Operating A Drone Legally in the U.S.

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Courtesy of Agribotix LLC

Beginning in August 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration enacted their “Part 107 rules,” which put an end to the legal limbo that commercial drone operators previously found themselves in. This document outlines the steps commercial operators need to carry out to become fully compliant. There are basically two steps: (1) register your drone with the FAA and (2) pass an FAA knowledge test.

The table below is a short summary of the rules that will be most relevant to agricultural users. You should also scan the full set of rules found here.

Selected Part 107 Rules

Maintain visual line of sight (VLOS) Practically this means a few hundred yards for a drone like the Agrion. Binoculars are not allowed.
Daylight operations Since field photographs would be useless at night this restriction isn’t a problem.
Below 400 ft above ground level (AGL) If you are inspecting a structure you are allowed to go up to 400 ft above the building.
Can operate from a moving vehicle in “sparsely populated” areas “Sparsely populated” is not defined but most agricultural land should fit in this category.
Flight allowed in Class G airspace Class G is the least congested airspace and is uncontrolled (that does not mean unregulated…). Prior approval of ATC is required to operate in Class B/C/D/E airspace. Allow up to 90 days. Almost all farmland would be in Class G airspace.
Offset from airports Unlike the previous rules there is no restriction to stay 3 or 5 miles from an airport. Nonetheless we should be good stewards of our airspace and notify the airport manager if we need to survey a field near an airport.
Register your drone with the FAA This is just like obtaining a tail number for a manned aircraft but a lot simpler.

There are, of course, many more rules in the link above, but this list hits the ones of most importance to agricultural surveyors.

Step 1. Register your drone

The FAA couldn’t have made the process of registration any easier. The cost is only $5 and you can get it knocked out in about 5 minutes.

  • Go to the FAA drone registration web site.
  • Create account and choose the “Non-Model Aircraft” option.
  • Select “Add UAS”.
  • Use the Agribotix airframe number as the serial number.
  • Enter your credit card information. Only $5 and it’s good for 3 years.
  • Your certificate number will be emailed to you. You could be asked by an FAA official to produce this document in the field, so keep a copy in your drone case. I also keep an electronic copy on my smart phone.
  • Affix your certificate number (FAxxxx) on your drone. It can be on the outside or anywhere that can be accessed without tools, such as inside the battery compartment.

Step 2. Pass the FAA Knowledge Test

Step 2 isn’t nearly as easy as Step 1, but compared to our old requirement of a private pilot’s certificate the new order is a major improvement. The test itself is 60-question multiple choice with a 70% score needed to pass. However, it’s not a walk in the park and a good bit of studying is required. I’d suggest setting aside about 10 to 20 hours. The cost is $150. There are many study tools online but the best that I have found is on the 3D Robotics web site.

A. Find a test center. The 3DR site has a tool to find the closest one. The actual registration process is retro: phone either Computer Assisted Testing Service (800-947-4228) or PSI (800-211-2753). They will take your credit card number and set you up with a times slot.

B. Study! This isn’t like going to the DMV to get your drivers license. You will need to know a lot about airspace, charts, radio frequencies, weather, human factors, etc. This FAA site shows the topics covered. 3DR has a useful study tool, but I wouldn’t consider it comprehensive. You might squeak by the 70% mark with only the 3DR guide, but not with a lot of margin. There’s an FAA study guide, which is boring, but more detailed than the 3DR guide. And if you want more information go to the relevant chapters of the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge.

C. Practice exam. After studying a good bit, take the practice exam on the 3DR site. However, I found the actual exam to be A LOT harder than the 3DR practice exam (which was essentially an extension of the FAA practice exam).

D. Take the exam. Be sure to bring a photo ID and lots of patience with you. If you fail the exam you can take it again in two weeks – but you’ll need to pay another $150.

E. IACRA. 48 hours after you pass the exam, go onto the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA) web site, sign up for an account, and enter your Exam ID. After they do a TSA check, you’ll receive your temporary certificate by email. The actual one will arrive a couple of months later.

Waivers

Users can request a waiver for many of the Part 107 regulations. For agricultural users, probably the only rule that is onerous is VLOS. As of October 2016, the FAA has only granted one VLOS waiver. Since it wasn’t to Agribotix, we don’t know how difficult the process is. However, there is an FAA web site to submit the request. Allow at least 90 days.

Part 61 Certificated Pilots

“Step 2” is much simpler for people with private pilot’s certificates. Go to the FAA Safety Team (FAAST) web site and follow in the instructions there. One of our guys got his Part 107 approval in about an hour.

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