing into a building will cause catastrophic damage. A 55 lb. drone is capable of package delivery, since most packages are under 5 lbs. Most of these “small” UASs are quadcopters, and a colleague on the FAA UAS advisory committee says that these small quadcopters can kill or maim a person, so caution is advised.
Hobby flight – Section 336
Starting from hobby flight and the minimum needed to fly legally, it is ok to fly a small drone (between 55 grams – 55 lbs) in an open area, as long as you are observing community standards, not flying above people, not endangering manned aircraft and not within 5 miles of an airport. The pilot must maintain visual sight of the aircraft and have registered the aircraft at registermyuas.faa.gov. This website merely asks for your name, address, contact information, and $5. You can then download your new UAS pilot registry, and tape a copy to your drone’s battery compartment.
A drone weighing less than 55 grams does not require any registration to fly. 55 grams is about 1.9 ounces. A letter meeting first class mailing restrictions is 1.5 ounces or less. A 55 gram drone does not weigh more than 6 sheets of standard paper.
To get specific, FAA has maintained that any toy RC falls within its purview to regulate, but the FAA is limited by Congress. Congress has mandated that the FAA may not “promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft, or an aircraft being developed as a model aircraft” if the aircraft is being operated pursuant to the five criteria in P.L. 112-95, section 336(a). FAA cannot constrain hobbyists meeting the 5 criteria:
– flying as a hobby, for fun, not for business
– observing community mores and safety guidelines
– under 55 lbs
– not interfering with manned aircraft and giving way to manned aircraft
– if flying within 5 miles of an airport, the UAS operator must give prior notice to both the airport operator and airport air traffic control.
There are some extensions to this, for example, that allow larger aircraft; see https://www.faa.gov/uas/media/model_aircraft_spec_rule.pdf. It should be noted that Section 336 does not say the operator has to receive approval from the airport to operate within 5 miles of an airport, but the FAA has interpreted it that way. Section 336 also does not specify altitude, but the FAA specifies within 500 feet of ground, as long as operating over water or sparsely populated areas. The FAA requires that UAS pilots be 16 or that a minor operating a drone be with someone who is 16 and registered (registermyuas) to fly.
Bottom line, if you register as a UAS pilot on registermyuas and go fly your drone in a park, maintaining sight on your drone, 5 miles or more from an airport, as long as you are not above or endangering people, you are legal under Section 336. I will add however that I’ve seen people doing this in a community park under high power lines, and if your drone hits a power line, you may be arrested, just the same as if you took a chainsaw to the power stanchion. If you use your drone to dive into traffic, that is no different than running into traffic. Anything that is dangerous without a drone is dangerous with a drone.
Flying for Hire
Suppose you want to use a drone for a business reason. You might want to take some pictures of a friend’s boat, explicitly for money (taking pictures as a hobby is covered under Section 336, above.) You might want to survey your building’s roof, including some places that are not easily accessible, and you decide to use a drone to video the roof.
The newest addition to the set of legal ways to use a drone involved publication of Part 107. Previously, to use a drone for hire required a licensed pilot, use of a registered and certificated aircraft and operational approval, under the Section 333 exemption. Section 333 allowed a person or organization to petition the FAA for an operating certificate of authority (COA) for a specific aircraft, for a specific use, using a named pilot. Using Section 333 was a learning experience – it started slowly at first, with single use COAs, and accelerated over time. There are over 5000 Section 333 exemptions now, and later exemptions included multiple-use exemptions, such as allowing police departments to routinely use a drone for surveillance, and allowing insurance companies to rent a variety of drones from a consulting pilot company for disaster surveillance. Section 333 grew from single exceptions to classes of COAs, including some where line of sight was established using chase aircraft, instead of stationary pilots on the ground. The disadvantage of using Section 333 was the applicant had to plan the use in advance, line up a licensed pilot, a certificated aircraft, and a specific use, and wait for the approval. The only pilots were aircraft pilots. Section 107 has changed that.
Section 107 allows any adult to become a licensed drone pilot. This is more rigorous than the hobbyist UAS certification; the applicant must take and pass an aeronautical knowledge test (“Airman Certification for Unmanned Aircraft Systems”) at a commercial testing center. The applicant registers online with the FAA Airman Certificate and/or Rating Application (known as IACRA) to receive a remote pilot certificate and electronically submit the application to the FAA’s Airman Registry. The FAA sends the application to the TSA for a security background check. Current licensed (manned aircraft) pilots need only pass the knowledge test, which they can take online. Once licensure is obtained, the pilot can fly a drone for hire under circumstances similar to the hobbyist:
- Under 55 lbs
- Within visual line of sight and during daylight, through twilight if the drone has lights. Pilot cannot be following in a car or aircraft.
- Allows overflight of people IF the people on the ground are participants, such as filming a movie production, or photographing a house
- Must obtain permission within 5 miles of an airport
- Maximum drone speed of 100 mph
- Maximum height of 400 feet above ground
However, unlike the hobbyist, a certificated pilot can obtain permission to fly inside controlled airspace, using an electronic portal (https://www.faa.gov/uas/request_waiver/). See (https://www.faa.gov/uas/media/Part_107_Summary.pdf). The licensed drone pilot can also set up business by drone.
It does not seem far-fetched that Part 107 will be the basis from which the FAA creates non visual line-of-sight flight permissions in the future. The large changes there will likely be in aircraft certification; in ensuring the drone has needed equipment to enable BLOS operation, and the appropriate fail-safes covering failure BLOS.
At the end of this column are some potential uses of drones divided into likely use under Section 333 or Part 107. Some have some explanatory notes about pursuing those uses under Part 107 or Section 333, to help extend the explanation a bit further, and most of the categories below are based on already-granted COAs.
Two final notes are important to both the hobbyist and the beginning flyer. If you don’t know how far you are from an airport, use the FAA’s app, B4UFly. GIS-enabled, this app tells you whether you are in a no-fly zone. And the final note is that there are Drone No-Fly Zones, including military bases, stadiums (sporting events) and the 15 nmi circle around Washington Reagan airport in Washington DC. Hobbyists and professionals alike within 15 nmi of Washington Reagan airport are prohibited from drone flight and those who have flown drones around the DC national monuments can be and have been arrested. Outside those no-fly zones, though, you can start your engines.
Part 107 Uses
Aerial photography of special events such as parades, festivals, weddings, etc. (obtain signed permission from participants)
Roof condition inspection
Large ship/aircraft inspection
Real estate / housing photography
Sport / extreme sport photography
Wedding / special event photography
Personal security attendant
Section 333 Uses
Agricultural scanning for disease, watering (BLOS over uninhabited ground)
Agricultural point-spraying for infestation
Agricultural spraying of small fields instead of airplanes
Mine land surveying and mapping
Water pollution, reflectivity, composition sampling
Wild or endangered animal census
Animal research (migration patterns, nest locations)
Search and rescue, missing persons
Missing persons vehicle identification (silver alerts)
Police fugitive search
Electric line monitoring
Hazard monitoring (flood, landslide, explosion, radioactivity)
Disaster relief surveillance, mapping, situational awareness