By now, almost all of us have heard about drones – you know, unmanned aircraft. You might’ve seen a news story about them, heard of their military use, or seen some teenagers flying one in the park. The FAA recently announced that the number of registered drones has surpassed the number of registered airplanes in the United States. As the many uses of drones evolve, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that they’ll be in the skies for quite some time. While they may be small in size, these remote controlled flying machines have been causing quite the stir.
What exactly is a drone? In laymen’s terms, a drone is any unmanned flying machine that can be controlled remotely or with the aid of an onboard computer. Depending on who’s talking about them, you might also hear a drone referred to as a quadcopter, a “UAV” (unmanned aerial vehicle) or UAS (unmanned aerial system). Most civilian drones are relatively small—no more than a few feet in diameter and less than 50lbs. Some commercial and military models, however, have wingspans of up to 55 feet, feature jet engines, and can fly over 12,000 miles. Drones have been around for over a decade, but their popularity has skyrocketed in recent years with estimates of over 2 million units sold in 2015, up from roughly 300,000 in 2013.
As drone numbers continue to grow, so do their various uses. It’s not uncommon to see drones used for aerial photography, surveying and even search and rescue. Some companies like Amazon are even seeking approval to use them for urban package delivery. Add in the number of recreational users zipping them through the skies for sheer enjoyment, and it’s easy to see how the drone population is soaring. They’ve proven to be great assets to many companies and allow many jobs to be completed faster, cheaper, and safer than ever before. Any enthusiast will tell you that drones are a blast to fly and some of their autopilot abilities certainly give them a “cool” factor. More than 325,000 people have now registered drones.
There are so many drones flying that ensuring they safely share the skies with airplanes has become a focus of the FAA. At any given moment during the day, there are roughly 7,000 airplanes flying in U.S. airspace, along with an increasing number of drones. Every month in our nation, there have been roughly 100 pilot reports of drones flying in close proximity to their aircraft. These situations generally happen when a drone is being flown too close to the approach or departure paths of an airport. That said, there have been zero collisions between drones and aircraft. There are FAA guidelines for drone or model aircraft operations that exist to prevent such instances and the FAA continues to adapt their regulations to ensure that drones and aircraft share the skies safely.
If you own a drone or are looking into purchasing one, the FAA website provides everything you need to know to safely operate your aircraft. As of December 2015, all drones between .55lbs and 55lbs must be registered online with the FAA before flying them outdoors. Drones over 55lbs must go through the standard aircraft registration process, just like an airplane. Any U.S. citizen over the age of thirteen can register a drone and the FAA even has an online chart for helping you determine whether or not your drone needs registered. Registration is just one of what will likely be many steps taken by the FAA to help drone users safely share the skies with aircraft.
Some of the most commonly communicated safety rules include:
Never fly above 400 feet (measured from ground level)
Always fly within your visual line of sight
Do not fly within 5 miles of an airport
Do not fly above stadiums or public events
Additional rules apply to commercially operated UAS, and it is the operator’s responsibility to be educated and in compliance.
Lastly, while the FAA is working hard to define its regulations regarding drones, it is very important for drone owners to understand that there are state and local laws pertaining to operation of drones, as well. The North Carolina Department of Transportation Aviation Division is ahead of the curve in its efforts to educate UAS owners and operators, and they offer a robust on-line program that educates about how to legally operate drones in North Carolina. Learn more here.
Large and small, fast and slow, drones are here to stay. Do your part and familiarize yourself with all you need to know to operate your drone legally and safely.