Part 107: The Toddler in the FARs
"Technically Speaking" Article April 2017The new 14 CFR Part 107 regulation governs small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) or drones. A UAS by definition is an aircraft without a human pilot onboard and is controlled by an operator on the ground. Part 107 is one of the youngest regulations within the FARs. In preparation for this article we contacted the FAA’s UAS division. We had a bit of an advantage, since Earl Lawrence, Director of the Office of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration for the FAA, is a longtime friend and colleague. Many of you reading this article may also know Earl Lawrence personally. Earl was VP of Industry & Regulatory Affairs for EAA before he moved to the FAA, (or as we affectionately call it, the “Dark Side”) in 2010. Earl arranged for us to have a meeting with David Russell. David is a Management and Program Analyst for the UAS Integration Office and he offered some real insight into this entirely new division within the FAA. One of the most interesting analogies, which David eluded to, was a comparison of drone technology today having a direct correlation of what it must’ve been like during the early days of automobiles. In the early days of automobiles there were literally thousands of individuals, carriage manufacturers, and bicycle shops suddenly having access to a small internal combustion engine. Entrepreneurs adapting these engines, via a chain to their existing vehicles, were now part of the new automobile industry. David indicated, just like the early days of the automobile boom, estimates are, that there are currently over 2000 different drone manufacturers around the world. There are many other parallels as well. In the early days of the automobile, the roadway infrastructure was very limited. There were no roadsigns. Rules about how to operate these vehicles was limited and often times different from state to state. There were no books on how to operate these vehicles. There was no standardization for parts or even tools to work on these vehicles. Can you imagine? That’s the daunting task of the UAS division currently. The technology is changing so quickly that it’s very hard to predict where this technology will lead. Writing rules to protect the general public while simultaneously allowing for the entrepreneurial spirit to flourish, requires a very delicate balancing act. But like the automobile industry, this new technology promises to be a very integral part of the future. Let’s take a look at some definitions and regulations to bring you up to speed with where we are today.
You don’t need permission from the FAA to fly your UAS (aka drone) for fun or recreation, but you must always fly safely. Before you fly outside you must: Register your UAS if it weighs more than 0.55 pounds and less than 55 pounds, Label your UAS with your registration number, and read and understand all safety guidelines. To register a drone you must be at least 13 years of age or older and be a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident. All in all, this isn’t too onerous for the average hobbyist. However, I’m constantly surprised how many drone owners are unaware of the registration requirements. The FAA could definitely use your help in getting the word out. Keep in mind, you could be subject to civil and criminal penalties if you meet the criteria to register and do not register, including fines of up to $250,000. The good news is, the registration process is really quite simple and it only costs $5. (https://registermyuas.faa.gov/).
A person operating a small UAS commercially has an entirely different set of requirements. They must either hold a remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating or be under the direct supervision of a person who does hold a remote pilot certificate.(Figure: 1) If you hold a pilot certificate (not a student pilot certificate) and your flight review is up-to-date, the process of obtaining a remote pilot certificate is relatively simple. All you need to do is complete the sUAS online training course available at the FAA Safety Website and the required the application.
If you do not hold a pilot certificate, you will need to be at least 16 years old to start the process. Then pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA approved testing center. In addition, you will also be required to be vetted by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA). Then you will also need to completed the FAA application using the electronic FAA Integrated Airman Certificate and/or Rating Application system (IACRA).
As far as operations of the aircraft are concerned let’s summarize the key rules. The maximum weight of your drone must be less than 55 lbs. You must maintain visual line-of-sight with the drone at all times, and yes the FAA has come up with a new acronym for that (VLOS). Safety is the key element of all of the new rules, so no flying over other persons. Daylight operations only. You must yield the right-of-way to other aircraft. No careless or reckless operations. No carriage of hazardous materials. No operations from a moving aircraft and no operations from a moving vehicle unless the operation is over a sparsely populated area. External load operations are allowed if the object being carried by the unmanned aircraft is securely attached and does not adversely affect the flight characteristics or controllability of the aircraft. If you want to lose someone in an article, the best way to do that is start quoting regulations. So in order to keep you from falling asleep we generated a graphic to summarize the majority of rules regarding drone flight within different airspace. (Figure: 2)
The rules as a whole, make a lot of sense. And if you’re concerned about anyone of the restrictions, there is an entirely separate system in place for obtaining a waiver for most operations, this providing that you can show that the proposed operations can be conducted safely. Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR’s) is another area that we continue to see airspace violations. TFR’s, by definition, are very dynamic. These typically pop up unannounced as a result of forest fires, chemical spill, and political or sporting events. In California we have had several instances, during fire season, where the entire aerial firefighting operation came to a halt as a result of a drone operating in the same airspace as the air tankers. In these cases, there is normally a heavy fine associated with the airspace incursion. If you spot a forest fire, you can bet your bottom dollar there’s going to be a TFR issued very shortly. The rule of thumb for all of us general aviation pilots is simply stay away. The FAA has come up with a new easy-to-use smartphone app called B4UFLY. This app helps unmanned aircraft operators determine whether there are any restrictions or requirements in effect at the location where they want to fly. Some of the key features of the B4UFLY app include: A “status” indicator that immediately informs the operator about the current or planned location. For example, it shows flying in the Special Flight Rules Area around Washington, D.C. is prohibited and contains Information about any restrictions. There is also a “Planner Mode” for planning future flights in different locations. Lots of Informative, interactive maps with filtering options.(Figure: 3)
This is the go-to app if you’re a drone operator. The rules that the FAA has come up with seem very reasonable. And as we indicated, Part 107 is continuing to evolve. It is incumbent upon all of us who operate drones, that we conduct these operations safely. Not only safely, but smartly. There is still a significant amount of skepticism from the general public as well as other pilots about their willingness to accept drones within the national airspace system. Many times perception and public opinion can be the villain that causes the FAA to have to write more restrictive rules. Although it may not be illegal to fly over your neighbor’s property, doing so without their permission oftentimes makes them feel intruded upon and unsupportive of your freedoms. If you’re going to fly drones we strongly recommend that you follow the existing rules and set the example for others to follow by being a good neighbor. The future of drones is extremely bright and the potential for this revolutionizing aviation is truly at hand. Virtually, the only thing that can slow down the frenetic pace of technological innovation and growth within this industry will be more restrictive regulations.