Drones: Staying In Compliance!

     The advancement in global positioning systems (GPS), coupled with micro-electronics, has given the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) more than a few headaches when it comes to ensuring the public’s safety from drones, or in FAA parlance, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS).  On April 18, 2016, CNN reported a suspected drone strike against a passenger jet in London, England.[1]  Luckily, no one was injured and the plane was able to land without damage.  The strike, whether unintentional or intentional, raises a lot of concerns.  This article will address the regulatory framework for the operation of UAS in the United States.

     In a nutshell, the FAA allows the operation of small UAS which weigh less than 55 pounds under certain conditions.  The UAS must be registered if it weighs more than .55 pounds.[2]  For non-commercial use, the UAS must be operated under restricted conditions (as explained below).  If the UAS is being operated for commercial purposes, the operator must:  (1) receive what is known as a Section 333 Grant and will be given a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) to operate the UAS under specified conditions; (2) be a licensed pilot; and (3) conduct the flight in accordance with the COA and all applicable Federal Aviation Regulations.[3]  The FAA is in the process of preparing final Small UAS Regulations.  Large UAS, i.e. those weighing over 55 pounds, are still not permitted (except for the military and certain government entities).

     Let us face it, the U.S. federal airspace system is complex, even for pilots to comprehend.  It is categorized by letter designation (i.e. Class A, B, C, D, E, and G, (there is no “F”)) into a series of different types of airspace, depending on both altitude and traffic volume.[4]  For example, as shown in Figure 1, Class A covers altitudes above 18,000 feet, where traffic must operate on an instrument flight plan.  Pilots often think of airspace as being shaped like “inverted wedding cakes.” 

               Figure 1, FAA Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, FAA Publication Number FAA-H-8083-25A5 [5]

     To fully comprehend the boundaries of that airspace, familiarity with at least the applicable Sectional Chart [6] (which pilots use) is necessary.  It can be very confusing, even to student pilots.  For example, Class B covers airspace associated with the busiest airports, such as in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and San Francisco.  The precise delineation of Class B airspace, outlined by blue, is specific to the airport region.  Class C airspace is applicable to most airports that service commercial traffic.  Class D is applicable to airports which, though smaller, have an operating control tower to sequence aircraft and insure separation.  The bulk of the airports in the United States are found in Class E airspace (applicable from altitudes of 700’ or 1200’ and above depending on location) and Class G airspace, uncontrolled airspace.[7]

     As shown in Figure 2, an excerpt from the FAA New York Sectional Chart, the Class B airspace surrounding Boston is surrounded by a series of “rings” defining the delineation of the airspace.  In the outer ring to the East, the Class B airspace extends from 3000’ to 7000’.  An intermediate ring extends from 2000’ to 7000’, and an inner ring extends from the surface to 7000’.  The airspace below the Class B airspace is regulated!  It may be Class D airspace, such as for the Beverly Airport and Hanscom Field Airport depicted with a blue dashed line, Class E airspace (here 700’ and up to the base of the Class B airspace, or class G airspace, from the surface to 700’) depending on the location.

                                                        Figure 2, New York Sectional Chart Excerpt

     The FAA regulates all airspace from the surface.  A common myth is that it does not, so much so, the FAA maintains a link on its site, www.faa.gov., entitled, Busting Myths about the FAA and Unmanned Aircraft.[8]  In an effort to bring some sanity to the use of UAS, the FAA has decided to distinguish between small, personal or model craft used for recreational use and the commercial use of UAS.  Operators, whether recreational or commercial, need to be cognizant of the location of airports and the airspace they are operating in.

     Let us take a peek in more detail at the regulations as they now exist.  First, an owner of a UAS must register their UAS online with the FAA if it weighs more than .55 lbs. (.55 pounds = 8.8 ounces) and less than 55 lbs.  An example of a UAS exempted from registration, according to the FAA, is the Extreme Flyers MicroDrone 2.0, as shown below in Figure 3.[9]  Note that its weight of 1.2 ounces is less than 8.8 ounces.

                                                                                      Figure 3 [10]

     As example of a UAS requiring registration, according to the FAA, is the Parrot Bebop (weighing in at 14.6 ounces) as shown in Figure 4.

                                                                                      Figure 4 [11]

     In addition to registration, the owners of the UAS must follow certain operating rules applicable to recreational use and hobbyists:

  • Fly below 400 feet and remain clear of surrounding obstacles;

  • Keep the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times;

  • Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations;

  • Don't fly within 5 miles of an airport unless you contact the airport and control tower before flying;

  • Don't fly near people or stadiums;

  • Don't fly an aircraft that weighs more than 55 lbs; and

  • Don't be careless or reckless with your unmanned aircraft – you could be fined for endangering people or other aircraft.[12]

     Also, the FAA recommends that these so called “model” aircraft be operated with good operating practices and provides useful links such as to the Know Before You Fly Campaign sponsored by the Association of Unmanned Vehicles Systems International (AUVSI).[13]

     Unless you are flying only for hobby or recreational purposes, you will need FAA authorization via what is known as a Section 333 Grant of Exemption to fly your small UAS (i.e. less than 55 lbs.) for your business.  This applies even if you are only flying to supplement or aid your business and not charging fees for doing so.  The Small UAS Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM)[14] was published in February 2015, and the public comment period closed in April 2015.  The FAA must analyze all comments received before issuing the final small UAS rules.  Until a final rule is issued, no part of this rule is in effect and current regulations continue to apply, meaning that commercial operators must petition for and receive a Section 333 Grant of Exemption.  Thus, even if flying a UAS weighing less than 55 lbs., a Section 333 Grant of Exemption is required.

