From the first “pilotless vehicles” built during World War I to the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) that are used today, the definition and use of drones have evolved over the last hundred years. Modern-day drones developed in the ‘80s and ‘90s when technological advancements led to significant improvements in computing and electronic controlling systems for those aircraft. Since then, unmanned aircrafts have continued to develop at a rapid pace and will certainly change the world in which we live in within the next several years.

A Popular Tool with Many Uses

In addition to their wide use in the military, drones have become increasingly popular in the United States for recreational use. From less than $100 to thousands of dollars, drones are easily accessible at your local electronics store and can be used in a number of different ways. Public entities such as law enforcement, fire departments and other federal/state and local agencies are also buying these tools because of the tactical advantage they provide.

Public safety agencies, in particular, are recognizing the tremendous value drones have in supporting missions. In fact, at least 347 public safety agencies were flying drones in the U.S. in 2017, and this number is growing exponentially. Check out our infographic on ways public safety departments are using drones.

What are the Laws for Using Drones?

The problem facing the U.S. public safety agencies, and all entities flying drones for that matter, is knowing what the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations are for drones.

Many agencies don’t fully understand all the rules and implications when they start to use drones – it’s not as simple as just acquiring a drone and flying it.

Once a drone leaves the ground outdoors, it’s in national airspace and falls under the FAA’s jurisdiction. {Use this as a callout in the blog, like a Did You Know?}

Mixing drones, or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), into national airspace has posed significant challenges for the FAA, the national authority to regulate all aspects of civil aviation. While the FAA has made significant strides in the past five years to develop policies that govern the use of drones, educating the public about them is the next big step to enforcing them.

While certainly not inclusive, here are ten basic FAA regulations that both businesses and public entities operating drones should be aware of. The last two refer specifically to the pilot and the drone itself:

  1. The drone must fly under 400 feet above ground level (AGL). If flying at an altitude higher than 400 feet AGL, or higher within 400 feet of a structure.
  2. The remote pilot in command (RPIC) must be aware of FAA-controlled airspace. Drone pilots must fly following FAA airspace rules.
  3. The remote pilot in command (RPIC) or a visual observer must keep the UAS in visual line of sight.
  4. The drone must fly during daylight hours or civil twilight hours (30 minutes before official sunrise to 30 minutes after official sunset), with appropriate anti-collision lighting, unless you have a waiver for night flying from the FAA
  5. The drone cannot fly faster than 100 mph.
  6. The drone must yield right of way to manned aircraft.
  7. The drone cannot fly over people unless you have a waiver from the FAA.
  8. The drone must not be flown from a moving vehicle unless in a sparsely populated area.
  9. The pilot of the UAS must be at least 16 years old, pass the FAA RPIC exam and carry a Remote Pilot Airman Certificate at all times when operating a UAS. Some public entities can operate drones, separately, under a COA (Certificate of Authorization) from the FAA.
  10. The drone must be registered with the FAA, must weigh less than 55 lbs and undergo a pre-flight check by the remote pilot in command.

As an additional note, the FAA Releases New Rules for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems says, “Users of commercial and recreational UAS should be aware that in remote, rural and agricultural areas, manned aircraft, including fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, may be operating very close to ground level. Manned aircraft conducting agricultural, firefighting, law enforcement, emergency medical, wildlife survey missions routinely work in low-level airspace where drones can create a dangerous risk.

Operators controlling UAS in these areas should maintain situational awareness, give way to, and remain a safe distance from these low-level, manned airplanes and helicopters.” Additionally, large-scale emergencies such as forest fires have very strict airspace rules that must be followed for safety.

It’s important to note that some of the rules have exceptions and caveats. Waivers can be obtained through the FAA for certain basic operations and on an emergency basis. On top of this, many states and jurisdictions have their own local laws and regulations. Unauthorized use of UAS systems continues to increase, in many cases because users are not all fully aware of the rules. Recognizing this, the FAA, National Sheriffs’ Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police are making a concerted effort to get the word out to agencies about how to safely and legally fly drones.

Here are some useful resources that drone users should be aware of:

Many organizations simply don’t realize the complexities involved in operating drones. In addition to all the laws involved, it also costs money to train and credential the operators, credential the agency, buy the equipment, ensure it and operate it. This can prove to be extremely burdensome to organizations, which is why many of them are finding it more beneficial and cost-effective to outsource their drone operations to a company like MAG Aerospace.

MAG has the skills, knowledge, and experience to navigate through the various processes and procedures involved in flying drones. We already have the training and equipment; and in addition to flying the drones, we have the means to capture the data, process it and disseminate it to the right location. We also have established relationships with various law enforcement and regulatory agencies to ensure safe and efficient drone operations.

For more information or additional questions, please reach out to Jim Finnell, Public Safety Business Development at Jim.Finnell[at]magaero[dot]com or connect with Jim on LinkedIn.