I live in a beautiful little town outside Atlanta, a tiny place populated by cats and dogs and birds and foxes and coyotes and a just as diverse set of humans. We have all kinds of city events and multiple Facebook groups for whatever you might imagine, including one for “nature lovers.”
One day I posted a view of our lake from a couple hundred feet up in that nature lovers group and got the usual amount of likes – and one angry face.
Now, it’s possible that was a fat-fingered mistake. I make those all the time. But the angry face is at the end of the emoji line, and the only one near it is the sad face. I’m thinking she really meant the angry face.
But why? I didn’t ask, mostly because I just didn’t feel like engaging that day, but if I had to guess, I’d say that particular responder doesn’t like drones, maybe thinks they’re too loud, too intrusive, and too unsafe, like so many others.
Fair enough. They do make noise, although not as much as even electric lawn tools and nowhere near the gas-powered ones. And they can be intrusive and unsafe, although that’s usually the fault of the pilot and not the machine.
So let’s talk about what you may or may not know about drones. The ones you’re likely to see are referred to as small, unmanned aircraft (sUA) by the FAA and are defined by weight – less than 55 lbs, including any payload like cameras. Anything bigger is treated more like a manned aircraft by the FAA.
Now, 55 lbs may sound like a lot – and it is. That would do some damage. But most of the drones you’ll see from hobbyists or professional photographers shooting real estate or inspecting power lines likely won’t weight nearly that much. The Mavic Air I’m flying weighs in at less than pound. The aircraft I’ll be upgrading to later this year weighs less than two pounds. The larger Phantom drones that a lot of pilots prefer weigh a tad over three pounds.
Of course, falling out of the sky from several hundred feet at those weights can cause some damage, and that’s where the FAA comes in with rules and regulations. First, drone pilots aren’t allowed to fly over people without a waiver from the FAA, and the application for that waiver must include details about how the pilot intends to insure safety. The waiver application I’m filing for our local festival this fall will include information about how high I’ll fly over people (not very), how much flight will be over people (not much because most of my flight will be away from the crowds to get a good view from a slightly higher angle), and that my aircraft will be equipped with propellor guards., which keep the spinning blades from hitting anything.
Oh right, propellers. They spin. Fast. But on most drones you’d encounter, they’re made of lightweight plastic and can’t do much damage, especially with guards around them.
But how about that fear of drones spying on you? It’s true that a drone can fly over your house, just like any other aircraft, because the FAA controls all airspace in the United States from the ground up. That does include over your house. So no, you can’t shoot down a drone any more than you can shoot down a plane or helicopter over your house. It’s a felony. At the same time, anything that’s illegal without a drone is also illegal with one, including peeping into your windows. Some locales have further restrictions on things like publishing photos with identifiable people who could be said to have a reasonable expectation of privacy, like in your backyard. And I can assure you that most drones won’t be anywhere near low enough to identify you, nor do legitimate pilots have any reason to spy on you.
The FAA has other rules and regulations aimed at keeping the skies and people on the ground safe. All drones, even hobbyist aircraft, must be registered with the FAA. It’s cheap – $5, and it lasts for three years. Hobbyists themselves should also register. That’s $5 too, and lasts for two years. Commercial pilots have to take an Airman Knowledge test to receive what’s called a Remote Pilot in Command certificate, and that test includes information about different classes of airspace, weather, and much more. The PIC certificate is good for two years and must be renewed by taking a recurrent knowledge test.
Hobbyists are getting new regulations as well.
How about that noise? Not much we can do about it, to be honest, but mostly we’ll be flying high enough that you’ll barely notice at all. Drone manufacturers are also working to make our aircraft as quiet as possible, and newer models are invariably quieter than older models.
Drones are also getting easier to fly, and many have failsafes that can do things like return immediately to the take-off point in case of emergency. When we fly – commercial pilots and hobbyists alike – we’re required to maintain what’s called Visual Line of Sight at all times. That means if we or a flight crew member can’t see the aircraft, we’re flying illegally. We can’t fly higher than 400 feet, can’t fly if visibility is less than 3 miles, have to stay 500 feet below clouds, and can’t fly prior to 30 minutes before sunrise or beyond 30 minutes after sunset. And if we are flying in one of those two 30-minute windows, our aircraft are required to have lights than can be seen for 3 miles.
Yes, drones crash sometimes, like any aircraft. Minimizing crashes and any damage that might incur from a crash is precisely why we have regulations.
Unfortunately, there’s always gonna be bad actors out there who think rules don’t apply to them. I’m not one of them. If you see me out flying, rest assured that I am following the rules, getting the view from above safely and legally.