It’s almost a fact of life - technology changes quickly and regulations tend to lag behind. While drones have been available at your local big box electronics store for a few years, the laws have not quite caught up. Flying drones for fun was classified under rules that had been put in place decades ago and were generally geared toward hobbyist airplane groups. But now the laws are starting to catch up, and there is a new FAA authorization bill from Congress that significantly expands the power of the FAA. Let’s run down the basics of what is changing and how it will affect flying a drone in the US.
What is it?
HR 302 was passed by the Federal government and went into effect on October 5, 2018. While the bill is already a law, a few of the items that it mentions will take the FAA time to prepare and are not yet in effect. Here are the key points both for flying a drone for fun, and for commercial operators.
A drone flown recreationally can ONLY be flown for that reason, and cannot be flown for a business purpose.
Everyone operating a drone (even a child) is REQUIRED to obtain a certificate or operating authority from the FAA. This will likely be given out once you have passed the required knowledge and safety test. This part is all a little vague at this point because the FAA has 6 months to establish the test, so we really don’t know how simple or complex it will be. This is a big change and will essentially be used to help educate people on how to operate a drone legally and safely.
You must fly under rules established by a “community based organization” that has standard rules developed in coordination with the FAA (no, you can’t just be your own “organization” and fly under your own set of rules). This has actually always been a hobbyist rule, but not a well known one.
Always give way to manned aircraft. This just makes sense. Nothing shocking here.
If you are flying in airspace that is controlled by a tower (like Mitchell, Timmerman, or Waukesha in the Milwaukee area) then you are required to have authorization from the FAA before flying. This is different from before! Previously hobbyists just needed to give notice to the tower, but that is no longer the case! Additionally it is now a crime to fly a drone in controlled airspace without permission. At the bottom of this section is a map of the Milwaukee area showing the controlled vs uncontrolled airspace. This is not an exact map; please consult the official FAA maps for precise info on the airspace.
You cannot fly higher than 400’ above ground level, and in controlled airspace you can only fly to the height allowed by your airspace authorization for a particular location.
Your aircraft must be registered with the FAA, and labeled with the registration number. No change here.
The current regulations and laws will continually be reviewed as the technology changes to keep the airspace safe for everyone.
There are actually a few other items for hobbyists that relate to flying at designated model aircraft fields, and flying drones over 55 lbs in weight, but these don’t pertain to 99.9% of people out there. Also we want to be clear about one thing - these rules above apply to ALL unmanned aircraft whether it is a quadcopter or a model plane.
COMMERCIAL DRONE/UAS OPERATIONS:
The rules for commercial drones as laid out under Part 107 will not be changing at this point, however there are a bunch of new items laid out in the bill and could be a big part of flying commercially in the future. Some of this includes things like aircraft safety standards, standards for safety and consideration of drone delivery, funding for the FAA to education the public better on drones, etc.
There are a few key items that should be watched closely by commercial UAS (drone) operators:
Section 360 establishes a review of government services being used on UAS operations (like obtaining authorizations, talking to ATC, registration, etc.) and the related costs. In the future this could lead to increased costs due to the amount of government resources being used by UAS operators.
Section 361 requires a review of using UAS as an option for crop spraying. Currently this is not allowed and while this just forces it to be reviewed, it could lead to drones being used for crop spraying down the road. Since Wisconsin does quite a lot of farming this could lead to some awesome innovation for our state.
Section 362 emphasizes that the FAA hold to its education policy for illegal drone operations, but it also encourages the FAA to discuss incidences with other government agencies who would then be able to enforce the laws.
Section 372 establishes a 5 year pilot program for creating remote ID and tracking technology for UAS. This would allow for very easy enforcement of all types of operations. At some point this will be required on all UAS similar to ADS-B on manned aircraft.
Section 373 establishes a study relating to the authority of airspace as it relates the Federal government vs State/local governments. There is a potential can of worms here, but that is probably best for another article at a later date.
Section 379 requires the FAA to create a spreadsheet (or probably public database) of all registered drones, the owner, and the zip code of the owner. Additional information is required for UAS that are collecting personally identifiable information.
Section 384 establishes criminal penalties for the unsafe operations of UAS. Interfering with a manned aircraft can lead to up to 1 year is prison, operating in runway exclusion zones without permission can lead to fines, reckless flying that causes harm or death can lead to up to 10 years in prison, and using a UAS to intentionally causing harm or death to someone can lead to any amount of time in prison including life.
Why did congress pass all of this?
Model aircraft (which are regulated the same as drones) have been around for decades, but generally were a small, niche group that often operated at model aircraft fields which had all sorts of guidelines. However, technology has changed drastically in the last 5 years and suddenly you can buy a quadcopter at dozens of local stores. Unfortunately, a lot of people buy drones and just view it as a toy, or a camera that happens to fly, without going so far as to education themselves on the rules of putting an aircraft in the air. Yes, a drone IS AN AIRCRAFT under the law. These new laws set the groundwork for the future of drones, and help keep the airspace safe. So far, way to many people have been ignorant about the laws regarding drones, but the effort here is to make it so that ignorance is no longer going to be an excuse for flying a drone illegally.
What is our take on all of this?
The truth of the matter is that this all was very much necessary and has been coming for a few years. While at this point you probably don’t see a drone flying through the sky every day, there are a lot of industries that want to make use of this technology. One of these is obviously package delivery. If there is no education for the public about drones, no set of laws with penalties for unsafe or illegal flying, and no way to track what drones are doing, then the air above us would have a lot more collisions and crashes as it becomes more crowded. Keep in mind though that this technology and laws around it change almost on a yearly basis, so in 10 years things are likely to have changed significantly from where we are today.
If you have any question about flying as a hobbyist feel free to reach out to us! We are advocates for all parts of the drone industry and love to help others. Does your company need drone services? Getting high quality photos and video and abiding by all laws is what we do! Check out our home page for more info.