Recreational Drone Pilots: The hobby is about to get more complicated


If you are a recreational drone pilot, your  hobby is about to get a bit more complicated. You may have heard about new legislation that was passed last October, the FAA reauthorization Act of 2018. One section has received little attention but is likely to have a significant impact on recreational drone pilots.

What the law says

‘‘§44809. Exception for limited recreational operations of unmanned aircraft… a person may operate a small unmanned aircraft without specific certification or operating authority from the Federal Aviation Administration if the operation adheres to all of the following limitations:

‘‘(5) In Class B, Class C, or Class D airspace or within the lateral boundaries of the surface area of Class E airspace designated for an airport, the operator obtains prior authorization from the Administrator or designee before operating and complies with all airspace restrictions and prohibitions.”

Few have taken notice of the new law, mainly because the FAA issued a statement advising hobbyists to continue business as usual until the FAA has time to figure out how to implement the new rules. 

What does this mean for recreational drone pilots?

Under the new law, you will be required to get permission before flying in controlled airspace.  This differs from previous rules which required a phone call when flying within 5 miles of an airport.  The new rules have nothing to do with the 5 mile ring.  Instead, hobbyists are going to have to follow rules very similar to those of commercial drone pilots.  Under the new rules hobbyists will have to:

  • Understand the principles of controlled airspace
  • Determine if their proposed flight is in controlled airspace and if so know who to contact
  • Know how to make a notification and obtain approval

What is controlled airspace?

The term controlled airspace usually refers to areas in and around airports where aircraft are taking off and landing. Air traffic controllers monitor the traffic inside of controlled airspace in order to deconflict and mitigate air traffic, to basically prevent collisions.  Controlled airspace is not limited to areas around airports, it can include military training areas or prohibited areas like the Mall in Washington DC. Pilots use a navigational aid called a sectional flight chart, commonly referred to as “sectionals”. You can view these online at Skyvector.com .

Sectionals contain an enormous amount of information including areas of controlled airspace. If you know how to read the chart you can determine if your proposed flight is in controlled airspace.

Controlled airspace around airports is most often depicted by circles or concentric circles surrounding the airport. This is where it gets tricky for newcomers.  Sectional flight charts are two dimensional but we are talking about three dimensional space. It’s helpful to think about controlled airspace as an upside-down wedding cake with layers increasing in size further from the ground.

Now picture yourself up in the sky, looking straight down on the wedding cake. Now the layers look like concentric rings.  Airspace has a floor and a ceiling. The area inside the rings is the area of controlled airspace. The size of controlled airspace depends on how busy the airport is.  Larger airports like O’Hare in Chicago may span 20 miles or more. Smaller airports like Appleton cover a radius of approximately four miles. Class G airspace is uncontrolled and no authorization will be required to fly there.

Once you understand what controlled airspace is, how do you know if you’re in it?  

Will the average recreational drone pilot understand how to read a sectional flight chart? Probably not. Is there an easier way? Yes, there’s an app for that. Services like Skyward.io and Kittyhawk.io offer a web-based and app-based solutions for drone pilots. They are contracted services providers approved by the FAA.

These apps use the GPS in your phone to determine your proximity to controlled airspace. Once you set up an account you can log in with your credentials and plan your flight. If you are in controlled airspace you will be prompted to submit a request. Once the system for recreational pilots goes live, you should receive instant notification if your flight is approved.

Both of these services include tutorials on their website. Commercial drone pilots have been using them for a while now. The system is called LAANC and you can read more about it in my blog LAANC goes live. Regardless of the method you use, as the drone pilot you are solely responsible to make sure your flight is lawful.

Other requirements

I’ve mainly spoken about the requirement for flying in controlled airspace but there are other changes coming too. Recreational pilots will need to pass a knowledge exam. I don’t expect this test will be very difficult but the new law places the responsibility on the drone operator to show proof they have completed the exam. Drone manufacturer DJI has already implemented a 9 question test into their app. No one is sure what the exam will look like yet. I suspect it would done online and the drone pilot could download some sort of certificate.

By the 2020 drones will be required to broadcast their location which means they will need to be equipped with some kind of beacon. Research on what is called the Unmanned Aircraft Traffic Management System or UTM is being conducted by NASA. UTM technology will facilitate things like drone delivery.

Conclusion

Provisions of the new law are expected to go into effect this April. For now continue following the existing rules.

We don’t want to see over regulation but to be honest, I could see this coming. The capabilities of drones have improved. They are capable of traveling great distances and reaching places never before possible. New technology is often followed by new legislation.

For the last couple of years there have been some bizarre inconsistencies in the rules that are getting corrected. For example, a licensed and insured drone operator had severe restrictions flying in controlled airspace while hobbyists had easy access. It made no sense. An air traffic management system for drones is a logical progression, especially since drone delivery is going to be a real thing.

Please consider attending one of my training programs. My goal is to take complex subjects and present them in a way that makes sense. If you have any questions or comments about this article please send me a message by filling out the form below. If you would like to receive email updates, sign up at the bottom of the page.

Thanks and happy flying!

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About Bill Bongle

Bill Bongle is a retired police captain with over 30 years experience in public safety. He owns and operates the only drone repair center in the State of Wisconsin and is the founder of the Green Bay Area Drone User Group.