Litwingtech had the honor of speaking on a panel with FAA personnel this summer. After considerable deliberation, we decided to work on a series of essays highlighting some of the most prevalent drone-related blunders and misconceptions. We know that the vast majority of drone pilots try to follow the rules, and we’re doing our part by raising awareness about some of the more ambiguous problems.
Things the FAA Wishes More Pilots Knew: What does drone flight over people really mean?
“In many of my conversations with stakeholders about this topic, I hear people more focused on what EXACTLY constitutes “over” people (107.39), as if they need a laser beam to determine whether the drone is over the person or not: but they tend to miss the bigger and more general prohibition against hazardous operation (107.23),” says John Meehan, FAA Aviation Safety Analyst.
“‘Over’ people means straight over someone,” Meehan explains.
“Imagine a cylinder of air that extends over a person as a nice way to visualize this.” This cylinder’s diameter may fluctuate depending on whether the individual is standing or lying down, and whether or not their arms are outstretched. That cylinder of air would not allow a drone to pass through.”
The concept of “Hazardous Operation.”
Drone flight above people is closely linked to the concept of “hazardous operation” according to the FAA. Careless or reckless operation of the UAS endangers the safety of people or property on the ground, which is known as hazardous operation.
“First and foremost, it’s always a good idea to remember that the goal of the flying regulations is to ensure aviation safety,” adds Meehan.
“The basic idea is to fly in such a way that no one or property is at risk of injury or damage.”
“Aviators constantly examine and reevaluate what might happen if the plane doesn’t perform as predicted, and change their flight accordingly to stay safe.” Pilots of unmanned aircraft are aviators, much like manned pilots. The aviator uses aeronautical decision-making processes to fly in a way that reduces or eliminates risks to other people or property.
If you’re flying in a strong crosswind, for example, fly in a way that keeps the drone away from people and property in the event it falls out of the sky, so it doesn’t get blasted into people or property.”
What About the Exception for “Persons Directly Participating”?
The law against drone flight over persons has a few exceptions. “Small unmanned aircraft may not operate over any humans not directly participating in the operation, not under a covered structure, and not inside a covered stationary vehicle,” according to Part 107 Operational Limitations. Those exclusions, however, are limited to the drone mission’s pilot and visual observer.
“We frequently have inquiries regarding what ‘persons directly involved in the operation’ means,” adds Meehan.
“The preamble to Final Rule Part 107 makes it clear that only the flight crew is directly involved in the operation” (RP and VO). They are not, however, the SWAT team, the other Fire Fighters, or the other survey team members who may be participating in a larger operation involving the use of a UAS.”
Meehan’s team references the following regulations for anyone interested in the fine print: 14 CFR 107.23, 107.39 (as well as 107.49, 107.51 (c)), 49 USC 44809 (e), and 14 CFR 91.13.
“Read the preamble to the Final Rule, See Federal Register Docket No.: FAA–2015–0150; RIN 2120–AJ60, Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, for greater insight into the objective underlying the Part 107 rule,” Meehan says.
The Upshot on Drone Flight Over People: Straight from the FAA
Flight above people is considered dangerous, thus it is prohibited. “Parts 107, 91, and 49 USC 44809 (e) are all very clear. “An aviator may not operate a small unmanned aircraft system in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another, and the FAA may pursue enforcement action against a person operating any unmanned aircraft who endangers the national airspace system’s safety,” says Meehan.
The details are laid out by Meehan’s team:
To fly under 44809, one must adhere to the safety regulations of an existing aeromodelling group or the FAA’s regulations. Flying over people is strictly prohibited by FAA guidelines https://www.faa.gov/uas/recreational fliers/. We’re not aware of any existing aeromodelling groups that permit flying above persons who aren’t RPs or VOs.
If the flight is governed by Part 107, the aviator is prohibited from flying over persons (107.39) unless they are members of the flight crew or are protected by a covered building. Before taking off, the aviator must do pre-flight planning, identify probable dangers and hazards, and arrange the flight path accordingly (107.49). Aviators always examine weather (107.49 and 107.51c) and identify hazards (probability and severity) as part of a pre-flight checklist because such elements can affect the aircraft’s performance and safety.
If the flight is governed by Part 91, the operator may not operate a small unmanned aircraft system in a negligent or reckless manner that endangers another person’s life or property (91.13). There are also minimal safe heights for which a waiver is usually required to operate a UAS (91.119).
However, some regulations, such as 107.39, can be waived. DroneZone (https://faadronezone.faa.gov/) is open to anyone who desires temporary relief from the waivable Part 107 regulations. Part 91 flights use a distinct procedure.
