Exception for Recreational Drones
At the end of this lesson, you will be able to:
- Identify which flights require a Remote Pilot Certificate and which do not.
- List the eight criteria that must be met when flying under the Exception for Recreational Fliers under Part 349 of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018.
Introduction: Regulatory Environment
In the United States, all drones are considered aircraft and are subject to regulation by the Federal Aviation Administration. The word “drone” is in common use, but you won’t find it in any of the actual regulations. The technical term for what we call drones is “Unmanned Aircraft System”.
The license you’re working toward will authorize you to fly small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS), meaning any unmanned aircraft weigh less than 55 pounds, including batteries, fuel, and all attachments.
Small Unmanned Aircraft, or “drones” as they are commonly called, include many types of aircraft, including:
- Quadcopters used for videos and photography
- Thermal imaging drones
- Fixed-wing airplanes that are used to cover larger areas
- Radio controlled airplanes built from balsa wood at home by hobbyists
- Racing drones that fly indoors
- Toy helicopters that are sold at the mall
All of these are considered “aircraft” by the FAA. And all of them are subject to regulation.
Aircraft that weigh less than 0.55 pounds are exempt. No registration or license is required for these ultra small aircraft.
When you fly anything that’s unmanned, you are a pilot operating an aircraft within the National Airspace System, and you need to understand the rules of the road. That’s why anyone who flies one needs to have a Remote Pilot Certificate.
Exceptions for Recreational Use of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems
Anyone who operates a sUAS weighing over 0.55 pounds in the United States is required to hold an FAA Remote Pilot Certificate and comply with Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations (you’ll be an expert in this by the end of the course).
However, there is a limited exception for recreational pilots. In 2018, Congress passed and the President signed a five year FAA Reauthorization Act that allows anyone to fly a small unmanned aircraft, without a license from the FAA, as long as eight requirements are met.
A person may operate a small unmanned aircraft without specific certification or operating authority from the FAA if the operation adheres to all of the following limitations:
- The aircraft is flown strictly for recreational purposes.
- The aircraft is operated in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to manned aircraft.
- In Class G airspace, the aircraft is flown less than 400 feet above ground level.
- In Class B, Class C, Class D, or within the lateral boundaries of a Class E surface area, obtain prior authorization from the FAA, or operate from a pre-approved fixed flying site.
- In all airspace classes, comply with airspace restrictions and prohibitions.
- The operator has passed an aeronautical knowledge test.
- The aircraft is registered and property marked.
- The aircraft is operated in accordance with the safety guidelines of a community-based organization approved by the FAA.
Now, let’s break these down and see exactly what they mean.
Requirements for Recreational Flyers
The aircraft is flown strictly for recreational purposes.
One common misconception is that if you’re not making money from your drone, you don’t need a license. This is false. Any operations that are not strictly recreational require you to have an FAA Remote Pilot Certificate, including:
- Taking pictures of your own property for business purposes (even for internal use, such as crop surveillance).
- Using the pictures or videos on a commercial website.
- Using the pictures or videos for promotional purposes.
- Using drones for education (in general, teachers who use drones as part of their jobs need to have a Remote Pilot Certificate, but the students do not. Read more details in AC-??????).
- Performing scientific research.
- Search and rescue.
- Use by a public agency such as fire and police departments.
The aircraft is operated in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to manned aircraft.
Drone pilots have a responsibility to see and avoid other aircraft. Manned aircraft always have the right of way over sUAS.
In Class G airspace, the aircraft is flown less than 400 feet above ground level.
You’ll learn more about airspace classification in the next unit. For now, just know that you are always limited to a maximum altitude of 400 feet unless you have authorization from Air Traffic Control, even if you are flying recreationally.
In Class B, Class C, Class D, or within the lateral boundaries of a Class E surface area, obtain prior authorization from the FAA, or operate from a pre-approved fixed flying site.
Recreational drone pilots are required to obtain Air Traffic Control authorization for flights in controlled airspace, the same as commercial pilots are. In general, you’ll find controlled airspace close to busier airports, but we’ll dive into the details in the next unit.
In all airspace classes, comply with airspace restrictions and prohibitions.
The FAA sometimes issues permanent airspace restrictions for things like military bases and sensitive national parks. In addition, they issue temporary flight restrictions for things like major league sports, spacecraft launches, and VIP movement. Recreational pilots must comply with these restrictions just as commercial pilots must. These are covered in detail in the next unit.
The operator has passed an aeronautical knowledge test.
As of this writing (March 2020), the FAA is still trying to figure out how to implement this requirement. Until the FAA makes an official announcement, recreational pilots may continue to fly without passing a test.
The aircraft is registered and property marked.
Recreational pilots must obtain a registration number for their drones from the FAA Drone Zone. While commercial operators are required to obtain a new number for each aircraft, recreational users may use the same registration number on all of their aircraft. More details on registration are covered in a future lesson.
The aircraft is operated in accordance with the safety guidelines of a community-based organization approved by the FAA.
For now, the FAA continues to take a mostly self-regulating approach to the recreational drone community. While recreational users are exempt from Federal Aviation Regulation Part 107, they are required to follow a set of safety guidelines that are developed by a non-governmental Community Based Organization.
As of this writing, that organization is the Academy of Model Aeronautics, and the set of rules is called the AMA Safety Code. This is the set of operating rules that apply to recreational pilots.
You’ll notice that some of these rules are different from the Part 107 rules that commercial operators must follow. For example:
- Recreational users may fly at night and commercial operators may not (unless they have a waiver).
- Recreational users have no speed limit; commercial users are limited to 100 miles per hour.
- Recreational users are not required to report accidents to the FAA; commercial users are.
This is why, before every flight, you need to make a determination as to which set of rules that particular flight falls under: the “Exception for Recreational Use of Small Unmanned Aircraft”, or for anything not recreational, Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) Part 107.
Remember, to qualify for the recreational exception, you must satisfy all eight of the above requirements. Part 107 is where we focus the remainder of this course- this is the rule book for all non-recreational drone flights.