The Christmas Drone - First Steps for First-Time Drone Owners
By Nathanael Showalter, December 23, 2017
The semi-autonomous multi-rotor kits that the Federal Aviation Administration calls “small unmanned aerial systems” and most people call “drones” are expected to be a hot gift item this holiday season, just like they were last season. Nevertheless, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center shows that only 8% of Americans own drones, and only about 60% have even seen one in action.
So if you receive a drone as a Christmas gift this year, or if you’re giving one away, here is some information you should probably have, and our suggestions for the first steps to take with your first drone.
1. Check Your Airspace
In the USA, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is responsible for the safety and security of the National Airspace System (NAS). The Feds define the NAS as pretty much any air that’s outside a vertical overhead enclosure, without making distinctions for what’s over private property (although this has become a topic of greater discussion with drone technology becoming more accessible).
Drones are legal to fly in the majority of the airspace in the USA, even near airports, as long as the drone owner calls the airport first to let them know about the flight and listens to any advice the airport has to give about flying there. Right now, the rule is that people who want to fly within 5 miles of an airport have to make the call to the airport before flying.
The best way to check whether you’re allowed to fly in a given location is by checking the FAA-published VFR sectional charts. But if you’ve never had to read one before, they’re pretty much impossible to decipher. Thankfully, there are a number of sites and apps that will give you airspace information with street-level detail.
If you visit AirMap’s web app, you can search for street addresses and easily see what airspace is overlapping your prospective flight area. Their mobile app behaves pretty much the same. AirMap even takes a guess at the best contact number for a given area of airspace. It also shows areas where flight may be prohibited due to sections of special-use airspace, like restricted areas or sensitive infrastructure. AirMap is free, does not require a subscription, and offers flight-planning, traffic-reporting, and digital notification tools to account holders.
This mobile app gathers information about your geolocation and opens the main screen with a go-no-go notification based on your user settings. It also allows you to browse a map showing airport and helipad locations.
This is the FAA’s official mobile app for drone users, and the one they want you to use. Since its release, it has improved significantly, but it may give you the impression you are not allowed to fly in locations where you actually are permitted to. The main screen will give you notifications about any extra steps you might have to take to fly where you intend to.
The FAA’s GIS Site
The FAA has created a GIS interface that allows users to toggle layers of airspace and search for address-specific locations. It does require at least a passing familiarity with airspace classes, though.
Restricted and Security Zones
There are a handful of restricted and security areas around the country where drones are not welcome. All National Parks, for example, forbid the launching and landing of drones within the park limits. Restricted and Prohibited zones may exist over sensitive government and military installations, like Camp David and Fort Meade in Maryland. The B4UFly app and the GIS interface are both good resources to explore these security areas.
2. Know the Rules That Apply to Recreational Drone Users
If you’re flying a drone commercially, that’s a whole different set of rules, and requires a license; but if you’re just having fun with your new drone, Congress made a Special Rule for Model Aircraft to keep the FAA from over-regulating the fun you can have with your drone. However, in order to keep the protection afforded to hobbyists by this Special Rule, hobbyists have to meet the conditions listed below. Failing to do so allows the FAA to prosecute the operator under commercial rules (14 CFR 107) in the event of an incident.
Make sure it’s just a hobby
Intent matters to the FAA, and as long as you’re just flying with no other intent but to have fun, you’re safe. As soon as your motivations change, and it can be proven that you’ve turned your flight into something that can be used in furtherance of a business, institution, or organization, the FAA requires you to hold a commercial Remote Pilot’s license.
Follow a code of safety conduct from a community-based organization
People have been flying model aircraft for decades, and the FAA wants you to be following a set of rules established by one of their organizations. The Academy of Model Aeronautics is the big one, with a well-established safety code that’s easy to understand and follow. As an alternative, the Drone Users Group Network has a safety code that’s designed specifically for multirotor aircraft, and has several perks like flying at night and flying over people in some conditions. If you don't feel like following one of these codes, the FAA has released a list of its own conditions that it wants recreational operators to meet.
Keep it limited to aircraft under 55 lbs unless you have special certifications
Most off-the-shelf drones sold in the USA are smaller than 55 lbs, so it’s not a problem staying under the limit. But if you want to go large or carry a heavy payload, you may require extra licensing, certification, and registration to fly craft over 55 lbs.
