[Disclaimer: the author is not a lawyer, and may have left something out, or gotten something wrong, or missed a change and reported something out-of-date. But compared to almost everything else in your search results, he’s really really close…]
Last Thursday, shortly after sunrise, I stood in my front yard, watching my drone hovering at 100 feet above ground. In 13 knot NE winds, with gusts to 15, I could barely see any movement of the aircraft itself, and in the video monitor display, I could see no effects of aircraft motion. I was recording video of the view across Kaneohe Bay to the northwest, as the light changed with the rising sun.
A neighbor lady and her son passed by on their morning walk, and they stopped to talk about the drone and what I was doing with it. I showed them the live video on my tablet. A few minutes later another neighbor came by, and we talked about what I had done to make the flight legal, and how the FAA rules about unmanned aircraft were evolving in 2021. I hadn’t anticipated the public outreach aspect of the flight, especially at 6:30 AM. (The picture above is not from that flight, since it would be against the rules to publish pictures from a recreational flight here.)
Using an interface at FAA DroneZone, I had obtained an FAA authorization to fly recreationally at my house, which is in PHNG Class D airspace, and by completing the TRUST Exam, I can operate in compliance with FAA requirements to operate my drone recreationally in the US. Each of these things includes acknowledging responsibility to fly safely, responsibly, and as a cooperating part of the National Airspace System (NAS).
A Process Of Inclusion For Drones
The FAA has always had the authority to control drone flight. The rules of airspace and responsible cooperation with manned aircraft haven’t changed fundamentally in the last 10 years. What has changed is that small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS), popularly called “drones” have become cheaper, easier to obtain, and easier to fly. These factors have driven growth in the number of drones operating in US airspace, which has forced governments to respond. The response that they have chosen is to keep private and commercial drones legal, and to make them a working part of the NAS.
Prior to 2015, state and local governments were faced with regulating the use of drones in their jurisdictions. Given the lack of specific rules from the FAA at the time, there were many emerging rules from various levels of government. In a process that resembles the establishing of federal control over the National Airspace System in the first place (1958), the FAA issued a fact sheet in December 2015, which took steps toward asserting exclusive federal jurisdiction over operation of unmanned aircraft in US airspace. The control of the air over private property at low altitudes (within 100 feet or so) is still being hashed out to some extent, but there is no question that state and local laws have some control, once your drone touches the ground, and remember: although your drone is in the airspace, you are standing on the ground, which is local jurisdiction. For that reason, laws from more-local layers of government are probably trending toward telling you where you can take off and land, what you can photograph, especially with respect to personal privacy, and what happens when someone complains.
The FAA rules now have specific directives about what you need to have in order to fly your drone (as well as some evolving requirements currently in grace periods, specifically Remote ID).
What You Need To Know Before Launching Your Drone
If you intend to fly a drone, or any unmanned aircraft in the National Airspace System, you need to understand and follow the rules currently in effect. If you don’t (as always: Ignorantia juris non excusat), you may find yourself having it explained to you by FAA employees, at which point the exact meaning of the effective rules will become even more interesting to you than it is now. What follows are some high points.
You Need To Pass A Test, Without Exceptions
FAA rules for all types of flying separate the certification of operators from registration of aircraft, and small UAS rules are no different. You, the operator, whether flying under recreational rules, or part 107 rules, need to pass a test and carry proof of successful completion with you when you are operating any drone (regardless of whether it needs to be registered or not).
In order to fly under the recreational rules, you need to complete the TRUST Exam, a requirement since June 2021. The TRUST Exam is less of an exam and more of an educational undertaking, since the test will tell you when you have answered incorrectly, and explain why. Like many aspects of the recreational UAS rules, providing the TRUST Exam is outsourced to organizations outside the FAA.
If you intend to derive any benefit other than enjoyment, from your flying, you need to study for and pass the part 107 exam to become a certificated remote pilot. This requires you to demonstrate knowledge of FAA rules about using the National Air Space, and observing safe, responsible flight practices. If you are a part 61 (manned aircraft) pilot, you will have already taken on most of the relevant information, and if you have a current flight review, the paperwork is much simpler. If you don’t have a previous pilot certificate, expect to spend at least a month, and some money on training. Start your certified remote pilot journey here.