Can I fly my drone above people?
A person may not fly a small UA directly over a person who is not protected by a safe cover, such as a protective structure or a parked vehicle, according to Part 107 regulations.
The exact ruling is as follows:
107.39 Manipulation of human beings
A small unmanned aircraft may not be flown over a human being unless the human being is:
a) Participating directly in the operation of a small unmanned aircraft; or b)
(b) Inside a stationary vehicle or under a covered structure that can provide reasonable protection from a falling small unmanned aircraft.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these points:
“Taking an active role in the operation of small unmanned aircraft.”
The remote PIC, maybe a person handling the controls, a VO, and any crewmembers who are directly necessary for the safety of the sUAS operation, as designated and briefed by the remote PIC ahead of time, are all included.
The remote PIC can meet these requirements in a variety of methods, including:
You can maintain a safe operating distance from anyone who aren’t directly involved in the sUAS’s operation.
You can have a plan in place to keep the small UA clear of individuals who could enter the operating area, or you can stay indoors or under safe cover until the small UA flight is completed.
“Behind a covered building or within a stationary vehicle that can give reasonable protection against a falling small unmanned aircraft.”
These guidelines state that if you’re flying over individuals who aren’t directly involved in your operation, they must be safeguarded from damage if the tiny UA crashes by being either 1) inside a covered structure or 2) inside a stationary vehicle.
Many people ask me if there is a certain distance you should fly away from someone in order to be in a safe operational zone. And my argument is that there isn’t a straightforward answer here. I advise distant PICs to utilize their best judgment. It is expressly forbidden to fly over people. You can interpret that as you see fit, as well as your own level of risk mitigation.
The laws for flying your drone directly over humans will change starting in 2023.
More details are available here, but the point is that the FAA is developing a risk-based framework for flying drones over humans that is based on four new drone classifications.
Each level of operational risk is represented by a separate category.
Flying a DJI Mavic Mini — a drone that weighs less than 0.55 lbs (250g) — 20-30 feet over a small family gathering in the park with propeller guards would not necessitate any additional paperwork.
However, flying a much larger drone over a crowd of people at a higher altitude (think drone delivery, filmmaking, public safety/emergency response, newscasting, active construction site mapping, and so on) poses a different level of risk and would necessitate documentation as well as possibly additional safety measures, such as a drone parachute system.
Again, there’s a lot more to learn about how drone makers plan to comply from them.
Is it legal for me to fly my drone in a national forest?
Because the terms ‘National Park’ and ‘National Forest’ are sometimes used interchangeably, it’s crucial to understand that they are not synonymous.
Because, while drones are prohibited in national parks, there are no limits on flying a drone in a national forest, according to the US Forest Service.
However, because localized exceptions may exist, we strongly advise checking the area is actually a national forest and not a national park, and that there are no local limitations, by contacting the relevant forestry office where you want to fly.
If you’re told there are, please request a copy of them in writing, published form.
The Forest Service prioritizes visitor safety and wilderness preservation, which is why they developed Tips for Responsible Recreational Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) on National Forest System Lands. These hints explain the general guidelines and which portions of a National Forest are off-limits to drone activities.
Of course, when flying a drone anywhere in the United States, all drone operators must follow the Federal Aviation Administration’s drone laws.
Is it legal for me to fly my drone near schools?
At present moment, there are no federal FAA regulations prohibiting the use of a drone in or near a school zone.
However, we would classify a school as a’sensitive’ location, similar to a hospital, prison system, power plant, or other essential infrastructure.
If you’re going to be flying over or near a school, it’s a good idea to call out and introduce yourself, and if you’re going to be standing on school property while operating the drone, you’ll need permission to do so.
Can someone take over your drone?
The answer is yes, but it’s not as easy as you might think.
The first thing to know is that there is no such thing as an “unhackable” drone. You can prevent people from taking over your drone by disabling remote control, but you can’t stop someone from hacking into your drone if they have physical access to it. That means that if someone steals your drone or otherwise obtains physical access, they can do whatever they want with it.
If you’re worried about someone stealing your drone and using it for nefarious purposes (like spying on people), there are some steps you can take to make that harder:
Use a password on your Wi-Fi connection (the default password for most drones is 1234). This will make it harder for someone who wants to hack into your drone via Wi-Fi connection to get in without knowing the password.
Keep your flight plan secret (or at least don’t share it with strangers). If you have an existing flight plan saved on the drone and it includes sensitive locations like private residences or businesses, make sure that you don’t share those plans with anyone else unless absolutely necessary.
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