Drones and Us

Last week, the East Cooper Pilots Association hosted the South Carolina Breakfast Club, as we do about this time every November. If you haven’t checked it out, the Breakfast Club has a fly-in breakfast roughly every two weeks, to different airports throughout the state. It was a beautiful day- cool temperatures, clear skies, and very little wind, and as a result, we had well over a 100 participants, with dozens of different airplanes as well as a visit from a local vintage car club. There’s nothing like sitting in a large hangar full of pilots and aviation enthusiasts from all over, eating a hot breakfast, and meeting new people. While it officially starts at 9am, planes start arriving at 8 and everyone is clearing out by 11am, which means lots of airplanes starting up, taxing out, and queuing up for takeoff. And this is really where my story begins.drones1

As planes were rolling down the runway, somebody pointed out a gentleman standing on the ramp and operating a UAV- we’ll call it by its more popular name, a drone. He was apparently using the drone to record the aircraft as they were taking off and as I watched, I could see it would regularly ascend, presumably for a better shot, then descend to about five feet off the ground. He wasn’t on the runway- in fact, he wasn’t even on the taxiway; instead, he was on the ramp well out of the way of the airplanes.

About that time, a steady stream of people came to me to complain about the drone, and their point was well-taken. Though well clear of any departure paths, it would take just a small miscalculation by either the drone operator or one of the pilots to cause what ATC calls “a merging of targets.” In fact, it was completely conceivable that even without an actual collision, a departing pilot could glance over, see the drone, and react in such a way as to cause some grief at the airport. Nobody likes grief at the airport.

What to do? Since I had drawn the duty of coordinating the event this year, people were expecting me to handle this situation, but I really did not know exactly what the rules were, and as a committee rapidly formed around me, it became apparent that nobody really knew for sure. Some said you can’t fly a drone within two miles of an airport, some said four, and even a few offered that there may not be rules that apply to a non-towered field like ours. And even if we came up with something definitive, who actually had the authority to do anything?

Luckily, we had someone on the field from the Aviation Authority, and while he wasn’t sure of the rules himself, he talked to the photographer, and after a little grumbling, he agreed to shut down the drone. Crisis averted, but all of us agreed we needed to know more about the rules for drones. One person finally arrived and told us exactly what the rules were, and the website address to check. As it turns out, he sells drones for a living and is very aware of what is and is not allowed, and just for the record, it’s not supposed to fly within 5 miles of an airport, towered or not, without prior notice.

To be fair, it’s easy to overlook the rules. For most of us, our exposure to drones is something you buy at Amazon for a few bucks and let the kids play with once you get bored. The legal truth, though, is that any device used for flight as an aircraft, whether they be manned or unmanned, is regulated by the FAA. If you’re a pilot, a violation can result in a certificate action. Even if you’re not a pilot, you can be fined, as was a photographer for using a drone to film a promotional video for the University of Virginia: ten thousand dollars for operating an aircraft without a license and reckless flying. That will buy a lot of drones. Of course, he made the argument that his drone was not an aircraft and so the FAA did not have the authority to regulate him. He actually convinced the judge, but that decision was overruled by the NTSB, which affirmed that drones met the definition of an aircraft: “…any contrivance invented, used, or designed to navigate, or fly in, the air.” That covers a LOT, including our photographer friend at Mt. Pleasant airport on a beautiful Sunday morning.

So, if you, or someone you know, has a drone they fly just for the fun of it, it’s important to remember that the FAA has issued “guidelines” (they can’t enact laws- they’re not that kind of agency.) These guidelines include:

  • Fly below 400 feet and remain clear of surrounding obstacles
  • Keep the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times
  • Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations
  • Don’t fly within 5 miles of an airport unless you contact the airport and control tower before flying
  • Don’t fly near people or stadiums
  • Don’t fly an aircraft that weighs more than 55 lbs
  • Don’t be careless or reckless with your unmanned aircraft – you could be fined for endangering people or other aircraft

If you’re not sure if your drone is near a no-fly area, the FAA reportedly has developed an app called B4UFLY, for both Android and iPhones. So far, when I try to find it, I keep getting referred back to an app called Hover, but it works the same way. Stand on the ramp at Mt. Pleasant Airport and the app shows that you are clearly in a no-fly zone, according to the guidelines. And that’s for a hobbyist- commercial operators have a whole other list of much more restrictive regulations, and if our photographer was planning on receiving any compensation for his videos, he would have fallen into that category. There seems to be new regulations out there that will offer some clarification, but probably won’t go into effect until 2017. But forewarned is forearmed- while the FAA can’t enact laws, they can enforce the laws that are on the books, and they have shown no reluctance to protect pilots and airspace. Great news for pilots and people on the ground, but sobering for drone operators. However, complying with the guidelines should keep hobbyists out of trouble, and staying out of trouble must surely add to the fun value.