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Drone operators navigate strict laws

fr drone operatorsDrone operators have found that navigating the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulations is more complicated than navigating their unmanned aircrafts.

As drones become a household item, the FAA is cracking down on who, when and where these devices can be flown in the general airspace, but some feel the new laws are too restrictive because they basically require that a commercial drone operator be a licensed pilot. 

Even though he has been flying remote control aircrafts since he was 5 and earned his pilot’s license in 1998, Allen Newland of Waynesville said obtaining the proper permitting through the FAA to use his drone commercially was grueling. 

“With me already having my FAA pilot’s license, it made the jump into legal Commercial Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operations easier and much cheaper,” Newland said. “The $10K for the pilot’s license was paid for long ago, so that was a major hurdle behind us.”

New FAA regulations now classify drones, or unmanned aircraft systems, into three different usage categories — recreational, commercial and governmental. Anyone operating a drone for any use must now register it with the FAA before flying outdoors or face civil and criminal penalties. There is a short list of drones that do not require registration, most of which are under half a pound and don’t even contain a camera. Online registration costs $5 and is valid for three years. 

But registration is just the tip of the iceberg for those who want to operate a drone for a profit. To operate a drone for commercial purposes, a person must pass a knowledge test through the North Carolina Department of Transportation before they can receive an operator permit. Commercial use includes operating an aerial photography business, but it also includes real estate agents who use a drone to take promotional footage of properties.  

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Arlene Salac, an FAA spokesperson, said commercial drone users must be granted a Section 333 exemption from the federal government through the FAA before they can legally operate. She said the exemption states that the person in control of the drone must have at least a sport or recreational pilot certificate.

“FAA regulation compliance is in a whole different realm,” said Mary Anne Baker, owner of ImageRhee Aerial Photography. “We have a comprehensive liability policy, we’re registered with the FAA and we filed and were granted a 333 exemption — it’s at least a six-month process.”

Newland thinks the current laws are overly prohibitive and excessive, but he can understand the importance of having to regulate all these new aircrafts circulating in the airspace. 

“I do firmly believe that every drone operator — hobby or commercial — who has an aircraft that has the ability to enter into the same airspace as manned aircrafts, needs to have some type of basic knowledge, training and be tested to validate the training,” he said. “Because these aircraft are able to fly into the same airspace as manned aircraft, we must be able to know what airspace we are trying to fly in, know how to handle an emergency situation, and be able to properly communicate with ATC (air traffic control).”

Before drone technology advanced to include stabilization and GPS flight controls, most operators flew their remote-controlled aircrafts in an empty field because it could just fall out of the sky if something went wrong. Now that most drones can hover in one spot with no operator intervention and have GPS flight controls, some operators may take more chances and fly their aircrafts anywhere. 

Newland said just because the technology has advanced doesn’t mean the technology won’t malfunction. No one wants a drone flying into his or her home or falling into a highly populated area.

“We have created our own worst nightmare, and we need to take full responsibility and do what’s right and in the best interest of safety,” he said. “If something goes wrong in the guidance system, the aircraft can fly a long way unaided by the operator and fly into an unsafe area in a very unsafe manner.”

Since drones are becoming more affordable and easier to operate, just about anyone could make the investment and take to the sky. Newland said many people don’t understand the regulations or ignore them in hopes they won’t get caught. 

“The regulations are definitely enforceable though,” he said. “You can get a hefty fine, and it’s more than most of us can afford to lose.”

Salac said the FAA was working diligently to educate people on the new requirements. 

“The FAA’s mission and priority is the safety of people on airplanes as well as people and property on the ground,” Salac said. “The FAA, with its government and industry partners, continues to conduct outreach through the ‘Know Before You Fly’ and ‘No Drone Zone’ campaigns, making users aware of where they can and cannot fly.”  

Salac maintained that the regulations are enforceable. In fact, the FAA has initiated 24 enforcement cases and has settled 12 of those cases with violation findings. Violators could pay civil penalties up to $27,500 and criminal penalties could include fines of up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment for up to three years.

“The FAA also includes law enforcement in discussions about unsafe and unauthorized flights on both a national and local level,” Salac said. “The FAA has field agents across the country as part of its Law Enforcement Assistance Program who work directly with all levels of law enforcement on issues dealing with unmanned aircraft systems.”

For now, the strict regulations are keeping the number of commercial drone operators to a minimum, which is a good thing for ImageRhee and A Shot Above. 



Guidelines for recreational drone users

Recreational drone operators are not required to obtain a license or permit from the Division of Aviation. The Federal Aviation Administration, however, has set guidelines for responsible operation:

• Always fly below an altitude of 400 feet, and fly within your direct line of sight.

• Do not fly within 5 miles of an airport, near stadiums or other public events.

• Do not fly for compensation.

• Do not fly at night.

• Do not fly a drone that weighs more than 55 pounds.


Guidelines for commercial drone users

Commercial drone operators must receive a Section 333 Exemption from the federal government. This is a case-by-case exemption that must be applied for and approved by the FAA.

As an alternative to a Section 333 Exemption, an Unmanned Aircraft Systems operator may apply for a federal Special Airworthiness Certificate from the FAA. Once an operator receives either a Section 333 Exemption or a Special Airworthiness Certificate, the drone must be used in accordance with any restrictions or limitations included in the FAA's authorization.


North Carolina drone requirements

Commercial operators must take and pass North Carolina’s Department of Transportation's drone knowledge test and then apply for a state permit.

To obtain a permit, operators must provide the state proof of their authorization to conduct commercial drone operations from the FAA.

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