Ruling the Skies: Do you know the regulations for drone flights?

Published: Nov. 10, 2017 at 9:08 PM CST
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With 2.4 million drones sold in the U.S. last year, officials say many people operating them are ignoring federal regulations - or maybe just aren't aware of them.

Thomas Hall doesn't want to be one of the rule-breakers. Every time he takes to the air, he first goes through a checklist and consults a variety of apps. Following the rules, he says, was key to getting his business, Eagle Aerial Solutions, off the ground.

"It comes down to ethics," Hall said. "You're either going to do what's right or you're not going to do what's right and, for me, I can't take a risk on violating those things because I know what is the right thing to do."

But as the unmanned aircraft system market - also called UAS or drone - has soared, so, too, has confusion over who can do what, where.

Eric Johnson, head of the Metropolitan Topeka Airport Authority, which operates both Topeka Regional Airport and Billard Airport, worries flying afoul of the rules could lead to tragedy.

"The UAS operator needs to be aware that they're not the only ones in the sky," he said.

13 NEWS reached out to the Federal Aviation Administration, which issued the rules for UAS operations in August 2016. We asked for clarification on rules some have found confusing, including where flying is allowed and what notifications, licenses or permissions must be obtained.

Rules everyone must follow include staying below 400 feet and no flying over people.

Hall says such restrictions are common sense.

"I've seen video where it's comes down on people's heads," he said. "Those props are spinning at 500 rpm. If you get your hand in the way, you'll get cut. If it hits somebody in the face, it could take out their eye."

From there, the FAA has different rules for hobbyists and commercial operators.

Recreational pilots

Hobbyists do not need a special license and can fly in most places. However, if they're within five miles of an airport, the FAA says they must first inform each airport. An FAA spokesperson told 13 NEWS that a medical helipad is considered an airport.

The FAA says the B4U Fly app can show a hobbyist if they are within the five-mile radius and also displays an alert. For the City of Topeka, many popular areas including downtown and the Statehouse, Lake Shawnee and most of the Washburn University campus would require a recreational pilot to first inform airports of their flight plans.

According to the FAA, an airport operator or air traffic control tower may advise a hobbyist against flying, but cannot prohibit it.

But are people even making the calls?

"There's not a lot. I'd say less than five in a month," Johnson said of what the Topeka airports have seen. "I've seen the (drone videos) from downtown. I've seen the ones that are new roofing projects. But we know that that building's within five miles of either one of our airports and we never heard anything about the operation."

For hobbyists who want to fly a drone in the Topeka Regional (Forbes) or Billard five-mile radius, Johnson said the best number to call is MTAA dispatch, 785-862-9250, and they will have the tower personnel call back. He says the tower operator is often alone and unable to answer the phone. He says people should plan their flights at least a couple hours ahead to allow for any delays in getting the call back.

Commercial operators

Commercial operators need more than a phone call. Regulations for them are set out under what's called Part 107.

The FAA defines commercial as anything related to a business, including news operations; providing aerial services like surveys, photography or inspections; or flying incidental to a business purposes, such as roof inspections or real estate photos.

Commercial operators must obtain an FAA license. Any flights for a commercial purpose inside restricted air space require an FAA waiver, which can take three months to get. Topeka Regional and Billard are both Class D airports, with restricted areas outlined on air service maps.

Enforcing the Rules

Breaking the rules can carry a sky-high cost. The FAA says individuals can be fined an average $1404 per violation. For commercial operators, it's up to $12,856 per violation. The largest civil penalty assessed was $1.9 million against a company called SkyPan. They later settled.

Enforcement of the rules can be an issue. The FAA has authority over airspace and is responsible for enforcement UAS regulations. An FAA spokesperson did not have a specific number of fines issues in 2016 and 2017, only that it was "more than 25 for the two years."

An FAA spokesperson told 13 NEWS the agency promotes voluntary compliance, but "may take enforcement action against anyone who operates a drone in a way that endangers the safety of the national airspace system."

The FAA has issued guidance to law enforcement regarding UAS regulation enforcement.

Johnson says he understands law enforcement are busy, but he's hopeful they'll become more aware of what he says is a serious issue.

"Yes, (small drones) can (damage an aircraft) and we need to avoid that whole scenario," he said.

Evolving industry

Hall admits the rules can be frustrating.

"They are sometimes preventing me from getting some of the shots that I'd like to do," he said.

But he believes if everyone is patient and plays by what's currently in place, the rules will continue to evolve and give rise to an industry where the sky's the limit.

"This is actually a very exciting time because the drone industry is really taking off," Hall said. "It's a billion-dollar industry that's growing as new technology comes out."

Here's a look at the restricted airspace around Topeka: