How To Officially Report Your Drone Flight Plans To Nearby Pilots
BY Alan Perlman9 September 2015
Note: On June 21st 2016, the FAA announced Part 107, a new drone certification process. Filing NOTAMs is no longer required for basic operations under Part 107. Please consult this guide for more information.
By: Chris Clarke
U.S. pilots are lucky enough to have free access to an abundance of flight information via Flight Service Stations since the 1920s. This service is generally used to check weather along a desired route and to file and close flight plans. Now with the proliferation of drones flying in the same airspace as regular airplanes, the service is integrating information on unmanned flights as well, and you can participate.
For the majority of its existence, Flight Service for pilots was accessed by a phone call to your local station. You’d be connected with a local briefer who would have intimate knowledge of local weather patterns and airport procedures, and could inform you of any closed runways or inoperative approach lights. After you were satisfied that you’d received enough information pertaining to your flight, you could then file a flight plan while you were still on the line. It was very common to call hours before your flight to get an outlook briefing and then again right before departure to check if any major changes might have popped up.
In more recent years, this job has been handed over to Lockheed Martin, who has been hard at work consolidating information into a nationwide system to more quickly and automatically disseminate information to pilots. To accomplish this, Lockheed Martin has implemented an Adverse Conditions Alerting Service to automatically send pilots alerts for things like newly forecasted severe weather, newly restricted airspace due to government or military activity, or things like a high density of aerial firefighting activity. In the wake of rising reports by pilots of drone sightings, Lockheed Martin has added Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS or drones) flight areas to this alerting service as well.
If you happen to be one of the roughly 1,200 commercial drone operators to receive an exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly in the national airspace system, then you are required by law to declare your intended flight by filing a plan with Flight Service. The “hobbyist” and fly-by-night drone operators are also encouraged to participate in the system too, hopefully limiting the chances of a mid-air collision.
It’s a fairly painless process. Simply head over to the Flight Service website and register for a free account. Once logged in, choose “planning” under the UAS option.
The planning form requests that you enter an ID for your drone. Every aircraft registered to operate in the United States has a unique ID that begins with the letter N. If your drone is not registered, (which it shouldn’t be unless you have applied for an exemption) then choose a unique identifier. I recommend checking the aircraft registry database to verify that the number of your choosing is not currently in use.
Next, enter the maximum altitude at which you’ll be operating your drone. Remember, this is height above sea level not about the ground, so if you’re only flying 400 feet above your head while standing on a 4,000 ft tall mountain, your maximum altitude is 4,400 feet MSL. Date and times of your planned operations are straightforward, but the operating area can be a little more tricky to figure out. You can get fancy and enter multiple waypoints to define a custom boundary, but a simple circular area based on a radius from a predefined coordinate will suffice. Format should be in degrees and minutes of latitude and longitude separated by a slash. You can find these numbers by dropping a pin on Google Maps. Then enter a radius from this center point. Add contact information and you’re ready to submit.
At any time you can amend or cancel your planned operations. Past flights will also be saved and can be re-used or modified for new upcoming activity.
Now that your drone operation is on record, pilots planning flights in the vicinity will be shown a possible conflict if your activity happens to be within 10 nautical miles of their departure or destination airport, or if their altitude is within 4,000 feet of their planned route. Flight Service even spits out a neat graphic depiction illustrating the conflict if a pilot gets a briefing through their website.
Lockheed Martin, in their implementation of Flight Service, has also offered up free access through third-party apps that wish to utilize this system. Many pilots, myself included, use an iPad extensively for flight planning and mapping. Now, my favorite app will send me a push notification on both my iPhone and iPad should a drone operation become active even after I’ve filed my flight plan.
While official certification with the government is certainly not an option for everyone, being a good citizen is.
Remember, if you don’t have an FAA exemption to operate a drone for commercial activities then you are limited to hobby and recreational use only. This means you need to stay lower than 400 feet above the ground and keep the aircraft within line of sight at all times. And most importantly, never fly within five miles of an airport unless you receive permission ahead of time.
Registering where you plan to fly your drone is easy, and you’re potentially going to be using the same airspace overhead as aircraft with actual human beings in them. Take the time register your drone operations, and you can avoid a potentially life-threatening situation.