With today’s never-ending technological advancements, automation is taking over everyday tasks and replacing potentially dangerous situations with nonhuman elements to mitigate risks. Drones, in particular, offer a gateway to new opportunities for those skilled in their operation, and these prospective opportunities show no signs of stalling in the near future.
Many individuals, whether they are farmers, medical professionals, photographers, or children who have received drones as gifts, may not be fully aware of the diverse regulations required when operating drones. Some of the uses of drones, potential benefits, and regulations are outlined below. While this article may address some regulations, it does not address all. It’s also important to note that each situation is fact-specific, so it is always important to consult an attorney if you have questions or plan to operate a drone as the laws are constantly evolving and changing.
Recreational VS. Business Use
If a drone operator employs a drone for business purposes, they will be required to obtain a license under the Federal Aviation Administration’s Part 107 of the Code of Federal Regulations. If the drone is only flown for hobby or recreational purposes, the operator would not need a license. To acquire a drone pilot license under Part 107, you must be: (1) at least 16 years old, (2) able to read, write, and understand English, and (3) in a physical and mental condition to safely fly. You must take the knowledge test created by the FAA at an approved test center. However, merely opting not to fly for commercial purposes under Part 107 doesn’t exempt recreational or hobby operators from taking a knowledge test. Recreational flyers must take The Recreational UAS Safety Test (TRUST) developed by the FAA. An approved list of TRUST test providers and their online tests are available through the FAA.
AAs of September 16, 2023, the FAA’s rule on Remote ID requires most drones to be registered with the FAA through their online service called the DroneZone. The FAA carved out exemptions in Part 89 for home-built unmanned aircraft, unmanned aircraft of the U.S. government, unmanned aircraft that weigh .55 pounds or less on takeoff including payload, and unmanned aircraft designed or produced for aeronautical research. Remote ID is a technology that broadcasts the identification and location information of the drone and its control station so that it can be tracked by the FAA, national security agencies, law enforcement, or other government agencies to determine whether the drone is being operated safely and whether it poses a security risk.
It’s worth noting that once a drone is registered, transferring it between operation types (e.g., from Part 107 commercial purposes to solely recreational purposes) isn’t possible. To register your drone, the FAA requires that you be at least 13 years old and a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident. For foreign applicants, the issued certificate of registration will possess slight variations and will serve as an acknowledgment of ownership rather than a U.S. aircraft registration certificate. Regardless of the type of registration obtained, registering your drone remains one of the initial steps in drone operations.
Lives Saved By Drones: A Game-Changing Reality
ADrones are not only reshaping industry and business, but they are also reshaping everyday life and emergencies. In the medical field, a company called Zipline employs its drones to transport blood and supplies to remote African regions. Since its developments in Africa, Zipline has also opened drone routes in North Carolina. Another development in the medical field is within our own state. The University of North Dakota, in collaboration with the Three Affiliated Tribes, secured a federal grant for drone delivery of medicine to the Fort Berthold reservation. The deliveries are crucial for the tribes that are traditionally inaccessible due to the area being bisected by the Missouri River with a single bridge connecting the six segments of the region. Drones are bridging this gap and unlocking new capabilities and opportunities for rural communities to remain connected to medical necessities. Drones have also been utilized in numerous natural disasters and emergency scenarios. During the 2020 Grizzly Creek fire in Colorado, incendiary balls dropped by drones neutralized tree canopies, slowing the fire’s spread. In an emergency response scenario close to home, the Minot Police Department and drone firm SkySkopes used a team of drones to search and locate a missing child, effectively covering large amounts of ground in a short period of time. The North Dakota Department of Transportation (DOT) is also utilizing drones for flood watch efforts and to reduce the risks associated with a flood. Drones’ roles in emergency and medical responses unveil their transformative potential in our everyday lives.
First responders and organizations responding to natural disasters or emergency situations are able to request expedited approval to deviate from typical regulations under Part 107 through the Governmental Interest (SGI) process. The FAA has outlined operations as those including firefighting, search and rescue, law enforcement, utility or other critical infrastructure restoration, damages assessments supporting disaster-related insurance claims, and media coverage providing crucial information to the public. If the FAA approves the claim, the operator with the existing Part 107 license will receive an amendment to their existing waiver or pilot certificate to fly under the additional specific conditions.
Agricultural Use and Cultivating Efficiency
Drones are also providing benefits in food sustainability. Since 2016, universities in over 20 states have collaboratively delved into drone research for agricultural applications. The collaboration has since produced innovative drone systems capable of identifying pests and diseases in fruits, assessing crop irrigation needs, expediting crop measurements, spotting stray livestock, creating 3D models of animals to calculate market value, monitoring water quality, and determining flood risks.
Among the many uses of drones in agriculture, a notable application is their ability to replace conventional methods of applying pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. Unlike conventional methods such as manual backpack sprayers, tractor-pulled rigs, and crop dusting done by manned helicopters or airplanes, drones offer reduced operator exposure to the chemicals. Drones also have the ability to access areas that may be inaccessible for traditional manned crop sprayers, like near power lines, MET towers, and areas with rough or muddy terrain. Their takeoff flexibility, unlike traditional crop sprayers, is advantageous, as they can be launched from the back of a truck without any runway for takeoff and landing.
