Published in May 2016 issue

The genie is out of the bottle. More tan 325,000 people have registered drones with the FAA as of February 2016, exceeding the number of registered piloted aircraft. Can all of these unmanned machines fly safely in our national airspace system? If William Shatner looked out the cabin window of his Twilight Zone airliner today, would he see a drone peering back at him instead of a gremlin?

By Mark L. Berry

What exactly is a drone? That term is the more common and sexier vernacular for what the FAA clearly defines as an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS). Basically, if something is flying, and nobody is onboard, then it’s a UAS. This includes remotely controlled helicopters, aircraft, and the spiderlike, multi-rotor, composite spy-demons that your runaway imagination conjured when you first read the word ‘drone’. The FAA also uses the term ‘capable of sustained flight’ in its UAS definition, so soccer balls and badminton birdies are not included.

WHAT DO WE HAVE TO FEAR?

The primary drone concern is that UAS traffic will cause harm to manned aircraft similar to a bird strike, like the two engine-ingested geese that brought down Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s US Airways Airbus flight 1549 on January 15, 2009 (Airways, June 2009).

Drones are capable of sharing our nation’s airspace with private and commercial modes of airborne transportation. It’s the FAA’s directive to keep them separated from manned flights, and also to prevent them from causing harm to people or property on the ground—primarily through the impact of falling or failed UAS aircraft, or laceration damage caused by their multiple spinning rotors.

These concerns are currently being weighed against the potential that commercial UAS development can bring to our society, as well as the pure enjoyment of operating one of these increasingly popular products for recreation.

WHY ARE DRONES SUDDENLY SO POPULAR?

I’ll tackle their recreational uses first. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are easier to operate than traditional remote-controlled aircraft. It’s hard enough to learn how to fly, but aviating from outside the cockpit adds the additional challenge of perspective. When a model airplane or helicopter is flying away from you, a left turn signal turns it left—relative to the nose of the model. Right is right. But whathappens after it turns around and starts flying toward you? Left becomes right, and vice-versa. This conundrum becomes a doublereversal when the aircraft is flying upside down. Consequently, it’s extremely difficult to fly a traditional model aircraft.

Modern drone design takes all that thinking out of the equation. It knows its orientation to the hand-held controller, so regardless of its in-flight position the stick on the controller makes it go left, right, forward, backward, up, or down relative to the person at the controls. This makes manually controlling a drone accesible to mere mortals. And this is just the beginning. Higher-end UAS aircraft have GPS tracking, waypoint programming, autolanding features, altitude limiters, terrain and collision avoidance packages, geofencing parameters, and a whole host of modern features that make flying them both easier and safer.

One of the real draws of recreational UAS flying is the adrenaline rush of FPV, or First-Person View. This is where the operator wears special goggles or peers into a screen and flies the UAS from the perspective of looking out of the cockpit through an onboard linked camera. There are abundant YouTube videos depicting FPV racing, and even drone dogfighting with mounted Nerf pellet guns.

Current FAA rules do not allow FPV flights outdoors in the nation’s airspace because of the requirement to maintain a line of sight with your respective UAS, but that is something that might be addressed in future rulings. In the meantime…

WHAT ARE THE RULES?

Do you need a license to fly a drone in your own backyard? Can the FAA fine you for flying your homemade, or storebought, drone? How big can your UAS be? Can you fly it beyond your line of sight? Can you take pictures from your drone, and can you subsequently sell these photos?

The answers have been somewhat muddy. In a response to Congress, The FAA published The Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. It’s 296 pages long, but Subtitle B defines Unmanned Aircraft Systems as a category of aircraft, and requires operators to obtain UAS certification letters before flying them commercially.

But what if you want to fly now, for fun, without a special permit? What can you legally do?

Section 332 sets the currently existing rules for ‘Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems into (the) National Airspace System’, and there is an exception for small UAS flights spelled out in Section 336 that lists ‘Special Rule(s) for Model Aircraft’.

To recreationally fly your own drone outdoors anywhere within the US Airspace system, you need to comply with these rules, which are posted on the FAA’s website:

  • 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 five 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 55lb
  • Don’t be careless or reckless with your unmanned aircraft— you could be fined for endangering people or other aircraft.

