So You Are Now A Licensed FAA Commercial Drone Pilot! Congratulations! Now Go Get a Waiver!
Written by Adam Furgang
The last few years been a very exciting time. In the summer of 2016 I saw someone using a Phantom drone on Cape Cod. Although I was aware of drones and drone technology it was the first time I had seen one up close. Not only was the drone being operated by and adult, but I also watched as a 12 year old boy skillfully navigated it through the sky. Then I saw the images and the footage of an area I'd had been familiar with since childhood. I was blown away. Although I wanted a drone right then and there I decided it would be best to wait. I'm familiar with how quickly technology advances so I decided to do some research and see what came along before the following summer arrived. Waiting, I quickly realized, was the right thing to do. By September 2016 DJI announced the Mavic Pro, a powerful yet portable drone with a 12mp camera that also shoots 4k video and has 27 minutes of flight time on one battery.
By July of 2017 I took the plunge and picked up a Mavic Pro at Best Buy. After about 24 hours of familiarizing myself with the new aerial camera I took my first 30 second flight about 10 feet off the ground. I was nervous to say the least. I never had a $1000 camera that could be flown hundreds of feet into the air before. Being careful was an understatement. I was incredibly cautious. I registered with the FAA and put a sticker on my Mavic. I also live within the 5 mile radius of KALB, the Albany International Airport. I made some phone calls. I spoke to the town clerk, a town lawyer, someone from the parks service, and eventually someone over at the KALB Air Traffic Controll—while they were landing a plane no less! I was told that if I kept my drone at or just above the tree line I need not worry about flying it here. I could find no official answer to local rules about flying drones within the 5 mile limit of the KALB airport. The one thing I did find is that flying drones has been officially banned from one local park that is less than a mile from KALB. The park rules state: "Operation of all drone model aircraft and gas powered model aircraft at the Crossings Park is prohibited." And this on the Town of Colonie Parks and Recreation Department FAQs: "Operation of all drone model aircraft at the Crossings Park is prohibited. Gas powered model aircraft are banned in all Town parks"
I still worried.
But I still flew responsibly and as I learned more and more about the rules I started to read contradictions everywhere. According to the FAA: "Recreational operators are required to give notice for flights within five miles of an airport to both the airport operator and air traffic control tower, if the airport has a tower." The FAA also states: "The person flying the model aircraft is responsible for contacting the airport directly." These two rules statements are for people flying as hobbyists only. If you decide, as I did, to get FAA certification to fly a drone for commercial purposes the rules become even tighter. I know that sounds nuts right? But yes, it's true, once you pass the FAAs Part 107 Airman Knowledge Test there are more restrictions on you than if you were just flying drones as a hobby. First off, calling up the Airport or ATC is no longer an option for a Licensed FAA Commercial Drone Pilot. A commercial drone pilot must: "request access to controlled airspace. An airspace authorization is the mechanism by which an operator may seek Air Traffic Control (ATC) approval to operate in controlled airspace." This takes time and makes little to no sense for anyone who wants to operate commercially. It's counterintuitive to conducting business. I also found it odd that more education, two training courses I took, the $150 I paid to take the FAA test, (I passed) and all the hoops I jumped through only wound up setting me back in my ability to operate a drone where I live, not forward as I had hoped. Sure I can make some money now with my drones, but flying in my area—KALB class C airspace 43/SFC with a 5sm radius and a 10sm diameter almost entirely around Albany, NY—requires my filling out online forms to get approval to fly. I'm a bit baffled.
But wait, there's more...
• Hobbyists have no restrictions to fly at night that I can find.
• I am also unable to find anywhere (If I am wrong about this please point me to any official FAA spot that informs me differently) where it states that a hobbyists can not, or should not, fly while impaired by alcohol. *** After some digging I did find this video put out by the FAA, but I still can not locate any official section where they state a hobbyists can not, or should not, fly while impaired by alcohol. Again, if I'm wrong just point me in the right direction.
*** I also found that the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) has a set of rules that states: "I will not operate any model aircraft while I am under the influence of alcohol or any drug that could adversely affect my ability to safely control the model." Now a drone is not a model of some old WWII aircraft. It's new piece of technology. And I'm not sure that the AMAs rules are official like the ones over at the FAA. Obviously flying a drone while drinking alcohol is nuts. But for gods sake, the FAA should have this clearly stated on their website for hobbyists too.
