What to know before piloting a drone

  • Published
  • By Secretary of the Air Force staff report
As unmanned aerial systems, also called drones, become more popular, the Federal Aviation Administration and local bases have established policy on how and when to operate drones.
The FAA has stated that unmanned aircraft systems are aircraft, not toys, and are required to adhere to policy.

General rules:

- All UAS greater than 0.55 pounds are required to be registered, regardless of the type of operation. The operator must provide the registration certificate (paper or electronic) upon request and the UAS must be marked with registration or serial number. UAS purchased on or after Dec. 21, 2015, and used exclusively as model aircraft must be registered prior to operating in the national airspace. UAS that have been operated in the national airspace by the current owner, and used exclusively as model aircraft prior to Dec. 21, 2015, must be registered by Feb. 19, 2016. To verify registration, contact a Law Enforcement Assistance Program agent during normal business hours or the Regional Operations Center after hours.

- 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. Operators can’t control or remain clear of other aircraft when they can’t see their own small unmanned aircraft.

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

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 to 60,000 feet above the average sea level, and operators 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.

Other variables include special use airspace and military training routes. SUA includes prohibited areas, restricted areas and military operating areas. MTRs are “highways” in the sky where the military flies very low and very fast, so it’s smart to stay away from them. Local base operations or airfield managers can provide more information on such activities.

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.

In addition to checking with local base guides, recreational clubs are a good resource to learn what local areas are the best locations for flying unmanned aircraft.