Can you imagine ordering an aircraft off the Internet, then learning to fly it by trial and error without knowledge of physics, weather or airspace?
That’s what’s happening when people buy Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), also referred to as drones or unmanned aerial systems (UAS). These non-commercial RPAs can range in size from under five pounds and about the dimensions as a six pack of soda to ones that weigh more than 50 pounds and are larger than a medium-sized suitcase.
And they are sharing the airspace with full-sized aircraft, often because the owners don’t realize they are breaking the rules.
“They order them online from China or Japan or from Amazon and they don’t know where they are buying them from. The box arrives and they are like kids on Christmas morning. Often they don’t read the directions,” says Bonnie Edwards, co-founder of Micro Drone Vision, a Florida-based company that specializes in RPA training and education. “They have no idea where they can fly it, they are not aware of aviation regulations, they are just thinking ‘we’re going to go to the park and let’s film the kids playing soccer.’ Often they have no knowledge of physics of propellers, or weather, or a good understanding of how the machine works and it gets away from them.”
Micro Drone Vision, established about a year ago, is the first company in Florida to have an FAA-approved training program for RPAs, according to company president Justin Newcomb.
Company officials were at this year’s SUN ’n FUN, where they spent a good deal of time answering questions from the public, mostly from people interested in using RPAs for commercial uses.
“Our niche is education. We do not sell drones, but we work with the schools and other industries to help them find the equipment that will be right for them,” Newcomb explains.
Newcomb, who has a background in marketing and video production, spent a year attending trade shows where RPAs were featured and learned how they were being used for business. From this the company developed a training syllabus for the commercial application of RPAs.
The company operates under a Part 135 certificate because most RPA operations are for commercial purposes, says Newcomb.
“We had to file a Section 333 exemption with the FAA and in that filing we had to go into great detail about the different fields we will be working in, such as video production, real estate, pilot training, and demonstration, just to name a few,” he says.
Section 333 refers to the section of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 granting the Secretary of Transportation the authority to determine whether an airworthiness certificate is required for an RPA to operate safely in the National Airspace System.
According to the FAA webpage, “the Section 333 exemption process provides operators who wish to pursue safe and legal entry into the National Airspace a competitive advantage in the UAS marketplace, discouraging illegal operation and improving safety.”
The page also notes that, “by law, any aircraft operation in the national airspace requires a certificated and registered aircraft, a licensed pilot, and operational approval.”
This comes as a surprise to many people, says Edwards, who is a licensed pilot and has more than 30 years experience as a teacher of gifted children. She became involved in Micro Drone Vision when she realized that people were buying these RPAs and learning to fly by trial and error with no knowledge of airspace or operational considerations.
“They may not realize they are breaking the rules or potentially creating a problem,” she says.
According to both Newcomb and Edwards, applying for the Section 333 exemption requires the same kind of detail that goes into creating a Part 61 or Part 141 flight school.
“We had to create manuals for training, as well as for maintenance of the aircraft,” says Edwards. “The manuals have guidelines for pilot training, emergency procedures and even maintenance logs that show battery time so you know how long it is before the batteries start to fail so you don’t use inappropriate equipment that is going to fail and cause you a problem. The training is not only about the operation of the bird, but also site location, as well as hazardous situations that you could come upon or even create.”
Micro Drone Vision also has what Newcomb describes as a “do it yourself Series 333 exemption road map” for those who want to use RPAs for commercial purposes.
“The roadmap will be a fill in the blank exemption, along with the operations and training manuals guiding the participants through the procedures and tools required to manage and reduce the risk while operating unmanned aerial systems,” he explains.
The FAA has also taken a proactive approach to the growing field of RPA use, launching its Know Before You Fly Campaign at FAA.gov/UAS to explain the differences between commercial RPA and recreational and hobbyist use.
The agency breaks RPA use into the following categories: Public operations, which includes government use, such as law enforcement using them for surveillance or search and rescue; civil operations, such as agriculture monitoring; and model aircraft for the hobby or recreational operator.
FAA rules dictate that RPAs shall not fly higher than 400 feet and remain clear of surrounding obstacles. The aircraft will be within visual line of sight at all times, remain well clear of and not interfere with manned aircraft operations. RPA should not be flown within five miles of an airport unless the operator has contacted the airport and control tower and gotten permission to enter the airspace. In addition, the RPA should not be flown near people or stadiums. Hobbyist pilots cannot fly an aircraft that weighs more than 55 pounds, and cannot fly them in a manner that is considered “careless or reckless.”
During this year’s SUN ’n FUN, the FAA building housed several booths dedicated to providing information about the use of RPAs. Judging by the reactions of a few people who visited the booths, it came as a surprise to learn that certification for commercial operations of a RPA is required.
That is part of the learning curve, notes Newcomb, adding that as the industry continues to evolve, so must the education of the public, beginning with what he describes as “taking back the term drone.”
“Although it is commonly used by the public, drone has a negative connotation,” he explains. “But when you use the term Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), they are kind of long and drawn out or acronyms. Drone is the term the public understands and responds to. We think we can bring drone back to the positive and that is why we are focusing on education.”