It’s A Bird…It’s A Plane….Nope, It’s A Drone!

by James Bildilli & Matt Heyen
Published in Midwest Flyer Magazine – Aug/Sept 2016

No doubt you have heard about, seen or even operated a drone over the past couple of years. There are many names that can be used – drones, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) – but they are all essentially the same device. Typically, it’s a small machine using at least four counter-rotating rotors that provide lift for the body and whatever is attached to it. Some drones are fixed-wing, which can be launched by hand or by automated launch devices. The drone explosion is a reality, but it’s not as intimidating as it seems. You’ll probably find the word “drone” more often in the hobby circles whereas UAV and UAS are usually reserved for their commercial applications.

With so much technological advancement taking place in such a short time, there’s bound to be confusion, misinformation and, in some cases, fear about these devices. Like anything, good intentions can be turned toward evil ends, but the vast majority of operators are using these devices for enjoyment or business purposes. In order to help those in the general aviation community better understand the differences in operations, notifications and restrictions, it’s easiest to separate usage into two categories: hobby and commercial.

Hobby Flying

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) defines the first category as “hobby” or “recreational flying,” and as such, the drone can only be used for personal use.

For example, if one flies a personal drone to get a picture of their house, that’s OK, but if someone pays you to take pictures of their house using that same drone, it is a commercial use. As a hobbyist, you must adhere to the following rules:

• Drones must be registered with the FAA (accomplished on-line for a $5 fee).

• Drones cannot be flown within 5 nautical miles of an airport, unless the airport and control tower are contacted in advance.

• Maximum altitude is below 400 feet AGL when operating the drone.

• Drones must remain within sight at all times.

• Drones must remain clear of manned aircraft operations.

• Drones must remain clear of groups (not defined) of people or stadiums.

• Drones must not weigh more than 55 pounds.

• Drones cannot be operated in a reckless manner or to endanger people or aircraft.

Several of the restrictions are not objective or measurable, so it is easy to imagine how they would be hard to police. Nevertheless, the rules are on the books and, in some cases, have been enforced.

Commercial Flying

With regard to “commercial” drone operations, the FAA splits this category into two parts: one for public operations (governmental), and one for civil operations (non-governmental). The decision as to whether it is a public or civil operation is very narrowly defined. U.S. government training or non-commercial purposes used by a government of the state, such as universities, police departments and the military, is considered a public use of drones. As of June 1, 2016, there were 74 public-use holders of such certificates in the U.S.

Initially, all “civil” drones operated under an “exemption” to Section 333. However, on June 21, 2016, the FAA published new regulations under FAR Part 107 to cover civil operations for drones weighing less than 55 pounds, which will go into effect in August. Prior to its adoption, there were approximately 5,300 operators covered by the exemption.

The new rules cover three main areas: operating limitations, pilot certification, and UAS requirements.

Operating Limitations

• The UAS must weigh less than 55 lbs.

• A UAS is restricted to visual line-of-sight (VLOS) operations only. Whether or not you use a First Person view or similar technology, you must have a visual observer keep your aircraft within unaided sight (no binoculars) at all times.

• The remote pilot can only operate one UAS at a time.

• UAS flying is restricted to daylight or in twilight (30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset) with appropriate anti-collision lighting and in visibilities of 3 nautical miles or greater from the control station.

• UAS maximum allowable altitude is 400 feet above ground level (AGL). It can be higher if the drone is within 400 feet of an existing structure.

• The maximum speed of a UAS cannot exceed 100 mph (87 kts).

• A UAS must yield right-of-way to other aircraft. A First Person view camera cannot be used to satisfy “see-and-avoid” requirements, but can be used as long as the requirement is satisfied in other ways, such as a Visual Observer (VO).

• A UAS cannot be operated from a moving aircraft or vehicle unless the operation is over a sparsely populated area.

• A UAS cannot be used to carry hazardous materials.

• UAS operations in Class B, C, D and E airspace are allowed with ATC permission. Operations in Class G airspace are allowed without ATC permission.

• UAS aircraft require a preflight inspection by the remote pilot in command.

• UAS aircraft may not be operated by anyone who is compromised by any physical or mental condition that would render the operation unsafe.

