By Joe Coons
Director of Safety
Have you seen any of the “drone” videos on YouTube or other social media websites? Perhaps a gorgeous shot of the sunrise over a Mesa or maybe zooming over a crowd during a concert showing thousands bouncing in unison to the beat?
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), oftentimes called drones, are used to make many of these videos. These small aircraft look like a spider with a small rotor disc at the end of each of its four to eight arms. They are most commonly designed to carry a camera or video camera to take aerial pictures, and as prices have come down, they’re becoming more and more common.
But so are the problems UAVs can create if not used with caution and good sense.
UAVs have been in the news a lot lately, from crashing into the White House grounds to flying illicit drugs over the border, unauthorized flights over Disney World to crashing into a crowd of people, and nearly colliding with manned aircraft.
UAVs are inexpensive and available from hobby stores and online retailers. They range in price from $30 up to thousands, and weigh from a few ounces up to 55 pounds. Technology makes flying them fairly simple – in fact, most of them can be charged up and flown right away. But because of this, many people don’t take a training course, don’t take the time learning how to control UAVs safely, and don’t know the laws about when and where it’s safe and legal to fly them.
In addition to the obvious dangers of crashing a UAV into a crowd of people or traffic, UAVs create serious issues with manned aircraft and medical helicopters, in particular.
Sometimes people want to get a bird’s eye view of an event or even an accident, so they launch their UAV to capture photos or videos. The problems arise when a helicopter is called to the scene and a UAV is nearby. UAVs are small, difficult to see, and can move quickly and erratically.
This creates risk for the helicopter and crew – a collision with a helicopter could have deadly consequences. At a minimum, it could delay care for a critically ill or injured patient who needs the help of the helicopter’s medical team.
There have been numerous near-misses between medical helicopters and UAVs recently.
Responsible use of UAVs can avoid a catastrophic accident, and knowing the rules is essential when operating one.
Here are just some of the rules from the FAA governing the use of UAVs:
* Without exception, a UAV operator is always required to give way and remain well clear of a manned aircraft
* They may fly only during daylight hours (? hr after sunrise to ? hr before sunset)
* They must be flown in sight of the pilot/operator
* They must see and avoid people and property
* Aircraft may not fly higher than 400 feet above the ground
* They must not be operated within 5 miles of an airport without notifying and getting permission from the Air Traffic Control Center
* They must not be operated within 5 miles of a hospital helipad without notifying and getting permission of the hospital
* They must comply with all Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) and Notice to Airmen (NOTAMs). These can be found at tfr.faa.gov
* Hobby aircraft must weigh less than 55 pounds
It should also be noted that video and photos are subject to state and local privacy laws. Furthermore, if a hobbyist is found in violation in any of the above regulations they are subject to fines from the FAA and even jail time.
UAVs are an exciting innovation and will serve a large role in the future of flight – someday helping to eliminate the risk to human lives. They are already being used for firefighting, electrical line evaluation, and making movies. All of these have received the blessing of the FAA on a commercial certification.
As more hobbyists adopt the technology and begin flying, we must ensure that all operators understand how to operate UAVs safely. If you own a UAV or are thinking about getting one, please remember that safety must come first, and that using common sense is the best rule of all.
For more information and guidelines for operating UAVs safely, visit http://knowbeforeyoufly.org/.