Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Drones, Drones, Drones 1 millon times more!

Photo by "Silkysheetsmagoo"

You more than likely have seen something about drones in the media.  Many of the focuses are hitting the negative side of drone developments and skip over or lightly touch on the facts of drone usage for the public. However, some media outlets like drama and for some drone pilots, whelp…common sense seems to be on a 90 day back order, giving media plenty of ammo to use.

I am here to share and focus more about what the current conditions are for flying your drones in the US, especially for the hobbyist. I’ll write a little about commercial usage as well, at least some steps to get your commercial clearance but I am under the impression that process will change in mid-2016 according to my discussions with the FAA.

I use facts not partial details. True facts from the horse’s mouth and I won’t write something for you to connect the dots or leave a bread crumb trail to get you coming back for more.  Just straight up facts without the fluff. Maybe a few jokes though but I believe we can all appreciate the read.

So why is it important for me to write?  It’s simple, I’m not only as drone hobbyist but I also own the company Guerrilla Entertainment and we host drone racing events in Minnesota.  Anything and everything drone related has an effect on my business and hobby.  So yeah, drone developments are pretty darn important to me.

Let’s chat about the word “drone.”  Drone, as a noun, is a remote controlled pilotless aircraft.  Okay cool, however it’s an umbrella word for everything that is pilotless.  From what the military uses to model airplanes, model helicopters, and even some weather balloons or paper airplanes can be and, in many ways, are considered as a drone by the FFA. Anyway, you get the idea. 

What the media and public knowledge of drones have been focusing on is the exponential growth of quad copter and multirotor copters.  These drones are easy to use and are inexpensive. They come ready to fly or as a kit to build. They are available online or on the shelves at the local stores. There are many different sizes, known as “classes” and styles can come with or without video/camera options. The choices of drones is extensive depending on what you’re looking for.

Here are some facts for drone usages from the FAA, USDOT and AUVSI. Don’t forget your state and local regulation also piggy back on national regulations and they may have made their additions to the rules too. 

The Federal Aviation Authority, FAA, has had numerous publications dating back to 2012, with a few publications during some years prior, for drone regulations. The FAA labels “drones” as sUMA (small unmanned aircraft), UMA (unmanned aircraft), UMS (unmanned aircraft systems) etc. Confusing right? An additional reason why drone is an umbrella word.

The FAA has missed several deadlines toward the developments of these regulations. Congress had to get after them and these rules are still in draft form, which are now under public review and can change.  A full working regulatory ruling is set for Q4 of 2016, however, the FAA, will likely miss this deadline as well.

The best practice for new drone pilots is to start with the site know before you fly . This FAA collaboration program will give you some basic understandings about what is expected from drone pilots with videos and reads. 

For the drone hobbyist and its recreational use, the current rules are simple, but there are more rules that are not listed unless you visit several online FAA resources.  For now here are the basics:

  • 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
  • Don't be careless or reckless with your unmanned aircraft – you could be fined for endangering people or other aircraft
  •  No peeping Tom foolery...Okay I added that but there are “peeping Tom” laws and besides just don’t do it.

You can read more from the FAA website or click here for the PDF version.  This will also include the commercial usages as well as extras about FPV (First Person Point of View) cameras. Oh! Also the PDF will state the max height is 500 feet.  NO IT IS NOT!  400 is your max.

Now let’s look at some additions to the FAA rules not covered as well for the hobbyist. 

Yep, the complete US air space.  Not only is there a 400’ ceiling but for all drone pilots, we have to deal with the circumference of the air space we are flying in.  But wait! The FAA says I can fly at that max ceiling as well as around an airport as long as I contact the tower.  Yes, this is true but you also need to define your location to the tower and make sure you hold your defined airspace or face large penalties and risk collision with other piloted aircraft's as well.

More than likely you, as a hobbyist, won’t get any tower clearance unless you have a standard pilot’s license and talk the lingo, etc.  To be honest, the 5 mile, call the tower at the airport should just be removed and made into “don’t fly around any airports” but that might just be me.

For the hobbyist, our area of clearance is the G air space. However even in your own backyard the FAA and local authorities can contact you if they choose to. The likelihood though is low but they could because of these undefined rules especially if you’re doing some kind of knuckleheaded things.

If what I’m writing hasn’t shown you why there so much confusion about drones there’s more.  Like those late night, as seen on TV days, you get a few extras, mostly unknowns, with your drone purchase and its usage. 

The U.S. Department of Transportation, USDOT, has now thrown their hat into the ring to have your drone registered.  They are rushing through the specks and definitions with a special task force and will have something in a draft form by mid-December.  Public comment is open till November 6, 2015.  Here is the link to add your 2 cents if you would like.

However, I feel such a rush will continue to murk up the overall drone industry. At this time, there’s a lot more questions than answers with the front office. 

Without me going into a rant, I liked this article by Motherboard. It sums up the best way on what USDOT and the task force are trying to accomplish. It highlights what the majority of drone pilots are thinking.

There are some bright spots for the drone hobbyist and commercial usages though. For both, the FAA has rolled out a beta app, currently going to be issued on the iOS and one for android users on the way. When using the app, your smart phones GPS will show you if you’re in a restricted area and what’s flying overhead. The app is called B4UFly.  At the least, you can feel a little more comfortable knowing something before you fly. How well will this work?  Your guess is as good as mine but again it’s a good step in the right direction.

For commercial drone usage.  Well the same murkiness of the rules we talked about applies but now you want to use your drone to get paid. 

Okay, cool. To do so you will need to submit a 333 exemption form to the FAA for review.  After that and if you receive your exemption there is additional things you’ll have to do. 

  • Find a licensed pilot or get yours pilots license
  • Get a TSA background check
  • Submit all the local forms and fees associated with the drone filed
  • Insurance and all the business goodies too
  • Other

This process can be done by you but I’d recommend seeking council and paying them to fill out all the paperwork.

Here is a link to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, AUVSI.  They have an online outline for your commercial 333 exemptions. In addition, here is a link to  You will be able to read current and past document submissions, including rejections, by all those who have filed for the exemptions.  This information is all public and there’s a few interesting private citizens and large companies in the list of 5,626 applications to the date of this post.

Drone applications can and will be a good thing, when used correctly for a community.  For example in Minnesota, the DOT is in its 2nd year of research with its use of drones for bridges inspections.  In Virginia, drones are being tested to send medicines to out of reach people in the Application Mountains.  In California the drones are being equipped with life saving devices to help save people. 
In all, drone applications and their practices will continue to develop as drone technology and needs advance. We, the public, just need more training availabilities and solid, reasonable rules for all pilots to lower those potential risks for everyone.

I know I’m trying my best to help educate my fellow pilots as well as those interested people to continue the growth of drone applications for my community.  I hope you’ll join me.