• A UAS cannot be operated over anyone who is not directly participating in the operation, not under a covered structure or inside a covered stationary vehicle.

• A UAS can carry external loads providing they don’t adversely affect the flight characteristics or controllability of the aircraft.

Although somewhat comprehensive, many of the above restrictions may be waivered if the applicant can demonstrate that the operation can be safely conducted under the terms of a certificate of waiver.

Remote PIC Certification & Responsibilities:

• The Remote Pilot In Command (RPIC) must possess either a Remote Pilot Airman Certificate with a small UAS rating, or be under the direct supervision of a person who does hold a remote pilot certificate.

• The RPIC must be at least 16 years old.

• The RPIC must be “vetted” by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) before the FAA will issue a certificate.

• The RPIC must pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center. You can also hold a Part 61 pilot certificate other than student pilot, complete a flight review within the previous 24 months, and complete a small UAS on-line training course provided by the FAA.

• The RPIC who possesses a Part 61 Certificate may obtain a “temporary” certificate immediately upon submission of their application for a permanent certificate.

• All foreign certificated UAS pilots will be required to obtain an FAA issued certificate until international standards are developed.

• The RPIC must make available to the FAA upon request the small UAS for inspection or testing, along with any and all required documents and records.

• The RPIC must report to the FAA within 10 days of any incidents that resulted in serious injury, loss of consciousness, or property damage of at least $500.

• The RPIC is responsible for ensuring that the UAS complies with the existing registration requirements of Part 91.203.

UAS Requirements

• The UAS does not require an FAA airworthiness certificate. However, the RPIC must conduct a preflight check to determine that the aircraft is in a condition for safe operation.

As you can see, the FAA has replaced the former Certificate of Authorization (COA) and its associated rules with the newly adopted FAR Part 107 rules with many of the COA requirements incorporated within the new regulations. Many of the UAS aircraft have on-board GPS and “home” guidance features, which will make the PIC’s workload somewhat lighter. However, as a RPIC, you are still primarily responsible for the safety of flight, just as much as if you were flying your “heavy iron.”

Drone Uses In Aviation

So, with all these limitations, why would anyone want to operate a UAS? The simple answer is the amazing speed and efficiency at which the UAS can provide information.

For example, to complete a typical 35-acre project to survey a runway approach, it would normally take a crew of three (3) people working several days to collect the information. Using a UAS to gather aerial images and ground elevation data requires approximately 15 minutes to fly. In fact, it takes significantly longer to set the survey ground control points used to calibrate the images collected by the drone to ensure the accuracy of the data.

Recently, the approach to Runway 6 at Southern Illinois Airport in Carbondale, Illinois, was flown to determine if there were any “obstructions” within the FAA’s defined Runway Protection Zone (RPZ). The flight path and the resulting images are shown below:

Accuracies obtained using a UAS are well within the parameters used for traditional ground surveys. As such, the data gathered can be used to plan and design typical engineering projects.

Recently, a UAV survey was performed at a Kentucky airport to establish the extent of a large area near the end of a runway where the earthen fill failed. The data collected was used to develop construction plans that are being used to repair the damage.

Besides evaluating runway approaches, the UAS can be used for several other airport purposes including the collection of promotional photographs, 3-D images and video footage. It can also be used for managing wildlife using thermal imaging, surveying perimeter fencing, and monitoring airport pavement conditions, brush control, snow plowing, drainage effectiveness and infrastructure inspection. In addition, it has been increasingly useful in the collection of information that can be used to develop or update an airport’s Master Plan. It is proving to be a very cost-effective approach to data collection that until recently was extremely expensive and time consuming.

The uses for UAS are growing every day. It’s important to remember that UAS are operating in the National Airspace System (NAS), so the FAA will continue to provide the regulations to make manned aircraft operations as safe as possible while encouraging the use of this technology. Some believe that UAS may provide the “spark” to our younger generation so they take up an interest in general aviation and someday become pilots themselves.

Hanson Professional Services Inc. provided the images used to illustrate this article. For more information, contact Matt Heyen P.E. at or by phone at 217-747-9260.

Hanson uses a DJI Inspire to obtain high-resolution aerial photography, generate ground contours and complete inspections using the onboard video and still camera.

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