The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently announced several new rules. It is going to allow operations at night and over people without waivers under certain conditions, and that’s going to make life easier for pilots. Starting in about 30 months, the FAA will be requiring small drones to broadcast ID information, which will aid in enforcing regulations, but impose some costs on pilots.
Let’s first talk about what’s good for pilots in these new rules. Expanding drone operations to night and over people/vehicles will make it easier to use drones for commercial and public safety users, possibly even saving lives. These rules will go into effect 60 days after publication, and that’s expected in January, so they’ll likely be effective sometime in March.
Operating At Night
Currently, if a commercial drone pilot (including professional photographers) wants to operate more than 30 minutes past sunset or more than 30 minutes before sunrise, they need a waiver from the FAA. It’s not a terribly difficult process, but you do have to prove to the FAA that you can conduct these operations safely. Most successful applicants establish operating rules, equipment rules, and training requirements for anyone flying under the waiver. In my case, I set some basic safety rules, said I was going to use a strobe so manned aircraft can see it, and set out testing requirements for myself and at least one visual observer, so we can show familiarity with nighttime flying challenges.
Because most waivers have been basically the same, and there haven’t been any bad incidents with night flying, the FAA is going to start letting everyone fly at night, but with some conditions. They’re going to add questions about night flying to the test for new drone pilots, so new pilots will know what the dangers and challenges are. For people who already have a Part 107 license, the FAA is replacing testing with a free online class, and that class will have material on night flying included.
Once a pilot has updated training, they’ll need to make sure their drone has good anti-collision lighting. While most drones have lights, they aren’t bright enough to be seen from 3 miles away as the FAA requires, but it’s easy to strap or velcro on a small strobe unit to meet that requirement.
Operating Over People & Vehicles
The new rule allowing operations over people is a little more complicated. As of now, it’s illegal to operate over people in most circumstances unless they’re protected by a roof or are in a stationary vehicle. This makes it hard in some cases to get a drone job done, but helps make sure people on the ground won’t be harmed if the drone falls from the sky.
The new rule will make four classes of drones, varying with weight and the kind of safety testing the drone model has gone through. The easiest way to comply with the rule would be to operate a drone under .55 pounds (250 grams), and have a propeller guard that prevents the propellers from being able to cut skin in the event the drone goes down. You’d also need to be in compliance with the Remote ID rule (more on this below). All other categories require some kind of testing or certification for the craft.
If the craft qualifies, you can operate over people, but would only be allowed to stay over people with Remote ID operating. You’d also be able to fly over moving vehicles, but only for the purpose of crossing a road under most circumstances. Sustained flying over moving vehicles will still usually not be allowed.
The New Remote ID Rule
There’s good news and bad news for pilots here.
The good news is that the rule won’t go into effect for more than two years, so there’s plenty of time to get a compliant drone or buy an add-on module that broadcasts your remote ID. Many current drones (including DJI drones) might already be equipped to broadcast their ID on Wifi or Bluetooth frequencies, so we might only need a software update to comply.
The other good news is that the FAA says Remote ID will allow them to eventually let us do even more things, like fly beyond visual line of sight.
The bad news is that if you have a drone that doesn’t meet the requirements, you will only be able to operate it for about another 32 months, and drone makers will be allowed to sell drones without any Remote ID capability for about another 20 months. In terms of most pilots’ upgrade cycles, that’s a lot of time, but for some more expensive models, it’s going to suck to have to shell out thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to replace or upgrade. At minimum, it will probably cost at least $100 to get an add-on module.
This creates a “buyer beware” environment. If you’re buying a new drone in the next couple of years or buying a used one from now on, you’ll need to make sure it either is compliant or can be easily made compliant. You don’t want to be stuck with an expensive paperweight in a couple of years!
There’s a lot in the new rule (read the whole thing here), but one other important point is that they’re going to allow more public officials to demand to see your license and registration information (if that’s required for what you’re doing). Personally, I’ve only had one situation where I had issues with law enforcement (and that was due to a miscommunication), but it’s good to make sure you have all your documents available for review if needed.
What This All Means
This is mostly going to be an improvement for drone operators, and considering the lives being saved by some of us, it’s a good thing for everyone. Flying at night will be easier, and that’s where many of the lifesaving operations tend to happen. With improved sensors, night is also when many of the best commercial photographs happen as well.
Operations over people will help with newsgathering and other journalistic operations, and ultimately that’s good for the public, too. We all need to know what’s going on, and it’s easier to understand what’s going on if we can get a bird’s eye view in many cases.
Talking to most pilots, they’re already crossing streets. For me personally, I’m very careful to make sure there’s no traffic before crossing a road and that I’m flying well within the rules. Sometimes that has kept me from doing thing I wanted to do, but being safe and following the rules is worth some sacrifice. From what I’ve seen on YouTube, though, I’m more cautious than many others. I’ve never heard of any drones going through a car’s windshield and hurting anyone, so the FAA isn’t putting people in danger here.
All in all, these new rules are probably going to be good for everyone involved, even if you’re not a drone pilot.