Getting your first drone is exciting, but there are many new responsibilities and priorities you must understand before taking flight.
Many fly drones — or unmanned aerial systems (UAS) — for professional purposes, such as photography, mapping, agriculture, and more.
But many more fly solely for the fun and recreation of piloting a remote aircraft. For these recreational drone pilots, flying may be a relaxing weekend activity or a way to spend more time with the family having fun. This also is a fantastic opportunity to get outside and learn about flying, as well as software and photography.
Assumption is the Enemy of Safety
The unfortunate thing is that there are too many assumptions taking place for new drone pilots.
The all-too common “how high and high fast can I fly” mentality is incredibly unsafe — and causing more and more issues, as more and more drones fly off store shelves.
When buying a drone for the first time, from a big box electronics store or online, there is likely little or no mention of guidelines or regulations, much less registration.
Assumption is the enemy of safety in any activity. As a new drone owner, you likely just want to get home, open the box and get that new quad in the air. But did you realize you are now sharing the National Airspace System with all other aircraft? Whoa, sounds pretty serious, huh? That’s because it is serious.
You may also think that putting a relatively small drone in the air couldn’t cause all that much damage if something went wrong. Wrong!
A majority of drones come in under three pounds, such as popular models like DJI’s Phantom and Mavic lines and the Autel Evo. While this may not sound like much, a direct impact, say to the windscreen of a manned aircraft, could be catastrophic.
How about registration? Were you aware that even though you are flying for your own enjoyment, you still are required to register with the FAA?
If your drone weighs more than .55 pounds and less than 55 pounds you must register under Section 336 for the Special Rule for Model Aircraft. This is a fairly quick and painless process. You can find registration details and more information at FAADroneZone.faa.gov. Here you can also learn how to fly safely as a recreational operator.
Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should
How well do you know your drone? It is important to understand that you have more than just a drone — you are operating an Unmanned Aircraft System. Let that last word sink in for a moment.
This system has a few important parts to understand, otherwise you are flying with compromised control of your aircraft that could potentially lead to an accident, injury to a person or animal, or other problems.
Your system includes, obviously, the aircraft, but also the controller, the controller screen, flight control software, batteries, and any other components required for flight.
It is your responsibility to make sure that every part of the system is well maintained and operating correctly before launching into the air.
It is even more critical that you understand what is going on at all times. Become highly familiar with Return To Home (RTH), as well as other procedures to manage emergencies, such as sudden wind gusts or a fly away or other loss of control.
How about a pre-flight checklist? If you are not using one, you should make it a part of each and every flight without exception.
Let’s circle back to assumptions for a moment. Drone manufacturers, like many tech manufacturers, know that impressive specs sell. Bigger, faster, higher, further is the goal.
The reality is that the vast majority of popular models available today more than exceed the limitation of safe flight as defined by the FAA.
It is common to see drones advertised to fly more than four miles. But, the FAA requires you to fly within visual line of sight (VLOS) at all times (some exceptions apply for 14 CFR Part 107 Remote Pilots with prior waiver approval from the FAA). No one I know could possibly see an aircraft of this size four miles away. This is just one example of just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
What Could Possibly Happen?
As a new pilot, eager to get in some flight time, you will eventually become more and more familiar and confident in your equipment. Even then, don’t get complacent or lazy with your flying.
You are responsible for everything that happens during your flight and accountable for any incidents. Remember, you are operating a pretty solid aircraft in the National Airspace System with four razor-sharp propellers spinning at around 600 RPM. This is not something you want falling into a crowd of people, on the windshield of a moving car, or bumping into a manned aircraft in the sky.
Think it doesn’t happen? Think again. There are more near-misses and other close calls reported regularly than you probably expect.
An example is a recent news article about a drone flown by an inexperienced pilot that flew directly into a manned hot air balloon. Not only that, it repeatedly kept hitting the balloon until its propellers snapped and it ultimately fell to the ground.
While this story fortunately had a happy ending without injury to anyone involved, it highlights the many assumptions this pilot made. Many rules were not followed, whether by ignorance or indifference, and the outcome could have been much worse.
A simple Google search will bring up many more similar stories. And these are only the ones that make the news.
There also are many videos posted on YouTube, Facebook, and other social media where drone flying is clearly out of compliance.
As a drone pilot, you must be aware of the stigma that drones have with the general public. Flying too close to residential areas brings out fears of spying or other intrusion.
There are also financial and civil penalties to consider. Those flying illegally for commercial operations, say doing photography for a business without being Part 107 certificated, are subject to penalty. But guess what? The person who knowingly hires an uncertificated pilot is also on the hook and the financial impact can be quite significant.
Congress is seriously considering a bill that would require a stricter level of compliance for hobbyists. This is no surprise given the increasing number of drones in the air and the wider range of uses in the near future for deliveries and other drone traffic. It would not be surprising to see a requirement for clearly defined flight guidelines, tracking transmitters, and a level of testing requirement added to recreational operators sooner rather than later.
Think like a Pro
There is great fun, relaxation, and productivity to be found with flying drones, however it is important to do things correctly. As a new drone pilot, it is not all that demanding or difficult to get started.
Just put on the brakes before you take flight or, even better, before you bring your new UAS home. Stop and take some time to learn about the registration process, your responsibilities for sharing the National Airspace System with other aircraft, and safety and emergency procedures particular to your drone make and model.
The more you know, the more you will gain the confidence and abilities to be a better remote pilot. Even as a recreational operator, you still should cultivate a “pro” mindset to get the most from your flying.
And, if you plan on advancing even further into becoming a professional 14 CFR Part 107 Remote Pilot, you will be that much further ahead by having already gotten off to a good start following the rules and guidelines as any excellent manned pilot would.
There are many great resources to learn from, such as your drone manufacturer’s website, the Academy of Model Aeronautics, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, and the FAA’s Drone Zone.
Of course, we are always happy to help, so feel welcome to contact me or post your comments below.