The FAA released its long-awaited rules regarding the commercial use of drones on August 29, 2016. This is found in Part 107 of the FARs (Federal Aviation Regulations). The use of a drone in any commercial venture must be piloted by an FAA Part 107 certified pilot. This applies to the New York Jets use of drones for capturing plays for further evaluation, news crews capturing breaking news footage, or a Realtor capturing aerial views of that stunning listing. If you are using it in the furtherance of your work, you need to be certified.
The rules, and the applicable knowledge which must be learned for this test, are there to secure the safety of other aircraft in the skies, and people, places, and things on the ground. This is in an effort to bring order to the burgeoning UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) market.
In a 2016 forecast from the FAA - the government agency charged with overseeing American air space - there would be 1.9 million potential annual sales and that number could increase to 4.3 million units sold annually by 2020.
Before Part 107 Certification
Before Part 107 Certification, anyone wishing to use a drone for commercial purposes was required to 1) have a pilot’s license; 2) have their drone registered; and 3) get an exemption from the FAA under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.
One of the things they stress when studying for the FAA exam is knowledge of the National Air Space (NAS). This requires the pilot to be able to read air charts for the purpose of knowing where he can or cannot fly. There are certain places - highly congested metropolitan areas and around large airports - where the NAS is restricted all the way to the ground. There are also frequent Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) of which the pilot must be informed. TFRs are focused on a specific area where flight is restricted during a certain period. This is frequently around the movement of high-profile individuals or around large public events (an airshow).
Another one of the most important factors in aviation of any kind is weather. The pilot is required to be able to obtain an aviation weather report and understand it. These are in the form of a cryptically written paragraph of numbers and initials that the pilot must be able to translate.
Rules of the Sky for Drones
So what are some of the rules that apply to flying a drone under Part 107? Keep reading for the answers. Having this knowledge is important to keep in mind when hiring a drone pilot for a job.
Drones must be flown with constant line-of-site observation at all times. This has to be done with only the aid of corrective lenses, if needed. Pilots are allowed to employ Visual Observers to assist them in their flights. These can be used as an extra pair of eyes.
Drones may not be flown higher than 400 feet above ground (AGL).
Drones that weigh between .55 pounds and 55 pounds must be registered with the FAA. The registration number must be visible on the drone.
Night flights are not allowed. Drones may be flown from 30 minutes before sunrise until 30 minutes after sunset. In the 30-minutes before and after sunrise and sunset (civil twilight) the pilot is required to have lighting on the drone that is visible for three miles.
The pilot is not allowed to fly the drone over crowds of people or individuals not directly working on the shoot.
A drone may not be flown from a moving vehicle.
For most drones, flying in winds exceeding 20-25 knots is not recommended. Also, flights are not able to be conducted in precipitation. This is not a rule, but may impact your ability to conduct your aerial shoot on the day designated.
Some of the rules in Part 107 may be able to overcome with an exemption. In order to get an exemption, the pilot must apply for it and allow 90 days for it to be approved.
Questions to Ask Your Professional Drone Pilot
Visual Observer – Ask your potential photographer if they employ a visual observer. Having a visual observer is not always necessary, but if it is a complicated shoot it is recommended.
Insurance – Drones are not covered under the general liability coverage of a business’s small business insurance. Drone insurance is something that must be purchased specifically. Make sure to ask your potential photographer to show you their proof of insurance.
Safety Measures – Ask your potential pilot what check lists and emergency procedures they have in place to ensure a safe flight. My pre-flight checks always include a walk around of the site to ensure clearance from trees and wires. Both the controller and the drone itself are checked to make sure both have the latest operating software and that the batteries are fully charged. I also calibrate the compass to ensure that the drone is able to return to the exact point of departure in the event of an emergency.
Update (7/29/19): Things have changed since I originally wrote this article more than three years ago. The pace of drone technology and subsequent legislative changes continues at a dizzying clip. Drones have proven an invaluable tool for a multitude of industries, but the drone industry is still in its infancy. Flying here in northern New Jersey can prove complicated. With so many smaller and larger airports concentrated together, you have to know where you can go and where you can't go.
The federal government recently launched a system called the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC). This is a partnership between the FAA and private industry that allows for incorporating drone operations in and around airports, but only below 400 feet. The program operates through a series of partner applications that automate the application and approval process for airspace authorizations.
This new airspace authorization capability opens up airspace that was previously off limits to drones. If you live in West Caldwell, NJ you previously were not allowed to fly a drone in that airspace. With the new LAANC system, certified pilots can now obtain airspace authorizations by applying online through various phone apps.
Andrew McGibbon Photography provides professional aerial photography and videography.
This article is not to be relied upon as a complete and exhaustive list of all the FAA rules that apply to flying a drone. Nor is it intended to set forth all the limitations of piloting a drone commercially. Rather, it is a reference for things to keep in mind when looking to hire a potential drone pilot for aerial work. For complete Part 107 Federal Aviation Regulations, please visit FAA.gov.