FAA updates safety guidelines for recreational drone flyers

recreational drone rules

Flying drones for recreation? The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is now enabling Community Based Organizations (CBOs) to establish guidelines that will help you to fly safely and legally.

Community-based safety guidelines for hobbyist pilots

If you’ve ever scanned the FAA website for rules for recreational flyers (which you should have), you may have noticed something odd. While the FAA requires recreational drone pilots to follow the safety guidelines of an FAA-recognized CBO, the organization has not yet begun officially recognizing CBOs. And so you are asked to either abide by the safety guidelines of existing aeromodeling organizations or follow the interim safety guidelines that the FAA provided in May 2019.  

But now a new Advisory Circular (AC) released by the FAA cancels those guidelines and establishes fresh ones that the CBOs are also expected to include.

So in the near future, once the FAA starts recognizing CBOs officially, hobbyist flyers would be expected to explain to an FAA inspector or law enforcement officer (if and when required) which CBO’s safety guidelines they are following during any given flight.

That said, keep in mind that you do not need to be a member of a CBO to fly under its safety guidelines.

Safety rules for recreational drones (2021 guidelines)

Note that these guidelines are only a part of the FAA rules for recreational fliers. And while you can go through the full contents of the new advisory here, this is what the FAA’s recommendations for community-based safety guidelines look like, in a nutshell:

General safety measures and practices

The FAA recommends that safety guidelines should include, at a minimum, the following topics:

1. Protections and mitigations to prevent harm

CBOs should consider addressing how they will mitigate hazards to avoid creating a risk to people who are not flying the aircraft. Safe practices should include restrictions on flying over people, establishing buffer areas between an aircraft’s planned flight path and any people in the area, and using restricted access areas for activities such as racing.

2. Prohibitions: modifications, weaponization, recklessness

CBOs should restrict their members from customizing or modifying the aircraft in such a way that creates a danger to the public or the National Airspace System (NAS). The carriage of hazardous materials or weapons is also to be restricted. Similarly, guidelines should include information on avoiding careless or reckless behavior.

3. Preflight safety

Information on preflight safety includes ensuring that the aircraft, recreational flyer, environment, and location are all appropriate for flight. To mitigate hazards, guidelines should include, as appropriate to the needs of the CBO, preflight assessments, flight planning and hazard identification techniques, and scanning techniques for aircraft and other people entering an area of operation.

4. In-flight safety

Guidelines for in-flight safety should remind recreational flyers to assess the drone’s performance continually; monitor the strength of command-and-control links; watch for changing weather conditions; and watch for unexpected people or aircraft in the area of operation.

Additionally, guidelines should instruct recreational flyers to be familiar with the automated features a drone may have, and how the drone would behave when those features are activated. For instance, a return-to-home protocol on a drone could initiate a straight-line path toward the person flying it that could cross over people or possibly strike an obstacle such as a tree or power lines.

5. Post-flight safety

Guidelines for post-flight inspection should include encouraging recreational flyers to review the flight to determine whether any unplanned events occurred that presented a risk to the operation. Guidelines should also consider including recommendations for safely securing the drone between flights to include removing batteries and protecting fragile parts from wear and tear per the manufacturer’s recommendations.

First Person View (FPV) safety guidelines

If a CBO supports FPV flying, the FAA recommends that its safety guidelines should include the following minimum guidance for operating FPV drones:

  • FPV flyers should be proficient in flying non-FPV drones prior to starting FPV flights.
  • FPV flyers should perform preflight inspections of the device’s video, control, power source, and mechanical systems before each flight.
  • FPV operations require someone to be watching the drone at all times to ensure safe operations. This requires the use of a visual observer.
  • Visual observers must be co-located with the FPV flyer and maintain visual line of sight (VLOS) with the aircraft at all times. Visual observation of the aircraft must be made with unaided vision, except in the case of vision that is corrected by the use of eyeglasses or contact lenses. Vision aids, such as binoculars, may be used only momentarily to enhance situational awareness. Visual observers must be in direct communication with the FPV flyer.
  • FPV flyers must have the capacity to see the aircraft at all times. Although a visual observer may be watching the drone, the FPV flyer must ensure that, throughout the operation, they would have the ability to immediately see the drone if the FPV device was removed.
  • The FPV flyer and visual observers should have preplanned communications and procedures to ensure the drone remains under control and within VLOS during any event when the safe operation of the aircraft is in question.
  • An FPV system should not be used when the weight of the drone exceeds 55 pounds.

Drone operations at night

Flyers must maintain VLOS throughout the flight when flying at night. To achieve this, the FAA recommends the CBO develop comprehensive safety guidelines that include a requirement for CBO members to equip their drones with lights that can be seen from 3 statute miles away and to arrange the lights in such a way that allows recreational flyers to determine the orientation of the aircraft.

Further, the safety guidelines should also permit members to conduct recreational flights at night without requiring drone lighting in areas that are sufficiently illuminated so that members can maintain VLOS of the aircraft throughout the flight and identify any potential ground or airborne hazards.

Related: The FAA’s TRUST test system for recreational pilots is now here

In addition to the above, the FAA also recommends CBOs to implement procedures for drone maintenance, inspections, minimum conditions for safe operations, and emergency events. The procedures for determining a recreational flyer’s medical condition are also spelled out.

And to promote a culture of safety among all CBOs and recreational flyers, the FAA also recommends but does not require that comprehensive safety guidelines address safety events such as injuries to a person and property damage in excess of $500.

It’s worth noting that the intent of this AC by the FAA is to explain to hobbyist pilots how they may comply with the existing rules and regulations. By providing a comprehensive set of safety guidelines for all aspects of recreational drone flying, the FAA is bringing potential CBOs closer to having an actual impact on hobbyist pilots while enhancing the safety and security of drones both in the air and on the ground.

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