Are you planning to take your drone out for a spin this weekend? First, you’d better check the map, and a new list of requirements from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Some of the requirements are so new that the online tools required for compliance haven’t yet been rolled out, and that could put a temporary crimp in your flight plans — at least if you’re a stickler for the rules.
The requirements, which were laid out today in the Federal Register, change the approval process for folks who want to fly drones weighing less than 55 pounds for recreational purposes as opposed to commercial applications.
Previously, such operators were required to let the authorities at airports and air traffic control facilities know if they were planning to fly their drones within five miles of an airport. That’s no longer the case. Instead, they’ll have to get clearance via the FAA’s Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability, or LAANC.
The only problem is that LAANC’s online system isn’t yet set up for recreational fliers. So for the time being, the only places you’ll be able to fly drones within controlled airspace are at fixed sites specified in a Microsoft Excel database that the FAA is providing online.
There are four such sites listed for Washington state: Lake Sawyer Hawks in Hobart, Vashon Island Modelers on Vashon Island, Fern Prairie Modelers in Washougal and Spokane FPV in Spokane. All of those sites cater to model-airplane hobbyists, and you may have to pay a membership fee to fly.
The alternative is to head for uncontrolled airspace — which can be hard to find in areas anywhere close to an airport. Check the interactive map at KnowBeforeYouFly.org to get the lay of the land. (Potential options include Marymoor Park Airfield and 60 Acres in Redmond. For what it’s worth, drone flights are forbidden in Seattle city parks.)
In all cases, recreational drone flights are still limited to no higher than 400 feet. Operators also still have to keep drones in visual line of sight, avoid other aircraft and comply with all FAA airspace restrictions.
The revised requirements follow through on mandates relating to unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, that were laid out by Congress in last year’s FAA Reauthorization Act.
“We view this as a very positive step forward for the safe integration of drones into the national airspace system, because this allows us to set a basic set of rules for all UAS operations,” Jay Merkle, the FAA’s executive director for UAS integration, told reporters today. “It brings the recreational fliers to the same model as the commercial fliers.”
Eventually, recreational fliers will have to pass an aeronautical knowledge and safety test before using their drones, and carry proof that they’ve passed the test in case they’re asked by law enforcement officials or the FAA to produce it.
But the FAA hasn’t yet developed the training module or the online test. So, until those are available, that requirement won’t be, um, required.
A couple of years ago, the FAA started requiring recreational drone users to register their aircraft and mark them with the registration ID number. Now the FAA is working on a system known as “Remote ID” that would make it possible for the FAA and law enforcement agencies to identify drones while they’re in the air.
Merkle said the new framework governing recreational drone flights “sets the stage for making Remote ID effective.”
How will the FAA handle enforcement? That’s a big question, particularly in the wake of the past year’s drone disruptions at airports in Britain, New Jersey and other locales. The FAA is taking a careful approach to the issue. This month, for example, it sent out a sent out a letter advising airports to go slow on the deployment of anti-drone countermeasures.
Today Merkle said the FAA wouldn’t be taking any additional steps to enforce the new guidelines for recreational fliers.
“Our goal is always ‘safety first,’ and we have a compliance philosophy, so our first methodology would be to ensure compliance and get with the recreational users,” he explained. “Clearly if someone was operating in a reckless, unsafe manner, we would have the option of taking enforcement actions. But compliance and safety in the airspace is really our goal.”
In other words, you can probably rest assured that the feds won’t be knocking on your door if you launch a drone from your backyard to take an aerial selfie.