Three organizations—the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), and the Small UAS Coalition—have produced a Know Before You Fly campaign, in cooperation with the FAA, to help new UAS owners and operators become aware of these rules. If you are into videos, ventriloquist (and helicopter Pilot) Jeff Dunham and his puppet Bubba J spell these rules out quite comically at: knowbeforeyoufly.org

Basically, if you want to fly a small drone, these special rules are your current guideline. Think of them as exceptions from manned aircraft licensing requirements, like the way a driver can operate a scooter with a motor of less than a 49cc without a motorcycle endorsement on his or her license.

DO I NEED TO REGISTER MY DRONE?

The FAA announced a significant additional requirement on December 14, 2015: registration of UAS aircraft. The FAA guidelines are as follows:

All UAS from 250g (approximately 9oz or just over half a pound) to 25kg (55lb) are subject to registration beginning on December 21st, 2015. It is the obligation of the purchaser to register as a UAS operator before flying a UAS. Minimum age to register is 13, and younger minors are only allowed to fly UAS aircraft under the supervision of an adult with a UAS registration. Only the participant’s name and mailing address are required information for the registry. However, all UAS aircraft must be listed by either serial number or registration number, and that information must be marked on the UAS and be either visible or accessible without using tools. There isn’t a US citizenship requirement to register as a UAS operator. Initial registration cost is $5.

Nearly 300,000 owners registered their UAS in the first 30 days after the FAA’s online registration system went live.

Opponents of the recreational-use registration process claim that the FAA is regulating toys, and asked for a minimum weight for registration to reflect the size of a large waterfowl—the prominent hazard in our airspace that can disable an aircraft. But the FAA instead based its mínimum weight requirement on its other primary objective: preventing harm to people or property on the ground. The logic detailed in the full rulemaking report uses numerous projectile motion formulas to determine the minimum weight that could cause a potentially freefalling UAS to kill a person if it struck his or her head at terminal velocity. This is where the 250g (just over half a pound) was derived from. At the upper end, UAS aircraft heavier than 25kg (55lb) are also not eligible for recreational use, and potential operators must apply for a comercial operating exception.

WHAT ABOUT COMMERCIAL DEVELOPMENT?

The commercial potential of UAS aircraft is where our world will really change rapidly. Unmanned aerial vehicles can go where it would be unsafe or impossible to operate a manned flight. Need to look down a crevice to search for a lost hiker or climber? Send in a drone. Need to check for lethal hot spots inside a burning building ahead of the firemen? Put up a drone.

You don’t even need to be in an emergency situation before UAS technology becomes valuable. Drones already Excel at three-dimensional mapping. Allow me to use a farming example to show how UAS flights are a benefit for the environment.

Except for strictly organic farming, agricultural aircraft often dust crops with pesticides and herbicides. These lowflying, manned aircraft saturate their selected fields so that the chemicals cover the entire area of intended growth. Now imagine a drone with special sensors that can fly over each field and map out exactly where the weeds are, what sections show signs of pest damage, and even find zones that are not receiving their full watering schedule. Next, an automated tractor—connected to the same software as the drone—would drive itself around the field and spray pesticide only where the drone tells it to, herbicide only where it is needed, and additional water only where told to do so. This eco-friendly system could reduce toxins and save resources, but current rules do not yet permit this fully automated UAS operation.

UAS aircraft would be equally useful for pipeline patrols, accident investigation, traffic updates, fugitive tracking, and filmmaking—and this list just scratches the surface.

The FAA has granted approximately 1,200 commercial-use UAS exceptions through 2015, but, similar to the recreational rules, their flight parameters were strictly defined and limited in scope. Drones still aren’t allowed to deliver packages to our front door. Commercial drone operators must possess at least a recreational pilot’s license (with a minimum of 20 hours of actual aircraft flying). The approximate cost of a commercial UAS authorization letter is US$5,000.

One of the major concerns holding up UAS development is the uncertainty of how and when the FAA will expand UAS use into US Airspace. Will the FAA eventually allow technology like electronic geofencing, automated altitude capping, object avoidance, and GPS flight planning to open up special drone corridors, or even share airspace above 400 feet with manned flights? Investors tend to be conservative with their capital when they fear regulation will prevent them from putting their efforts to work.

One thing is clear: with the drone genie out of the bottle, it is time to use our wishes wisely. We are entering the frontier zone of an age of aviation in which the UAS will become king.