By Brandon Guillot, RPC, MAS
One of the most critical elements of safe drone flight is preflight planning. While it may be tempting to just attach the rotors, plug in the battery, and go fly, the chances of an incident or accident increase by not thoroughly reviewing your flight plan. This helps keep the mindset of treating your drone just like a manned aircraft. Anyone who just “jumps in and goes” runs the risk of getting into serious trouble. Some of the preflight aspects you should consider prior to firing up the rotors are Airspace, Weather, the Environment, and your Situation.
The first aspect you should review is Airspace. Under Part 107, a remote pilot is required to maintain separation from all manned aircraft. This requirement is even more critical after the FAA Reauthorization bill passed in October 2018, which states if you fly within the Runway Exclusion Zone (1 mile from the end of each runway in Class B, C, D, or E airspace and ½ mile wide) or if you fly near a manned aircraft, a drone pilot will face serious consequences. You can be fined $10,000 and be sentenced to a year in prison for being in a situation that could potentially cause an airplane crash. You can be also be sentenced to ten years in prison for actually causing a crash. The consequences are very real, so it is critical to plan for Airspace usage.
So, where do you want to fly? What Class of Airspace will you be flying in? Is that Airspace controlled? Are there any restricted areas or active Military Operations Areas (MOAs)? Also, are there any Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs)? Know the answers to these questions prior to flying. Here are some great tools that can help you with both planning and execution.
How do you determine the Class of Airspace before your flight?
Your best choice is to use a Sectional Chart. If you do not have a physical copy, you can always head over to vfrmap.com in order to view a free online version of the FAA charts. VFRMAP.com will show the most current maps, and provides links to the FAA Chart Supplement, US, for each airport by clicking on the individual airports. There is an added benefit from clicking on the Chart Supplements provided, as they will list if the airport is in controlled airspace. This is a great way to have a high-level overview of your general airspace as well as figuring out the traffic patterns for any nearby public airports.
What if you want to fly in controlled airspace?
Let’s say you need to photograph a hotel in a downtown area within controlled airspace. If your flight is within controlled airspace, you will need to request an Airspace Authorization from the FAA. The great news is that the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) has been active from the FAA for over a year now. The LAANC allows safe drone pilots the opportunity to have airspace requests returned in minutes instead of days.
Visit sites like Airmap or Kittyhawk in order to view their controlled airspace maps. Each rectangular grid shows a pre-cleared altitude (0, 100, 200, 400) where drones can fly up to that altitude without interfering with most of the other manned traffic. Furthermore, you can download the mobile apps for AirMap (download for android or iOS devices) or Kittyhawk (download for android or iOS devices) that will let you file that LAANC request with the FAA in minutes, provided you stay below the precleared altitudes. However, you do need to file 30 days in advance if you find you need to be in a “0” altitude area—follow the directions on the websites for those situations.
Does your flight area have any MOAs and TFRs?
Fortunately, both MOAs and TFRs qualify as Special Use Airspace (SUA), and information on “active” areas can easily be found online. Go to https://sua.faa.gov/ to see which MOAs are active within your area. Look under the “TFR” link at the top right of the page to find any scheduled TFRs in place. Make sure to check this area frequently, as violating a TFR can carry a $100,000 fine and a year in prison.
As you start to consider your flight area, make sure you spend the appropriate amount of time looking over Airspace concerns. There are serious safety risks involved in flying in or near controlled airspace, and we always have to be vigilant to avoid causing any incidents. Make sure you plan for your flight area, and always “See and Avoid” to provide that measure of safety for everyone.
Brandon Guillot has a Masters of Aeronautical Science in Aviation Management and Aviation Safety Systems from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He holds an FAA Private Pilot and Remote Pilot Certificate. Brandon has 13 years of experience in the Operations, Security, and Emergency Management and sUAS fields. He also serves as an Adjunct Assistant Professor for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University teaching UAS Management. Brandon owns Unmanned Aerial Solutions of Arkansas and assists the FAA Safety Team with educating sUAS pilots.