I checked off a New Year’s resolution in 2017 when I successfully added Unmanned, small Aircraft System Remote Pilot to my list of pilot certifications. I am one of the more than 23,000 people who has earned that license since the FAA began issuing it in 2013.
More than 23,000 licenses in only four years is a staggering number. It indicates that drones — officially unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) — are not just a fad anymore.
The Consumer Technology Association estimates 825,000 drones were sold in the United States in 2016. That number, coupled with the number of licensed UAS pilots in our country, reveals three important concepts:
The first is that drones are here to stay. The second is that drone piloting is the fastest-growing segment in general aviation. The third is that drones must now be considered legitimate aircraft to be reckoned with in the context of the National Airspace System (NAS).
I also wanted to participate in the process so I could talk knowledgeably about the issues that might be raised by drone pilots in their reports to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System.
The process showed me the FAA wants to integrate drones into the NAS. But I perceive big gaps between regulatory language and real-world operations.
Drone pilots might agree, given the number and type of them filing NASA reports in the past 18 months.
Of the 240 NASA reports on drones I researched for this column, almost 25% were filed by drone operators. Of interest, 240 reports in the same 18-month period is about a 600% increase.
Drone pilot reports are about evenly split three ways. Approximately one-third of them relate to near mid-air collision (NMAC) events. Another third address possible or actual airspace violations. The final third detailed pilots’ struggles reconciling the ambiguity in the language of the four sets of regulations governing UAS operations.
All in all, two-thirds of drone pilot NASA reports relate to uncertainty. Financial pundits always opine that “the market doesn’t like uncertainty.”
The common theme surrounding each report could be summarized as pilots practicing the philosophy of “’tis better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.”
In other words, a good number of the reports I read seem to have been written to CYA for intentionally questionable behavior. My analysis of these reports indicates drone pilots are taking advantage of the uncertainty surrounding drone operations while also using the NASA reporting system to their full advantage.
For example, one drone pilot submitted a report after engaging in his 21st century version of “Horse vs. Train.”
“I was operating a hobby racing drone in proximity to a moving freight train,” he wrote in his report. “I am a very experienced manual drone operator, and I decided to fly closely to, land on, fly under and fly inside of a passing cargo train.”
This drone pilot wrote that he had not been aware of any prohibition on flying a drone near, around or through railroad property. Really?
Pilots don’t have to be knowledgeable of railroad law. However, to pass the UAS knowledge exam, they do have to know all of CFR Part 91 — “General Operating and Flight Rules.” While those rules don’t specifically state “Flight near or through a moving train is prohibited,” there are at least two subparts that say as much. Those subparts include CFR 91.13 — Careless or reckless operation, and CFR 91.119 — Minimum safe altitudes.
It is not clear from his report if railroad or other authorities helped end his flight. But the tone of his conclusion could indicate a certain level of chagrin.
“The flight lasted about three minutes, and I landed safely, putting nothing but the drone in jeopardy. It will not be happening again.”
After reviewing footage recorded during a cinematography flight, a drone pilot decided to file a NASA report. In the footage, he saw that he’d overflown people unrelated to the operation.
“I was focused on conducting the flight line of sight, avoiding obstacles at the altitude of the drone as best I could see from a cleared, designated landing area,” he wrote.
CFR Part 107 regulates small unmanned systems to a maximum altitude of 400 feet above ground level (AGL). It doesn’t mandate a minimum altitude, but it does mandate that the remote pilot bear responsibility for maintaining the safety of people, property and other aircraft in the area.
Like regular pilots, drone pilots are required to see and avoid.
Drone operators also are required to maintain a line of sight connection to their aircraft. That sometimes makes the pilot susceptible to a type of tunnel vision, where the pilot focuses so much on the aircraft he loses situational awareness of the area below the drone.
Framers of this regulation may have recognized the liability of the line of sight restriction when they authorized drone pilots to crew a team of trained, visual observers.
This drone pilot learned not to go it alone anymore.
“In the future,” he wrote in his conclusion, “I will utilize visual observers along the boundaries of the designated flying area who can let me know if I get too close.”
Starting A Conversation
Close but no cigar might describe the feeling of another UAS pilot.
“I was flying a drone over my house and suddenly realized I was technically flying in Class D with no permission to fly there,” he began his NASA report.
He wrote that his house sits almost at the lateral limits of Atlanta’s Dekalb-Peachtree Airport’s Class D, and that he was operating the drone at a low height, so he doubted he endangered any other aircraft.
Nevertheless, the realization bothered this pilot a lot. He wrote about wondering how better to have handled the situation.
“Should I have given Tower a call to let them know? Would they think I was nuts if I called them about a little drone that would have no effect on their operations?”
The short answers are “yes” and “maybe, but so what?”
“I felt compelled to write this to spur the conversation of what should and should not be done with drones in technically controlled airspace,” he concluded.
Another UAS operator shared a similar dilemma. He discovered during a post-flight review of FAA regulations that his most recent flights might have violated a section of CFR 101.
“After a thorough review of the new Part 107, I believed that no notification of uncontrolled airports was required,” he wrote.
In that regard, he could be correct. CFR 107.43 states “No person may operate a small unmanned aircraft in a manner that interferes with the operations and traffic patterns at any airport, heliport or seaplane.”
The pilot wrote that he had reviewed his charts, and that based upon that review, he knew he was operating solidly inside Class G airspace. At the time of his flight, he thought he was operating legally near a private, uncontrolled airport. During his flights, no other aircraft were in the vicinity.
“Only after later reading online blogs and further review did I understand that my operation had probably been under Part 101, and that prior notification had been required,” he wrote, concluding, “Some parts of the FAA website are clearer than others.”
This drone pilot believed he’d done his homework. He correctly interpreted his operation to be legal. However, the flights may have been in violation of Part 101.4(e), which prohibits UAS flight within five miles of an airport, without giving prior notice of operation to the appropriate authority.
In all fairness, UAS pilots are saddled with a lot of regulations. Depending on their flight’s profile, a drone pilot could violate any one of four sets of rules: Part 107, Part 101, Part 91, and all of Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.
I feel their pain. When I flew for the airlines, depending upon how the flight was dispatched, my crew and I were put at risk of violating any subsection of Part 121, Part 135, or Part 91, simultaneously. Compare that to general aviation pilots, who only face jeopardy from violating Part 91 regulations each time they launch.
In a way, these reports make it seem like the Wild Wild West during our country’s attempts to colonize and codify it. Or maybe like the early days of the Gold Rush.
Either way, the reports I referenced indicate that it may take a long time to clarify all the ambiguity. Until then, well-meaning drone pilots will continue to work within the system to improve it. More opportunistic drone pilots will continue to push the regulatory and operational boundaries.
Meanwhile, if you already have a valid pilot license, I strongly recommend getting the small UAS Remote Pilot add-on. It’s important for us to know what we’re facing.
Plus, the process is simple. The study materials and exam are free at FAA.gov. There is no flight test requirement, and best of all, the license comes with a certain cool factor when you pull it out of your wallet.