You will find various resources on the Internet, such as part 107 practice tests, but beware: many of the study materials you will find online are out of date, and will lead to incorrectly answered questions when you take the part 107 exam in 2021 or after. One decently-accurate resource is Jonathan Ruprecht’s site, specifically:
The non-drone-specific materials that you need to study for the remote pilot exam are much more stable, and you might find that private pilot ground school material, like this free online course at MIT, will be of value.
Note: Even though I already have my part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate, there is nothing in the rules which says that having a part 107 cert relieves you of the requirement to take the TRUST exam, so I took both.
You Need To Register Your Drone
Currently, there are 2 flavors of drone registration. One is for recreational use, which limits the drone to recreational flights, and the other is for part 107 use, which as I said above, involves flight which benefits you in some way other than enjoyment. If you get compensated for flying, or the pictures or video you record is used for commercial or promotional purposes (possibly including posting on social media), then the flight in question should be performed under part 107. If you register your drone for recreational use, it may not be used to fly for part 107 use. If you register your drone for part 107 use, you can fly using either recreational OR part 107 rules. If you are studying for the part 107 exam, but won’t be ready for a while, you can register your drone under part 107, complete the TRUST exam, and fly your drone under recreational rules while you’re studying. Remember: operator certification and aircraft registration are separate, so technically, there is nothing preventing an operator with no certification from registering a drone for part 107 use.
For part 107 registration, there are no exclusions. You must register any UAS regardless of weight, if you intend to use it for part 107 activities.
For recreational use, you must register your drone “unless it weighs less than 0.55 pounds (250 grams)”. The thing is, your drone almost certainly doesn’t weigh less than 250 grams. The weight requirement does not refer to the weight printed on the box that the drone came in, and it doesn’t refer to your drone’s inclusion in some web site’s “list of drones under 250 grams” article. The FAA rule about drone weight refers to take-off weight, that is, the weight of the aircraft and all attachments. The REAL question is: after flying your drone gets you into trouble, and the FAA or NTSB inspector picks up your drone (or all the pieces they can find, anyways), and weighs it, will it weigh more than 250 grams? If it does, it had better have an FAA registration number on it, referring to a current, appropriate UAS registration. Also, the new rules about flying over people, would seem to be moving toward rules that will have no minimum weight under which registration will be optional.
No matter which type of flying you plan to do, the place to start in registering your drone is the FAA Drone Zone. Registration comes with a small fee, payable by credit card.
You Need To Follow Some Basic Rules Of The Air (For Drones)
If you fly a drone in airspace with no special restrictions, and you don’t have specific authorizations or waivers, the fundamental rules of UAS flight include:
- Either the drone operator OR a committed visual observer must be able to see the drone directly, without any vision aids other than corrective lenses, at all times during the flight. The rules do allow you to let the drone pass on the other side of a tree or lamp-post, but in general, you need to be able to see where the drone is.
- If you fly during twilight or darkness, your drone must have lighting that shows you and others where the drone is, and its orientation.
- You can’t fly more than 400 feet above ground.
- You must get out of the way of any manned aircraft
- Without a part 107 Remote Pilot certificate, you can’t fly over people
- Without a part 107 Remote Pilot certificate, you can’t receive money or other compensation for flying, or for pictures or video taken while flying.
If you fly your drone in airspace with restrictions, which includes “controlled” airspace, plus adjacent areas with max-height rules as shown on the UAS facility map, you need to follow the rules. In controlled airspace, you are prohibited from flying unless you obtain an airspace authorization first. Drone operators can accomplish this through the LAANC system near most large, public airports, or by filling out forms on FAA DroneZone for other airport airspace, including military.
In the UAS facility map snippet at left, the “1” is in Honolulu Class Bravo airspace, and the “2” is outside Bravo airspace, but under a 100 foot ceiling. You need an airspace authorization to fly at “1”, but at “2”, you don’t need an authorization. You still can’t fly in either place, however, since both numbers are in Ala Moana Regional Park, which is not on the list of designated City and County of Honolulu Parks for “model airplane flying” (more below).
You Need To Understand Federal, State And Local Rules And Restrictions In The Location Where You Intend To Fly
First of all, you can’t fly in any “controlled” airspace without obtaining authorization. Class B, C, D, or E2 surface space, in such locations as near an airport, or in a national security restriction area, have different rules and requirements. One way to get a quick indication is to use the B4UFly app, which is available for Apple iOS and Android devices. In general, if B4UFly says you’re in unrestricted airspace, then it may be OK to fly while observing safe practices, but if it says that you’re in any kind of restricted airspace, then you’ve got some homework to do.
B4UFly also lists Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs), which are restrictions imposed on an area during special circumstances, such as a visit by the US president or other VIP, natural disasters, large public events, and others.
Another way to look into airspace restrictions is to use the UAS Facility Maps which allow you see the airspaces at any location in the US. In most places on the facility maps where you see a zero as the max height, recreational authorization will not be available, and part 107 authorization will require appropriate justification.
Yet another way to determine whether something special is going on that will affect your authorization to fly is to search NOTAMs (NOTices to AirMen) at FAA PilotWeb.
As an example, this is an excerpt from a NOTAM which advises about rules for flying in the vicinity of US Navy vessels:
ALL UNMANNED AIRCRAFT ARE PROHIBITED FROM FLYING WITHIN A STAND-OFF DISTANCE OF 3000FT LATERALLY AND 1000FT ABOVE ANY U.S. NAVY (USN) VESSEL (…)
THE DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE (DOD) MAY TAKE SECURITY ACTION THAT RESULTS IN THE INTERFERENCE, DISRUPTION, SEIZURE, DAMAGING, OR DESTRUCTION OF UNMANNED AIRCRAFT CONSIDERED TO POSE A SAFETY OR SECURITY THREAT TO PROTECTED DOD ASSETS.
Most often, FAA-provided information will include what you need to know about flying near military facilities and vessels. If in doubt, don’t fly near military-anything. If you do, losing your drone may be the least of your problems.
National Park Service Rules
Using CFR 36 § 1.5: “Closures and public use limits”, the National Park Service asked the superintendent of each national park to make a determination on drone use inside the park. Many, if not most, national parks prohibit use within the park, and if you want to know about a specific NPS property, you need to check with that property specifically. NPS has an info page about drone rules.
Hawaii State Law
Both the Hawaii State Senate and the House Of Representatives have introduced bills about drones and privacy, and Hawaii DLNR has a rule prohibiting drone use in any state park. Other references with the term “unmanned aerial systems” in the Hawaii Revised Statutes refer to their use in surveillance, or coordinating enforcement with the FAA. (disclaimer: I am untrained in legal matters, you too can search the Hawaii Revised Statutes here.)
City and County of Honolulu
Honolulu County has designated certain parks where “model airplanes” may be flown, and prohibits that activity in parks not named in the list. You should not take this list at face value however, since several of the parks are in controlled airspace, and flying there is illegal under FAA rules. One interesting case is Neil S. Blaisdell Park, which is not within any controlled or restricted airspace, but it is adjacent to the waters of Pearl Harbor, which are entirely under “Pearl Harbor-Hickam-Navy Defensive Sea Area 1”, which is restricted from the surface to 400 feet above ground, which is sort of like saying “THIS MEANS YOU” to drone operators. Before flying at any C&C of Honolulu Park, check the list above, and then look at the park on the UAS Facility Map.
(disclaimer: I am untrained in legal matters, you too can search the Revised Ordinances of Honolulu here.)
