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FAA Announces New Rules for Recreational Drone Pilots Flying Near Airports

BY Zacc Dukowitz
22 May 2019

Last week the FAA announced that new rules for recreational drone pilots had been published to the Federal Register.

The big change to highlight from this announcement is that hobbyists can now fly only in Class G airspace without prior authorization. The “five mile” rule that previously allowed recreational drone pilots to fly within five miles of an airport, so long as they notified the airport and the air traffic control tower, no longer applies.

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Going forward, in order to fly in controlled airspace around airports all recreational drone pilots must obtain prior authorization from the FAA. Prior authorization will eventually be available to recreational pilots via LAANC (Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability), the instant-authorization system currently used by commercial drone pilots to obtain airspace authorization.

It’s important to note that most of the airspace in the U.S. is Class G airspace, so there are still plenty of places where hobbyists can fly without needing prior authorization or taking any extra steps.

Wondering whether you’re a recreational/hobbyist drone pilot?

If you fly to make money or in exchange for services or goods, then you’re a commercial pilot and must hold a Part 107 certificate to operate a drone for commercial purposes. If you fly strictly for fun or recreation, then you’re a hobbyist.

How Do Hobbyists Obtain Prior Authorization to Fly in Controlled Airspace?

Although recreational drone pilots must now obtain prior authorization to fly in controlled airspace around airports, there is currently no way for them to do so.

Recreational drone pilots will eventually be able to obtain authorization using LAANC, but at the moment the FAA has not yet incorporated them into the LAANC framework.

However, in order to support recreational drone pilots the FAA has identified several “fixed sites” where they can fly without needing to obtain prior authorization.

To find the fixed sites near you, check out this list provided by the FAA (MS Excel), or view them on the UAS Facility Maps, where they show up as blue dots. Each fixed site is limited to the altitude shown on the map, which varies by location.

And remember, these fixed sites are not the only places where hobbyists can fly. Recreational drone pilots can also fly anywhere in Class G airspace without prior authorization—take a look at the UAS Facility Maps to find Class G airspace near you.

Is This Progress?

Last weekend we received some emails from hobbyists who were worried that the FAA’s new prior authorization rule would basically make it impossible for them to fly.

First, that’s not really the case. Given how much Class G airspace there is in the U.S., there should still be plenty of open skies for hobbyists—but yes, we do agree that things are being rolled out a little piecemeal. Ideally, hobbyists would have LAANC access right now, instead of having to wait.

But here’s what we think is positive about the new prior authorization rule for flying around airports.

Previously, recreational drone pilots had to notify the airport and ATC when they were going to fly near an airport. But how to actually do this wasn’t always clear, and according to some reports ATC didn’t always understand why they were being contacted.

On the receiving end, prior authorization means that ATC doesn’t have to field phone calls from hobbyists any more, sometimes in scenarios where they don’t really understand why the pilot is calling or what to do with the information. Which is all to say that this change should make things more clear and efficient for everyone involved—and, given where things are headed with remote ID, this change was probably inevitable anyway.

Hobbyist Knowledge Test in the Works

Last week’s announcement was just another step in implementing the changes for hobbyists first set forth in the FAA Reauthorization Act, which was passed last October.

One of the biggest changes in the Act was the repeal of Section 336, also known as the Special Rule for Model Aircraft. With the repeal, hobbyist drone pilots are now subject to FAA regulations similar to those under which commercial drone pilots operate.

So what’s next?

The biggest change on deck for recreational drone pilots is the requirement for them to take a knowledge test in order to be able to fly, similar to how commercial drone pilots take the Part 107 test to obtain a certificate that allows them to fly.

There hasn’t been much information released yet about what the test will look like, but here is what the FAA had to say about the test in last week’s announcement:

Another new provision in the 2018 Act requires recreational flyers to pass an aeronautical knowledge and safety test. They must maintain proof that they passed, and make it available to the FAA or law enforcement upon request. The FAA is currently developing a training module and test in coordination with the drone community. The test will ensure that recreational flyers have the basic aeronautical knowledge needed to fly safely.

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We do worry that education will be a problem with these changes.

If there isn’t an informational card included in the box with your new camera drone, how are you going to know that you’re supposed to get prior authorization to fly near airports, or that you’re supposed to take a test before flying?

It could be that the FAA is working on a publicity campaign to help get the word out alongside their work on creating the actual test—we certainly hope that’s the case.

That being said, the only mention of education in the recent announcement is this: “The FAA will help recreational flyers learn and understand the changes by posting updates and additional guidance, including regulatory changes, on the FAA website.”

Other Things to Note for Recreational Drone Pilots

Within last week’s announcement, the FAA also reminded hobbyists that they still need to register their drones, fly only for recreational purposes, and follow the safety guidelines of a community-based organization (like the AMA).

These guidelines include items like keeping your drone within your line of sight while flying, flying under 400 feet above ground level, and not flying over people, near emergencies, or near other aircraft.

Recreational drone pilots must also meet the eight statutory conditions of Section 349 of the Reauthorization Act. Basically, if you’re just flying for fun and you adhere to the guidelines mentioned above then you meet these conditions—you can read this Federal Register notice if you’d like to learn more.

What do you think of these new changes for hobbyists? Share your thoughts in this thread on the UAV Coach community forum.

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