Discussing drones would be incomplete without touching on artificial intelligence (AI). Many of the aforementioned innovations are possible because they utilize AI. While not airborne, Carbon Robotics has developed the Autonomous Weeder, which is worthy of a notable mention in a brief discussion on how AI often works. This autonomous vehicle employs lasers to eliminate weeds, bypassing chemical usage. Ground scans and an AI algorithm called deep learning to determine weed presence and trigger extermination. The AI model is trained from example images of what the crop is supposed to look like and what various weeds look like to differentiate the two. The algorithm essentially mimics the human brain’s neural network, distinguishing which crops to spare from treatment and accurately identifying weeds to target for eradication. This enables the Autonomous Weeder to eradicate over 100,000 weeds across one to two acres. If these capabilities are adopted for aerial drones, the possibilities would be near limitless.
You may be asking yourself, “Do chemical delivery and artificial intelligence really fall within the same laws as the rest of drones for businesses?” With respect to regulations of artificial intelligence, as of the writing of this article, there are no comprehensive regulations passed regarding the use of artificial intelligence but there are certainly regulations in the works. With regards to chemical delivery, even though agricultural purposes can still be a business use under Part 107, Part 137 is another regulation that applies. Part 137 specifically governs the use of aircraft, including drones, to dispense or spray chemicals. Chemicals intended for horticulture, forest preservation, plant nourishment, soil treatment, propagation, or pest control are generally considered agricultural by nature. Most drones developed by manufacturers weigh less than 55 pounds so they can be operated under Part 107. However, if a drone weighs more than 55 pounds at takeoff (including the payload and any other additions), a drone operator will be operating under Part 91 rather. Part 91 is generally more complex than Part 107 and an operator will likely be required to get additional exemptions under other sections of the Code of Federal Regulations.
Elevating Photography with Drones
Drones are also becoming increasingly utilized in the entertainment industry. Drones have been used to capture footage in films such as Skyfall, Iron Man 3, The Dark Knight Rises, Hunger Games, and even at the US Open golf championship. In addition to large production studios, many professional photographers and real estate agents often utilize drones to take photos of clients and properties.
Photographers should consider airspace regulations when flying drones. While the sky appears open, not all areas are permissible for drone flights. There are two basic types of airspace, uncontrolled and controlled. Uncontrolled airspace is the airspace where Air Traffic Control is not provided or deemed not necessary. Uncontrolled airspace is often referred to as class G airspace. In contrast, controlled airspace does have air traffic control services. Controlled airspace includes Class A, B, C, D, or E airspace. Generally, drones can operate under 400 feet in uncontrolled airspace. The Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) app offers guidance on drone flight. If you have questions about where to fly, the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) application provides where you generally can and cannot fly. Access to the application is available through the FAA’s approved service suppliers on the FAA website. LAANC also provides drone operators with the ability to request airspace authorizations to fly outside of the normal airspace parameters for a limited duration of time. To fly beyond these limitations, a commercial operator may also apply for a waiver.
As mentioned in the introduction to this article, commercial operators in the entertainment industry are also required to follow the provisions of Part 107. An often-sought waiver that many entertainment industry professionals would desire is the ability to operate the drone beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). Part 107.31 outlines that among other chapter requirements, operating a drone requires a visual observer or drone pilot who is able to:
- Know the aircrafts location;
- Determine the drone’s orientation, altitude, and direction of flight;
- Watch for hazards; and
- Ensure that the drone does not endanger life or property.
Although an estimated 99% of applications to operate BVLOS have been rejected, operating BVLOS would allow more footage to be shot with less drone deployments and travel to get to desired scenes.
Skyborne Solutions: Drones Rvolutionizing Package Delivery
Arguably the most renowned and extensively covered drone application in media is package delivery. Five companies have secured FAA certification for this purpose: Wing, UPS, Amazon, Zipline, and Causey Aviation Unmanned.
Part 135 regulations apply to these delivery companies. Acquiring certification under Part 135 entails five phases. The process commences with a pre-application phase, where potential applicants request the air carrier or air operator certification application. Subsequently, a formal application is submitted, followed by a meeting to address FAA queries and minor issues. The third phase involves a comprehensive review of submitted documents in the design assessment, ensuring compliance with FAA regulations and safety requirements. Phase four, the performance assessment evaluates the effectiveness of proposed training and performance procedures. Finally, in phase five, the FAA issues the certificate and operational specifications to the applicant.
As the drone industry takes flight into new frontiers, its transformative impact becomes evident across various sectors. From capturing cinematic masterpieces to revolutionizing medical deliveries in remote regions, drones have soared beyond imagination. As the drone landscape continues to evolve, it’s clear that the sky’s the limit of their possibilities. However, with the continuous advancement in the field and technology, laws and regulations will limit how drones may be used. As a result of the ever-changing legislation, it’s important to be constantly aware of the laws of the sky before you fly.