If you are a recreational drone pilot, how and where you fly is about to change. Whether you’re a hobbyist, educator or anyone else flying without compensation, the FAA is preparing to release a new set of airspace authorization laws in the Summer of 2019, and it’s up to you to make sure you or your flyers continue to pilot legally.
To put it simply, the FAA sees drone pilots as one of two types: those flying with a Remote Pilot Certification, and those flying without one. Recreational pilots fall into the “those without” category. Both of these categories have their own sets of laws about how and where drone pilots can fly. As an educator, the FAA allows you to fly under either set of rules, which opens you and your drone program’s options as you prepare for the emerging drone laws.
The FAA Reauthorization Act
When drones first started making their way into more and more airspaces, the laws surrounding unmanned aerial vehicles were pretty lax. As these machines continued to evolve into more complex machines, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — the governing body of all US airspace — started creating laws to keep pilots accountable and bystanders safe. For the longest time, these laws were simple, relying on conscious pilots to keep themselves and everyone else out of harm's way.
However, there was an issue with these laws — they didn’t account for how quickly drones were going to grow in popularity and how extraordinarily drone technologies were going to grow. Now we have drones delivering coffee in Australia, pizzas in New Zealand and racing drones which can reach speeds of over 120 mph. With an exponentially expanding market, the drone gold-rush was quickly entering uncharted territory and recognizing this in October of 2018, Congress passed The FAA Reauthorization Act. To view our full write-up on the Act, click here.
Aimed at establishing new conditions for recreational drone use, the Act is full of extensive drone-related and non-drone related changes, which means that the way you fly recreational drones, whether it be as a hobby or for educational purposes (unless you are licensed under Part 107), is about to change. The Act included a lot of legislation which secured funding for the development of better drone and airspace management tools, delivery regulations and traffic management.
For recreational pilots, The FAA Reauthorization Act had some of the biggest impacts. It repealed Section 336, which once dictated the difference between recreational and commercial pilots. Now, recreational pilots are required to follow most of the registrational regulations and specific requirements of commercial drone pilots. The Act also mandated the creation of a Drone Knowledge Test. Similar to a drivers test, recreational pilots will need to pass this test and carry certification of their completion while flying. This test has yet to be released, but according to the FAA website, pilots should expect to see it in the Summer of 2019. Along with a new test, the FAA also repealed the previous law which mandated notifying an airport if you intended to fly your drone within 5 miles of the airstrip. Now the FAA is adapting a previous commercial drone airspace authorization system to include recreational UAV pilots, which means how and where you fly is likely to change.
Airspace Authorization: Know Where You Can Fly
With the repeal of the previous airport notification law, recreational pilots can only fly when in uncontrolled airspace (Class G). There are two exceptions to this new law:
- You’re flying at an FAA approved fixed site.
- You have LAANC Approval to fly in controlled space. For now, LAANC approval is limited to Part 107 licensed pilots.
The fixed sites are listed online and will be routinely updated by the FAA. These acceptable fixed sites are also shown as blue dots on Unmanned Aircraft Systems Facility Maps, which depict the maximum altitude above ground level at which a drone may be flown safely for each location in controlled airspace. (faa.maps.arcgis.com)
The FAA has yet to release the steps required to obtain recreational flight authorization. Their plan, as stated in the most recent press release (https://www.faa.gov/news/updates/?newsId=93769) is to update a previously existing system used by non-recreational flyers who operate under the FAA’s small drone rule (Part 107) called the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC). Until the system update has gone live, recreation flyers who want to operate in controlled airspace may only do so at fixed sites.
How to Prepare for the Airspace Authorization Changes
The airspace classification laws are not finalized, so as of now, recreational flyers may continue to fly below 400 feet in uncontrolled airspace without a specific certification or operating authority from the FAA. HOWEVER, recreational pilots are now required to obtain prior authorization from the FAA before flying in controlled airspace around airports. Recreational pilots must also comply with all airspace restrictions and prohibitions when flying in either controlled or uncontrolled spaces.
So, how do you prepare for the new changes?
You need to find out what airspace you’re flying in. To see what airspace your site falls under, visit http://knowbeforeyoufly.org/air-space-map/. Type your address into the search bar at the top of the map, then zoom in to view just the area where you’d be flying, then use the Rules & Compliance drop-down to select how you’re intending to fly. This will populate the restrictions surrounding your intended flight area.
Once you’ve found out what airspace you’re flying in, there are two paths you can take.
- If you’re in uncontrolled airspace, continue to fly as normal, adhering to all FAA regulations while you wait for the full laws and Knowledge Test to be released.
- If you’re flying in anything other than Class G, uncontrolled airspace, you need to stop flying immediately. Do not fly your drone until you are certain that you fall under one of these three categories.
- 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 that are developed in coordination with the FAA.
- 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 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.
- In Class G 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 and maintains proof of test passage to be made available to the Administrator or a designee of the Administrator or law enforcement upon request.
- The aircraft is registered and marked and proof of registration is made available to the Administrator or a designee of the Administrator or law enforcement upon request.
Educators also have the option to partner with a group or community member holding a Part 107 certification. This Remote Pilot Certification allows you or someone else to “supervise” pilots as an authority on drone laws, safety and skills.
What This Means For Instructors
The FAA is changing the drone landscape, and their new regulations are taking a lot of time to be released. In order to be a federally compliant drone instructor, it is on you to ensure you and your program are following all new and emerging drone laws. To stay up-to-date, we advice to continually check in on the FAA website (https://www.faa.gov/) or to subscribe to a drone-focused news service. At PCS Edventures, we will try our best to continually provide you with updates, guidelines and advice on the changing drone landscape, but to account for the lag-time between the FAA releases and our updates, it’s up to you to stay informed.
To make sure you’re following all current and soon-to-be-released laws, here are the current laws and the ones you need to start preparing for:
Current Recreational Flight Laws:
- Register your Drone
- Fly for Recreational (non-commercial) purposes
- Follow the safety guidelines of a community-based organization — we recommend the guidelines provided by the AMA.
- Fly within visual line-of-sight; for FPV piloting, this means following the AMA guidelines for visual observers.
- Only fly drones under 55 lb.
- Don’t interfere with and give way to manned aircraft.
- Never fly near emergency response efforts.
- Never fly over groups of people, public events or near emergencies.
- Drone Knowledge Test
- Airspace Authorization
While you wait for the full legislative release, here are your options and the steps you should take before heading out to fly:
Find out what airspace you’re in. If you’re in Class G, you’re okay to continue flying. If you’re not, you have 3 options.
- Wait and see what the drone laws look like once they’re released.
- Find an uncontrolled airspace to fly in, or follow all 8 of the Section 349 conditions in an FAA approved fixed site.
- Become a certified Part 107 Drone Pilot or find a community partner who already has a license.