Make sure to give way to manned aircraft
As a drone operator, you have the fewest rights in the sky and must make sure you can see and avoid other traffic in the air. You’d think this would be a no-brainer, but the NTSB just finished investigating a case where a recreational drone pilot accidentally flew his drone into an Army helicopter in New York (spoiler: The drone pilot was found to be at fault). The simplest way to do this is to keep the drone within line of sight, which is probably required by the safety code you’re following.
Also, be aware of situations where manned aircraft are more likely to show up, like wildfires or emergency situations (like traffic accidents). It’s best to stay away from first responders.
Call and inform any airports within 5 miles
It’s already been mentioned in the Airspace section above, but make sure you do your diligence in contacting airports within 5 miles of your operation. Failing to do so, or flying after the airport has told you it’s not a good idea, could put you in violation of the rule requiring you to give way to manned aircraft and allow the FAA to penalize you as a non-hobbyist.
Register your drone
Although the registration requirement was temporarily overturned in the Spring of 2017, a recent bill signed by the President is bringing it back. Go to registermyuas.faa.gov and enter your information. After paying $5, the site will give you a number that you need to put on your drone somewhere readable. As a hobbyist, you only need to do this once, and then you can use the same number on all your drones. Your information is kept in a database that isn’t accessible except to people with the right authorizations.
Check local ordinances and flight restrictions
This can be tricky, as the information you need isn’t all in one place. The B4UFly app is very good at notifying you of special airspace rules, but won’t tell you about city, county, or state laws that might prohibit launching and landing from certain properties. Be aware that there are usually flight restrictions around active sporting events, government buildings, military facilities, and critical infrastructure like power plants or electrical relay stations.
There are also several large Special Flight Rules Areas and Flight Restriction Zones around the country, including around Washington, DC. Flying a drone within about 15 miles of Reagan National Airport is currently illegal, and there are a small handful of conditions to be met when flying 15-30 miles from Reagan National Airport, too.
3. Try Out a Simulator
A handful of drone manufacturers have included a training simulator with the drone, but if they haven’t, here’s a short list of free drone simulator programs that are specifically designed to give operators practice with the control systems and reactions they’re likely to encounter. Drone sims are a risk-free way of building up muscle memory for drone control, and many will allow you to experiment with the drone’s various settings and systems, including automated flight modes.
4. Assume You’ll Crash the First Few Times
Even drones designed to be easy to fly out of the box are likely to crash in the hands of a novice, just because of the way the human brain has to get used to manipulating an object in space and remembering how it will move. Choose the location for your first flight with the assumption that you’ll need extra room to recover control, and make sure it’s over forgiving terrain. For example, flying out over a lake the first time using the drone is not a good idea, but an open field of long grass or sand would be an optimal choice. Choose a location which is unlikely to bring you into contact with people or property which could be injured or damaged.
5. Remember a Few Key Concepts
6. Read the Manual
One of the main reasons drones crash or don’t fly is because the operator hasn’t read the manual. Drone manufacturers may have built limitations or safety features into the aircraft that you need to know about, like a “beginner mode” that keeps the drone within 150 feet of the controller, or a mode that changes the way the drone tracks its heading. The manual is especially helpful in learning about and using the automated features programmed into the flight controller. It’s also going to be where to find information about troubleshooting, regular calibration, and maintenance.
7. Join a Community
A quick search on social media will show you there is probably an enthusiastic drone community in your area already, with regular meeting locations and well-informed members who can help you with your questions. Many local clubs are also members of nation-wide community-based organizations like the Drone Users Group Network. These organizations can give you access to special flying locations, provide representation for your hobby when dealing with municipal government, and even give you special deals on insurance for your drone and access to educational programs.
At Hover Solutions, we have a lot of fun flying, and we want to welcome careful, considerate pilots to a field with a lot of potential for education, expansion, and creation. Please don’t hesitate to contact us via social media, our Contact page, or by emailing [email protected] with any questions.
Hover Solutions also offers personalized training for people who want to learn how to fly their drones safely, effectively, and beautifully.