     What is a Section 333 Grant?  Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA) grants the Secretary of Transportation the authority to determine whether an airworthiness certificate is required for a UAS to operate safely in the National Airspace System (NAS).[15]  This authority is being leveraged to grant case-by-case authorization for certain unmanned aircraft to perform commercial operations prior to the finalization of the Small UAS Rule, which will be the primary method for authorizing small UAS operations once it is complete.  Guidelines for submitting a petition for exemption are available at http://aes.faa.gov/Petition/home.html.  The entity that receives a Section 333 Grant is given a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) to operate under certain conditions.  When the Section 333 Exemption is granted, a “Blanket COA” is automatically issued to the proponent; this COA allows small UAS (less than 55 pounds) operations during daytime Visual Flight Rule (VFR) conditions at specific altitudes and outside of certain distances from airports and heliports.[16]

     The Blanket COA allows the proponent to operate:

(i)   5 nautical miles away from an airport with an operating control tower;

(ii)   3 nautical miles from an uncontrolled airport with an instrument approach procedure;

(iii)  2 nautical miles from all other airports, heliports and seaports; and

(iv)  at or below 200 feet AGL.[17]

     By law, the FAA cannot authorize an aircraft operation in the National Airspace (NSP) without a certificated pilot in command of the aircraft (Title 49 of United States Code § 44711).  Thus, exemptions granted in accordance with Section 333 carry the following requirement regarding the pilot in command (PIC) of the aircraft:

     Under this grant of exemption, a PIC must hold either an airline transport, commercial, private, recreational, or sport pilot certificate. The PIC must also hold a current FAA airman medical certificate or a valid U.S. driver's license issued by a state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, a territory, a possession, or the Federal government. The PIC must also meet the flight review requirements specified in 14 CFR § 61.56 in an aircraft in which the PIC is rated on his or her pilot certificate.

     The COA may be amended.  See for example - http://www.faa.gov/uas/legislative_programs/section_333/333_authorizations/media/g5-drones-12296.pdf.  The operating rules for commercial applications are complex, and it is recommended that an experienced commercial rated pilot familiar with the FAA Code of Federal Regulations applicable to aircraft operations and pilot qualifications be consulted.  It is also likely that the COA will contain additional restrictions, such as speed restrictions, line of sight, the presence of ground monitors, etc.

     Once approved, the UAS can be a valuable tool to use in business.  However, there are a series of other potential laws that must be considered for both recreational use and commercial use.  For example, state privacy laws may prohibit certain flights over private land.  Flights over sporting events, nuclear power facilities, correctional institutes, and law enforcement facilities are also restricted. 

     Like it or not, UAS are here to stay.  Pilots need to be extra vigilant, as many UAS hobbyists will be unfamiliar with their surrounding airspace.  

     So fly safe!

     William J. Cass, Esq., CFI, AGI

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2016/04/17/europe/london-heathrow-drone-strikes-plane/ [last accessed 4/30/16].

[2] https://www.faa.gov/uas/registration/ [last accessed 4/30/16].

[3] http://www.faa.gov/documentLibrary/media/Notice/Notice_UAS_7210.891.pdf [last accessed 4/30/16].

[4] FAA Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, FAA Publication Number FAA-H-8083-25A.

[5] Id.

[6] https://www.faa.gov/air_traffic/flight_info/aeronav/digital_products/vfr/[last accessed 4/30/16].

[7] FAA Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, FAA Publication Number FAA-H-8083-25A.

[8] http://www.faa.gov/news/updates/?newsid=76381[last accessed 4/30/16].

[9] https://www.faa.gov/uas/registration/faqs/media/UAS_Weights_Registration.pdf[last accessed 4/30/16].

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] https://www.faa.gov/uas/model_aircraft/ [last accessed 4/30/16].

[13] http://knowbeforeyoufly.org/ [last accessed 4/30/16].

[14] https://www.faa.gov/uas/nprm/ [last accessed 4/30/16].

[15] http://www.faa.gov/documentLibrary/media/Notice/Notice_UAS_7210.891.pdf [last accessed 4/30/16]; see also Section 333, specifically, at https://www.faa.gov/uas/media/Sec_331_336_UAS.pdf.[last accessed 4/30/16].

[16] http://www.faa.gov/documentLibrary/media/Notice/Notice_UAS_7210.891.pdf[last accessed 4/30/16].

[17] Id.