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Tommy got a toy drone for Christmas, what’s next?

The presents have been opened and the wrapping paper placed in the recycling bin. Tommy is anxious to get outside and fly the new “Invader 700” drone, complete with a 10 times zoom digital camera that sends immediate videos to your new iPad. Wow, you can’t wait to get out there with him and fly this thing. We can get to the instructions and safety rules later. Let’s go flying!

Whoa speed racer! It’s probably a good idea to take some time to go over the capabilities of your new aircraft, look at some safety aspects of your operations, and understand the responsibilities you have just assumed. But this is a toy, right? Wrong. The Federal Aviation Administration has stated that unmanned aircraft systems are aircraft, not toys. 

The Consumer Electronics Association believes 2015 will be a defining year for the drone, with sales expecting to approach 700,000 this year. The industry must be selling all of those drones as FAA statistics show a surge in “close call with drone” reports by pilots of manned aircraft: nearly 700 incidents so far this year, roughly triple the amount recorded in 2014. Also, the military prefers to call drones “small unmanned aircraft” since they do not just wander around aimlessly, but are controlled by an individual who follows (or is expected to follow) FAA established rules.

Maybe we should review some of these rules before the big day approaches, as you are probably now asking yourself, ”Rules? What rules? Do they apply to me? What is my liability?” The FAA has partnered with industry organizations, such as the Academy of Model Aeronautics and American Model Association, to mirror the rules established by the FAA for the remote controlled (R/C) modelers. In fact, a local R/C club is a great resource to explore. 

General rules

- Small unmanned aircraft must give way to all manned aviation activities: airplanes, gliders, parachutists, hang gliders, the Goodyear blimp, etc. If it flies or glides, it has the right of way.

- The operator must remain within visual line of sight of the small unmanned aircraft. You can’t control or remain clear of other aircraft when you can’t see your own small unmanned aircraft.

- Small unmanned aircraft may not operate over any persons not directly involved in the operation.

The A, B, Cs to start

The FAA divides the national airspace above us into categories: A, B, C, D, E and G. You can read more about these classes here.

- Class A is 18,000 feet and above sea leve,l and you must be communicating with the FAA to operate up there. So just remember, Class A is “above” where small unmanned aircraft should fly. 

- Class B/C/D is the airspace around airports and requires two-way communications with the airport’s tower, so small unmanned aircraft need to steer clear of these areas. Just remember not to fly within 5 nautical miles of an open airport/airfield/heliport, military or civilian. 

- Class G airspace exists around uncontrolled airports (no two-way communications), but small unmanned aircraft must still remain clear by the 5 nautical miles.

And then there is special use airspace (SUA) and military training routes (MTRs). SUA includes prohibited areas (like the White House), restricted areas (like military testing ranges), and military operating areas, which is where the military has hazardous or high-speed operations that will get you noticed very quickly. MTRs are “highways” in the sky where the military flies very low and very fast, so it’s smart to stay away from them. You can check with the local base operations or airfield manager for information on such activities.

Know before you go

So, where can you fly? A good source of information is your local R/C club. They’ve studied the rules and scouted the local area for the best locations to fly your small unmanned aircraft.

If you prefer to go it alone, have fun but do it safely. But words of caution before you launch the Invader 700 on its maiden flight. If you become the latest close call and you’re not following the rules, you stand not only to lose your $1,000 aircraft, but you may be subject to an FAA fine of up to $27,500 for the most egregious violation.

Military installations 

Many military installations have an airport, airfield, or heliport that requires the 5-mile rule, but for national security reasons small unmanned aircraft flights are not authorized on or over military installations unless authorized by the installation commander. Contact base operations, an airfield manager or a security manager to ascertain safe base operating areas and other limitations.

Additionally, rethink using Tommy’s unmanned aircraft to provide security on your next bivouac. The military cannot operate privately owned small unmanned aircraft during routine business duties.

So, Merry Christmas, Tommy, and we hope you have a great time with your small unmanned aircraft -- but do so smartly, safely and within regulations.

Editor’s note: Luana Shafer is a freelance author, editor and recent graduate of George Mason University. She is the daughter of a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel.