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Drones / UAVs are becoming very popular; the onboard flight controllers are increasingly intelligent and capable, prices for UAVs are dropping and people of all ages are becoming involved. Even small UAVs which fit in your hand can easily reach several hundred feet above the ground and the technology has quickly surpassed any regulations which were previously put in place. Despite the significant pressure on the FAA to release up-to-date guidelines which cover the range of new products which have come to market, the consensus is that any new regulations are more than a year away from being released. In the meantime, the FAA released a “Guide for Model Aircraft Operators for “fun flying”” which we go over in more detail below. Other countries such as Canada will likely copy (with minor modifications) whatever guidelines are put in place by the USA, though it’s best to consult your country’s guidelines for UAV flying.

FAA Model Aircraft

FAA UAV / Drone / Model Aircraft Guidelines

checkmark  Do fly a model aircraft for personal enjoyment / do-not Don’t fly model aircraft for payment or commercial purposes

In the USA, it seems likely that any forthcoming regulations will be split between “commercial” and “recreational” flights. Flying a drone commercially does not have anything to do with the platform or aircraft you select; it simply means you are being remunerated / compensated (financially or otherwise) for the activity. Most of the time this application involves taking photographs or video, and recently the FAA determined that using drones for delivery (free or otherwise) was also a “commercial” use of a drone. “Fun” flying is when:

  1. The craft is flown strictly for hobby or recreational use
  2. The aircraft is operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization
  3. The aircraft is limited to not more than 55 pounds unless otherwise certified through a design, construction, inspection, flight test, and operational safety program administered by a community-based organization
  4. The aircraft is operated in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to any manned aircraft
  5. If the aircraft is flown within 5 miles of an airport, the operator of the aircraft provides the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower…with prior notice of the operation
  6. The aircraft is flown within visual line sight of the operator

checkmark  Do fly a model aircraft / UAs at the local model aircraft club / do-not Don’t fly contrary to your aero-modelling community-based safety guidelines

In the past, model aircraft clubs were usually only for people who had a model airplane or helicopter, and wanted to fly in an area which they knew would not infringe on normal flight space, where they could meet other enthusiasts, and where they could find the necessary facilities to launch their planes (such as a small, paved runway). In most countries there is a central organization which lists all official model aircraft clubs, and you need only do a quick search online to find the club closest to you.

However, multi-rotor aircraft are a bit different than conventional R/C aircraft as they don’t need any special equipment or site (such as a runway) in order to launch, and if you purchased an RTF multirotor, you may not be seeking to learn or share information about the construction of other aircraft and simply want to use it. Therefore what to do if you don’t want to be restricted to flying around your local club? In this situation, the FAA (USA specifically, though other countries such as Canada have adopted similar guidelines) advises the following guidelines (back from a 1981 notice on “model aircraft operating standards” (they expect operators to voluntarily comply with the following):

  1. Choose an operating site that is of sufficient distance from populated areas. The selected site should be away from noise sensitive areas such as parks, schools, hospitals, churches, etc.
  2. Do not operate model aircraft in the presence of spectators until the aircraft is successfully flight tested and proven airworthy.
  3. Do not fly model aircraft higher than 400 feet above the surface. When flying aircraft within 5 miles (updated from 3 miles) of an airport, notify the airport operator, or when an air traffic facility is located at the airport, notify the control tower, or flight service station.
  4. Give right of way to, and avoid flying in the proximity of, full-scale aircraft. Use observers to help if possible.
  5. Do not hesitate to ask for assistance from any airport traffic control tower or flight service station concerning compliance with these standards

If the aircraft is small, and you have full control over the craft, an unused soccer field, baseball field or large park is ideal. If you are a member of a golf course, you might consider asking the operator for permission to use your UAV over the grounds.

Baseball Field

A local baseball field is a great place to get flight experience

do-not Don’t fly beyond the line of sight of the operator

In order to ensure a safe flight, the AMA advises the following:

FPV flights should involve two persons: a pilot and a spotter. This approach provides a higher level of situational awareness surrounding the model aircraft to identify and prevent conflicts or collisions. For autopilot systems, the pilot should have direct transmitter control to activate or deactivate the autopilot system to recover an out of control model aircraft o level flight, maintain a heading, return an aircraft to a selected location, or initiate a programmed flight path. Autopilot systems may be programmed to prevent a flyaway by safely returning a model aircraft to a selected safe location when a radio link is lost.

Excerpt from AMA’s “Advanced Flight Systems Committee Report 101

Long-range flying is normally not covered by “fun flight” regulations since one or more of the guidelines above would be breached. Long-range flying can involve an autopilot system, though because a human operator should be able to take control of the aircraft at any time, long-distance transmitters are normally required. The FCC allows unlicensed low power broadcasting applications where the measured signal strength is 250 microvolts per meter, measured at 3 meters from the transmitting antenna, and only within a 100 foot radius. This translates to a transmitter which is around 100mW at the antenna. Although anyone can purchase a transmitter which is 500mW, 1000mW or more, they may not be legally allowed to use it without a license (for example a amateur radio operator’s license). A few examples of amateur radio societies, which require you to pass a test before operating above a certain power level:

A strong signal may interfere with a variety of other wireless transmission systems in the area. Operating a high power, long-range FPV system without proper authorization and licensing may result in a fine or even jail time since, by interfering with other signals you can put others at risk.

checkmark  Do contact the airport or control tower when flying within 5 miles of the airport / do-not Don’t fly near manned aircraft

Hethrow Control Tower

Hethrow Control Tower

These two points are related; flying outside of 5 miles of an airport does not necessary mean that there won’t be low-flying manned aircraft directly above you.You would be surprised just how much information is displayed on air traffic controller’s screens; not only do they show aircraft (which have transponders to automatically provide aircraft number, type etc.), they also almost always show anything in the air above a certain number of feet, including small objects. This means objects such as birds and model aircraft may be picked up by a nearby airport, and without a transponder, the air traffic controller can only guess as to what an object may be.

As a normal civilian, how do you know if you are within 5 miles of an airport? After all, there are many smaller air fields which you may not know about. Also, not all restricted airspace involves airports. Aside from an online search, there are a few smartphone apps which, although originally intended to be used by small aircraft pilots, can help recreational UAV operators determine if they are within restricted airspace, as well as which aircraft are nearby.

Mirabel Aircraft Frequencies

Example: Mirabel Aircraft Frequencies

We decided to see what might be around RobotShop’s headquarters, which is located in Mirabel, just north of Montreal in Quebec, Canada. The building is in the same city as a large international airport (Mirabel airport, YMX). The airspace around it is clearly marked as restricted. However, without one of these apps, we may not have noticed that the flight space to the right of it is actually restricted as well; it is a highly restricted area for testing new Bombardier helicopters, and because helicopters are low-flying, that airspace is fully restricted even below 400 feet. The small circle towards the upper right is actually a secure facility (prison), which evidently would not allow flights of any kind (especially drones) to fly over it. The large blue circle towards the bottom right would be another international airport “Pierre Elliot Trudeau” (formerly “Dorval”) with the code YUL. Smaller airports are ZMR (“Belle-riviere”) and ZMX (“Janvier Montreal Mirabel Intl”). Want a hear what’s happening at a control tower?

Mirabel, Quebec Restricted Airspace

Example: Mirabel, Quebec Restricted Airspace

checkmark  Do take lessons and learn to fly safely

This is self-evident. Although many consumers are purchasing ready to fly (“RTF”) and almost ready to fly (“ARF”) mutlirotors and drones, a large number are building them themselves, given the simplicity of the design. Combining many different parts from many different suppliers, requiring significant calibration and configuration means that the potential for error is high. If you are building your own drone, it is important to be sure of all connections and test it thoroughly in a controlled and open environment, away from people and property. Despite innumerable successful flights made by UAV pilots, it is currently those who do not know what they are doing which make their way into the news. Not long ago, a drone crashed onto a sidewalk in downtown Manhattan, nearly hitting someone. The footage recovered from the onboard SD card clearly showed that the pilot was not capable of safely flying the quadcopter (having physically made contact with several skyscrapers) and did not use common sense to determine that the area he chose to fly in was not safe.

do-not Don’t fly an aircraft weighing more than 55 lbs unless it’s certified by an aeromodelling community-based organization

Aircraft well below this weight can be incredibly dangerous. This restriction is primarily for scale model enthusiasts who seek to build ever larger scale model airplanes. Even small multi-rotor aircraft are essentially flying lawn mowers and can do significant damage to people and property. If you are considering a multi-rotor which weighs more than say, around 5Kg (battery included), be sure you have significant flight experience and failsafe systems.

If you have any questions or comments, or additional advice for UAV enthusiasts, we invite you submit them below.


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