Other Counties And General Considerations
I did search for information about Maui, Kauai, Hawaii, and Kalawao counties, and the weight of unreliable information on the Internet makes the actual facts hard to identify. On any of the Hawaiian Islands, there may be a significant proportion which is in controlled airspace, and a significant proportion of state and national parks, where flying is prohibited. Look for signage, think about being considerate, and remember, you’re the 1000th drone operator that most locals will have seen, and some of your predecessors have behaved badly. Be gentle, share your experience, be courteous to cops, even when they’re grumpy. Picture yourself in their shoes.
You Need To Stay Up To Date
The requirements to fly a drone in the US are changing constantly, and if you don’t update your knowledge at least several times a year, you’ll soon be working from out-of-date rules. If you take the TRUST exam, there is no requirement to repeat it (unless they change that), but if you obtain a part 107 certificate, you are required to do “recurrent training” every 24 calendar months. On the other hand, you can repeat the TRUST exam and the part 107 recurrent training as often as you like, even if you don’t have a part 107 certificate.
A solid plan is to return to the FAA UAS page at least a couple of times a year, and take note of any changes.
An example change that is coming that you will need to track is the requirement for Remote ID on you drone, no later than September 16, 2023. More about Remote ID below.
If you are reading this article at some point in the future, it may be best to use the following to keep up to date.
- FAA Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) page
- Always the best place to start
- A place to register drones and request authorizations and waivers
- UAS Facility Maps – Unmanned Aircraft Systems
- a way to see what airspace restrictions are, anywhere in the U.S. NAS
- Actually, not a bad reference for airplane pilots, since it can answer questions such as “which street intersection is closest to the edge of PHNL Class Bravo surface space?” (try doing that with a Sectional Chart)
- Click “View all UAS Facility Maps and grids”
- [USC02] 49 USC 44809: Exception for limited recreational operations of unmanned aircraft
- The text of US Federal Law addressing recreational flight of unmanned aircraft, published and updated by the Federal Government.
- 14 CFR part 107 — Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems
- The part of the Code Of Federal Regulations which specifies the operations of UAS in the NAS, and the certification of operators who will fly for reasons other than enjoyment.
Learn to fly your drone.
In order to get a pilot certificate for an airplane, helicopter, hot-air balloon, or other aircraft, you need to learn how to fly competently, and then you need to demonstrate your competence to an FAA designated examiner. The UAS rules make no reference to flying skill, but there is a benefit to practice, nonetheless. One of the reasons that I got an airspace authorization to fly at home is to enable practice. I have flown all around the house and examined the rain gutters (they need cleaning), and roof vents, and I’ve spent time getting a feel for the response of the remote, and trying to fly smooth, continuous maneuvers. Before I focused on flying skills, I would make silly mistakes like confusing which stick moves forward and which stick moves up. If you practice until the controls feel natural, you will be a safer drone operator. Computer simulator software, which depicts real drone models, and gives you realistic physics and controls, is available.
Remote ID will equip each sUAS with a small radio transmitter, which will broadcast the drone’s registration, position, and the controller’s position, so that drones may be identified while in flight.
Technically, this isn’t extra credit, since a reading of Part 89 will tell you that you are currently required to have Remote ID capabilities on your drone. Further reading will tell you that drone manufacturers are required to provide it starting no later than September 16, 2022, and that drone operators are required to start using it no later than September 16, 2023. A third category of player will be providers of independent broadcast modules, which can be added to drones which lack Remote ID capability.
As of this writing, there is no drone and no add-on module available which does Remote ID, nor is a complete specification available.
So it’s “required” right now, but there is a grace period. Read about Remote ID here.
Sign Up On FAASafety.gov
If you get your part 107 remote pilot certificate or add a sUAS rating to your Part 61 certificate, this is where you will return in 24 calendar months for your recurrent refresher exam. There are many aviation-related courses that can be viewed for free. Even though there are only a couple of UAS-specific courses at the moment, by the time you pass the part 107 exam, you’ll know that such topics as airport operations, and radio procedures will be part of the knowledge you’ll need to keep current on. Also, with changes happening more frequently than the 24-month recurrent update requirement, it can never hurt to see the refresher whenever it is updated.
Welcome to Hawaii, and mahalo nui loa for reading!