I know now after studying hard and taking and passing the FAA test that a Licensed FAA Commercial Drone Pilot cannot drink any alcohol within 8 hours of flying a drone. I'm not complaining about not being able to drink-and-drone. I think it's a great rule. I'm not much of a drinker anyway. It's the lax and nebulous guidelines for hobbyists that irks me. From what I read I think the hobbyists have it easy because 100 years ago no one gave a hoot about people flying a RC plane in a park somewhere (possibly drunk or at night??) and whatever lax, or hard to locate, restrictions that were put upon them continue to this day. I did find this CNN article about New jersey making it illegal to fly a drone drunk. I guess these drone hobby issues are being tackled state by state. If it was already illegal federally why would NJ have to make it illegal locally? This quickly becomes a labyrinthine hornets nest the closer one scrutinizes it. I do find it a bit odd that a hobbyist (anyone—kid, adult, or kidult—who buys a DJI drone at Best Buy, Target or Amazon to fly for fun) can fly their drone at night and not worry. Licensed FAA Commercial Drone Pilots need to show the FAA through an OPERATIONAL WAIVER application that they can operate their drone safely at night.
Remember, I'm all for the dont-drink-and-drone rules. Below is the FAA legalese about alcohol that applies to a Licensed FAA Commercial Drone Pilot:
According to § 91.17 Alcohol or drugs.
(a) No person may act or attempt to act as a crew-member of a civil aircraft -
(1) Within 8 hours after the consumption of any alcoholic beverage;
(2) While under the influence of alcohol;
(3) While using any drug that affects the person's faculties in any way contrary to safety; or
(4) While having an alcohol concentration of 0.04 or greater in a blood or breath specimen. Alcohol concentration means grams of alcohol per deciliter of blood or grams of alcohol per 210 liters of breath.
Here is some more FAA listings for what a Licensed FAA Commercial Drone Pilot needs an operational waiver to do with a drone:
• Flying at night (§ 107.29)
• Flying directly over a person or people (§ 107.39)
• Flying from a moving vehicle or aircraft, not in a sparsely populated area (§ 107.25)
• Flying multiple aircraft with only one pilot (§ 107.35)
• Flying beyond the pilot's visual line-of-sight (§ 107.31)
• Flying above 400 feet (§ 107.51B)
• Flying near airports / in controlled airspace (§ 107.41)
I quickly fell in love with the technology. As a life long creative and photographer suddenly having the ability to take aerial photographs gave me a thrill like when I first started taking pictures. The government's backwards way of doing things has me a bit confused. I keep think of automobiles. Imagine if you wanted to use an automobile as a hobbyist and had less restrictions than someone who was driving for official commercial purposes. This is the way the current FAA drone regulations are set up right now. It seems to me the people who pass the FAA test should get more leeway than the average person flying at the park or on the beach with their kid.
All the rules are important. The one rule that i think should have been made more lax after passing the FAA test and being allowed to operate commercially is the controlled airspace rule. As a Licensed FAA Commercial Drone Pilot I now know what to do and not do better than the average person. I know about METARs, wind shear, density altitude, temperature inversion, latitude and longitude, navigation with a rose compass on a sectional chart, and a mess load of FAA abbreviations and acronyms like, AGL, MSL, SM, ATC, VLOS, NOTAM, VFR, and a zillion others. I know how to check for NOTAM's now. I know how to monitor the common airport frequency on a scanner. I know about cloud cover rules. And I even managed to retain the crazy information in my head now that sea-level pressure is 29.92 Hg!
Things should get a bit easier soon. LAANC is coming soon and when it arrives it should hopefully make it a little bit easier for Licensed FAA Commercial Drone Pilots to fly in controlled airspace for commercial drone operations. What is LAANC?
According to the FAA,"LAANC is the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability. It enables drone pilots access to controlled airspace near airports through near real-time processing of airspace authorizations below approved altitudes in controlled airspace. Drone pilots can use applications developed by approved UAS Service Suppliers to access the LAANC capability."
That sounds good. There's a nice app for the iPhone called AIRMAP. Once the system is up and running, in theory, one should be able to use the app to show the FAA and local ATC all the who, what, when, where, why, and hows about your current drone operations.
When will LAANC be coming to my area? LOL. Don't laugh. According to the FAA LAANC will get to me by: Eastern North USA – August 16, 2018. The summer will be almost over. I'll need to stop wearing white a few weeks after it arrives, and the 6 months of cold and darkness we have here in Albany, NY will be steadily approaching. :)
The FAA Section 336 Dashboard does state that hobbyists should: Never fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
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