The Downside of Recreational Drone Flying

By Bill McNeil

Editor's Note: One of the exciting things about the geospatial industry and drones is the ever-changing landscape.  The following article was written prior to the recent DC Court decision which elimated the need for residental drone registration.  We recommend you stay on top of the discussion from FAA.

Compliance

Flying recreational drones is one of the few hobbies, if not only the only one, that exposes you to a $27,500 fine within the first minute of your first flight. That’s because any person flying an unmanned aerial vehicle weighing between 250 grams (.55 lb) and 55 pounds must register with the FAA. It doesn’t make any difference if your drone is newly purchased, owned for years, homemade, fixed wing, a multi-engine copter, or tethered; it must be registered to legally conduct non-commercial (hobby) flights.

Registration is a simple $5 online process that shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes. Unfortunately, it appears many UAV operators are not registering. According to an FAA research study released in February, over 600,000 owner-hobbyists registered during 2016. This is an impressive number until you compare it with the 1.1 million recreational drones that the FAA estimates were sold during the same period. These figures are approximate because an owner can register multiple drones but, either way you look at it, there seems to be a compliance issue.

It is doubtful the FAA has the resources to uniformly enforce this rule, but why take a chance? Register your UAV(s). The $27,500 fine is small potatoes compared to the criminal penalties of up to a $250,000 fine or three years in jail.

Restricted Airspace  

Then there is the issue of flying over restricted areas. According to Motherboard, the FAA has issued fines ranging from $400 to $5500 for flying in a controlled airspace. Remember the guy that crashed his drone on the White House lawn? He got the $5500 fine. Flying offshore is no safe haven either. A recreational UAV operator was twice warned not to fly his drone over the U.S. Coast Guard Housing Complex in Rio Bayamon, Puerto Rico. Apparently, his third flight got him an $1100 fine after he crashed his Parrot Bebop drone into a U.S. Coast Guard vehicle.

These are extreme cases that are more reflective of poor judgment than knowledge of where to fly. Nevertheless, there is a real issue of understanding exactly where one may legally fly. The FAA has made an attempt to clarify the situation by developing the B4UFLY app. The app does a good job of identifying no fly zones like national parks, temporary flight restrictions, and U.S. airports, but it is far from a complete solution. Heliports are considered airports, therefore, if you fly within 5 miles of any site that has a heliport, such as a hospital, corporate facility, or even local park, you may be required to contact that organization before flying.

To make the situation more complex, many states and cities have initiated local ordinances that further restrict drone flights. A March 2017 study from Bart College indicated 135 localities in 31 states added drone restrictions.

Most of the statutes limit the use of drone flights over critical infrastructures and private and public property. AirMap and a number of other private companies are attempting to fill the data gaps, but this is a patchwork of federal, state, and local regulations that remains fluid and ambiguous.

Insurance

Insurance is an item worth considering. It won’t help with compliance issues, but it may save you a lot of money. Many homeowner policies will cover drone crashes that result in personal injury or property damage. If this is not an option, you might want to become a member of the Academy of Model Aeronautics. Annual membership cost is $75, ($65 for seniors), and the fee includes liability insurance of up to $2.5 million. New technology like object avoidance and autonomous flights are not failsafe because they often instill a false sense of security. Accidents will continue to occur. You may be able to accept crashing your UAV into a tree, but can you afford the liability of crashing your drone into a car traveling 70 mph?  

Commercial Work

There is also a fine for pilots conducting commercial flights without the required remote pilot certificate. This may seem like a fairly easy situation to avoid, but it is not. The FAA defines “commercial” as any endeavor that furthers business interests. As an example, the mere act of taking aerial pictures for your realtor friend is considered commercial activity. Even if you received no compensation, you furthered your friend’s business and, therefore, you may be subject to a penalty.

Additional Cost

Operational costs are likely higher than the cost of just your drone. A typical prosumer quadcopter has a flight time of less than 30 minutes. If you want to log an hour’s worth of flying time, you will need a couple of extra batteries. Two extra batteries plus the battery charger, the drone, and controller will require a carrying case or backpack. Bottom line: a $600 prosumer drone usually means a $900 or $1000 investment. This estimate doesn’t include other accessories like a car charger, third party software, a smart phone/tablet, hood (sunshade), or optional insurance.   

Steep Learning Curve

Left is left and right is right when your drone is heading away from you, but if your UAV is heading toward you, then left is right and right is left. This describes the movement of the right joystick on most drone controllers. It becomes more confusing because once your quadcopter gets a couple hundred feet away, you won’t be able to see which way it is heading, and, if it flies between you and the sun, you won’t be able to see it, period. In other words, controlling the flight of a UAV is not intuitive; it takes practice to become proficient. The number one rule is to know how to stop any flight and return your UAV to the home point, regardless of the drone’s heading.

In addition to controlling your UAV, you also need to understand how to manipulate the camera gimbal while flying. Gimbal pitch determines the amount of horizon that will be rendered in a video or picture. Other issues include compass calibration, camera settings, and viewing mobile devices in bright sunlight.

Flying UAVs and creating aerial video and pictures can be very rewarding, but it comes at a high commitment cost. Casual users may be better served by purchasing one of the new selfie drones from the likes of Hover or Dobby. These drones are light enough to be unregulated, take 13mp pictures and 1080p videos, have a range of less than 100 feet, and can be flown inside or out. 

Portability

Drone use is inversely proportioned to the size of the UAV bundle. The smaller the bundle, the more convenient it will be to carry and use. This is particularly relevant when traveling on commercial airlines. Do you really want to pay a $100 fee that the airline may charge you for that extra drone bag? Both the DJI Mavic and GoPro Karma have foldable arms and therefore may not take up much space in an existing suitcase. Selfie drones, referenced above, are another viable option.  

Summary

The UAV market has been over-hyped and pitched with unrealistic expectations for years. The simple fact is: Most people considering flying recreational drones don’t have a clue about regulations, safe places to fly, or the time required to become a competent pilot. They read about object avoidance and autonomous mission planning software and assume these tools will make it easy for them to fly. This is only half true. These features make it easier, but not easy, to fly. The great majority of these owners will soon realize they don’t have the desire or interest to achieve and maintain flight proficiency. This is especially true after a crash. At this point, their drone either goes on the shelf or on eBay.


Published Wednesday, May 17th, 2017

Written by Bill McNeil


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