As of May 17, 2019 we have a new set of Federal laws for hobbyist drone operators. These laws actually apply to all flying RC aircraft, but drones are by far the biggest segment of that these days. We will go through a run down of the new laws, but as of right now some of this stuff (while it IS LAW) is still being developed. That’s right - the laws are 100% in effect, but portions of it are not actually able to be used yet or are still being developed by the FAA.
I want to be 100% honest here - I wholeheartedly advocate for legal flying, but these rules are likely going to confuse people who are new to flying drones. I will try to simplify it as best I can, but there is not way around the technical side of these regulations.
The official title for these laws is “49 U.S.C. 44809 - Exception for limited recreational operations of unmanned aircraft”. At the outset of these new regulations the FAA makes a point of the fact that if you are not strictly following these laws here, then you are considered to be under Part 107 - and that is a whole different set of laws that also cover commercial drone flights. If you want to read more on Part 107 here is a link for that.
The FAA states there are 8 condition hobbyists have to follow for recreational exemption flying:
The aircraft has to be flown strictly for recreation purposes. This is the same as the regulations we had previously. If you flying to further a business (even if its not paid), then it breaks this condition.
The second condition is you have to operate your aircraft in accordance with the safety guidelines of a community based organization (CBO). This actually, is also the same as the old rules, but there is a catch to it. According the this new law the FAA will establish that they haven’t developed a criteria for what a “CBO” exactly is, so there aren’t any currently. The AMA is probably the closest thing we have now, but until actual standards for a CBO are established, even the AMA doesn’t count. So in the “interim” the FAA gives a whole list of rules to be followed that mimic what a CBO might have. To be honest, them seem extremely close to the 8 conditions we are already discussing, which just really adds to the confusion. That being said, here are these 8 guidelines:
Fly only for recreational purposes
Maintain line of sight, or in line of sight with a visual observer (for you FPV people out there)
Do no fly over 400 feet
Do not fly in controlled airspace without authorization
Follow all FAA airspace restriction - like sporting event or presidential no-fly zones
Stay away from other aircraft
Always give way to manned aircraft entering the area where you are flying
Never fly over people, public evens, or stadiums
Never fly near emergency responders
Never fly under the influence
Keep your aircraft within line of sight, or within the line of sight of a visual observer. The last piece is there for FPV people who have someone with them to keep eyes on the drone. Other than that this is very straight forward - don’t fly your drone out for long distances or where you can’t see it.
Give way and don’t interfere with any manned aircraft. So if you hear a helicopter or a plane, bring your aircraft low and stay out of their way. Always stay away from manned aircraft. You might think it never happens because plane are way higher in the air, but I have encountered flight for life and news helicopters on more that one occasion.
For hobbyist this fifth condition might be one of the most confusing. In class B, C, D, or surface E airspace, the operator of the aircraft needs to have authorization from the “administrator”(which just means the FAA) to fly legally. I’m guessing that’s like reading a different language to pretty much everyone without some aviation background. Let me try to break this down a little. An air traffic control tower for an airport is in charge of a certain area of airspace, which makes that “controlled airspace”. Based on traffic and stuff there are various classes of airspace. So Class B would be a large airport like O’Hare while Mitchell is Class C, then Regional airports like Timmerman are Class D. But regardless of the type of airspace, all controlled airspace requires an authorization to fly. There is an issue as of this writing though - while commercial operators (under Part 107) have a 2 ways to file for authorization, the FAA is not yet ready for hobbyist to get authorizations. So in the mean time, the FAA states that “until authorization are available” they are basically saying you can only legally fly inside controlled airspace if it’s a flying field that has an agreement with the FAA. So for example, in Milwaukee County we have 2 airports that have controlled airspace (Mitchell and Timmerman), but we only have 1 location that is currently considered “legal” to fly in all of that airspace, which is an AMA field in Menomonee Falls. So as a hobbyist, even spots like the iconic Hoan Bridge that drone operators in Milwaukee love to fly is currently off limits as it’s inside of Mitchell airspace and a hobbyist cannot obtain an authorization.
The sixth condition for flying under the hobbyist exemption is do not fly over 400’ and once airspace authorizations are available, these heights will be less in those areas (say 0, 100, or 200’ depending on how close you are to an airport). This is actually a good rule generally as they do pretty much keep commercial drone operators to the same rule.
Number 7 is a big one. As a hobbyist operator you have to pass an aeronautical knowledge and safety test and maintain proof that you passed it for law enforcement or FAA officials to see. There is an issue here - this test is not yet ready, so this one really can’t be followed currently.
Then condition 8 - your aircraft must be registered with the FAA and marked with that registration, plus you need to know the registration to give it to law enforcement or FAA official if requested. This law has been in place for a while, the only recent change to it was that now markings have to be on a visible location of the drone where nothing has to be removed to see the registration.
So like it or not, as a hobbyist drone operator, there are the new rules. If you’re not confused and that stuff all makes sense, then congrats!
To close out I’m going to inject my opinions here a bit on all of this. To be frank, the FAA sure hasn’t done the public any favors to make this simple, which also means they haven’t done themselves any favors on getting people to follow these laws either. Like I said earlier, I will always advocate for people to follow the laws no matter how screwed up they are, but the FAA makes it tough to even explain all of this to anyone who just got a drone, or even the kid up the road who likes to fly model planes, all of who are supposed to be following these rules. The FAA really put the cart before the horse with this one. My understanding is they were under pressure to release “something”, but it would seem to me that a release like this is really just detrimental to their cause of establishing proper hobbyist regulations. Feel free to reach out to us if you have any question at all regarding these new laws!