You’re getting a drone for Christmas! Now what?

Credit: WWLP

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) – Drones went mainstream this year.

The Federal Aviation Administration predicts 2.5 million drones will be sold in 2016, more than doubling sales from 2015. About two-thirds of them will be sold for personal use.

Manufacturers have been busy adding features, to the point where some features seem standard. Casual users can fly the Millennium Falcon — in small or extra large — or buy a camera drone that, even with a motorized gimbal, fits in the palm of your hand. Hobbyists are buying them for high-speed racing (the Drone Racing League boasts speeds of 120 mph) and aerial videography with 4K video cameras.

Drone flying above the fall foliage at Gordon Bubolz Nature Preserve (Photo: Lorenz Nelson III)
Drone flying above the fall foliage at Gordon Bubolz Nature Preserve (Photo: Lorenz Nelson III)

 

Over the summer, the FAA made it easier to be a drone owner.

Realizing this was a new breed of model aircraft, the FAA’s first rules for drones addressed commercial purposes, like inspecting crops or carrying packages, and required drone operators to get a pilot certificate. In late August, the agency FAA amended the rules for hobbyists and others using drones for fun.

STEP 1: REGISTRATION

Drones weighing between 8.9 ounces and 55 pounds need to be registered with the FAA as a small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS). The popular DJI Phantom 2, for example, weighs only 2.2 pounds, but it needs to be registered as an sUAS.

Drones weighing less than 8.8 ounces (just over half a pound, or 250 grams metric) don’t need to be registered, though owners can choose to register them if they wish — which may be a good idea if you’ll be adding a payload that puts it over the 0.55-pound limit, such as a camera.

(Drones weighing more than 55 pounds fall under a different set of rules for unmanned aircraft and require traditional aircraft registration, and are outside the scope of this article.)

Manufacturers will tell you the weight of the drone on the product packaging, and you may find it labeled on the drone itself.

Registration costs $5 and is good for three years.

To register your drone you need to be 13 years or older (children under 13 can own drones, but the person registering must be older) and a US citizen or legal permanent resident. You’ll need to provide an email address, a credit or debit card, and a home or mailing address.

You’ll receive a registration number. Label your drone with the registration number before you fly.

STEP 2: KNOW THE DO’S AND THE DON’TS

Never:

  • Never fly your drone above 400 feet
  • Never fly faster than 100 mph (87 knots, if your controller displays knots)
  • Never fly over groups of people, nor over people not directly participating in the drone’s operation
  • Never fly over stadiums or sporting events
  • Never fly near fires or emergency response efforts
  • Never operate a drone from a moving vehicle or aircraft
  • Never fly near other aircraft
  • Never fly under the influence
  • Never fly if a mental or physical condition would prohibit safe operation of the aircraft

Always:

  • Always have the UAS in your sight or in the visual observer’s sight
  • Always fly during daylight hours (if the drone has anti-collision lights, you can fly it during civil twilight — 30 minutes before sunrise, 30 minutes after sunset)
  • Always yield to manned aircraft
  • Always be aware of airspace requirements

If your camera drone provides a first-person view (FPV) this doesn’t satisfy the FAA’s “see-and-avoid” requirement, which states pilots must actively look for potentially conflicting traffic — in this case, avoiding collisions with people and property.

Communities can set their own safety guidelines, and as a drone owner it’s your responsibility to be aware of them and follow them. Green Bay, for example, bans drones at special events such as parades and festivals.

STEP 3: FIND A PLACE TO FLY

Don’t plan on using your drone to photograph a game at Lambeau Field. Federal law prohibits flying within three-and-a-half miles of a stadium with a capacity of 30,000 or more people — whether it’s NFL, MLB, NCAA Division 1 football, or major motor speedway racing — for one hour before the event’s scheduled start time and for one hour after the event’s conclusion.

You also can’t fly within five miles of an airport, heliport or sea-based airport without contacting the airport and air traffic control tower first. An airport operator can’t prohibit you from flying your drone nearby — but you should consider any objection a reason to find somewhere else to fly; the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association says police could be called, and the FAA requires air traffic controllers to keep a record of drone activity and report any operational issues. You must still obey trespass laws and stay off airport property, yield to manned aircraft, and obey the 400-foot ceiling and other safety guidelines.

Other restricted airspace includes prisons, nuclear power plants and military bases.

  • The FAA created a mobile app that tells you where it’s safe or OK to fly, called B4UFLY. It’s available for iOS or Android devices.

If your drone has a camera, remember that privacy laws still apply. Don’t point that camera where people have a reasonable expectation of privacy, including behind fences.

STEP 4: FLYING WITH FRIENDS

The FAA rules for UAS’s apply to three parties:

  • The flight controller, who manipulates the hand-held controls
  • The remote pilot in command, who’s in charge, tells the controller what to do, and is responsible for ensuring all rules are followed
  • The visual observer, whose job is to keep an eye on the drone to help ensure rules are followed

Often these are the same person, i.e., the owner who operates their drone and keeps it in their sight. Sometimes these may be two people, such as the owner who hands over control of their $400 drone to their enthusiastic child or neighbor — and keeps it in their sight. Occasionally they may be three people — the driver, boss and pit crew — like in a drone race through neon-lit obstacles in a warehouse.

The FAA requires the pilot in command and visual observer can only be responsible for one SUA at a time.

The FAA created a safety video for all the new drone owners this holiday season:

Even if you didn’t get a drone for Christmas, the FAA predicts personal and commercial sales will continue doubling and tripling, to 7 million total units in 2020. In that time we’re guaranteed to see manufacturers introduce more features, like collision avoidance, 360-degree VR recording, and improved batteries for longer flight times, even while prices come down.

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