New Law Makes Recreational Drone Flying Difficult in Bloomington — Temporarily, At Least

TL;DR version: You can’t fly your drone recreationally (i.e., without a Part 107 certificate/”license”) in Bloomington within 4 miles of the Monroe County Airport (BMG), which includes all of downtown Bloomington, all the way up to IU at Indiana Ave, for the time being, until the FAA updates its systems.

Back in October, the President signed the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, the bill required to re-authorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the agency that is tasked with regulating aircraft and aviation, including drones (which the FAA refers to as Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or UAS). This bill actually included a number of changes that slipped under the radar (sorry!) and wind up actually being quite consequential to recreational drone pilots (i.e., those operating without a Part 107 certificate), and in particular make it nearly impossible to fly recreationally legally in large parts of Bloomington.

On May 17, 2009, the Federal Register published the official notice that the new rules were going into effect in the form of the Exception for Limited Recreational Operations of Unmanned Aircraft.

Per the FAA’s Web site, here is the summary of rules for recreational drone pilots that are in effect as of the time of this posting:

  1. Register your dronemark it on the outside with the registration number (PDF), and carry proof of registration with you.
  2. Fly only for recreational purposes.
  3. Follow the safety guidelines of a community based organization.
  4. Fly your drone at or below 400 feet when in uncontrolled or “Class G” airspace. 
  5. Do NOT fly in controlled airspace (around and above many airports) unless: You are flying at a recreational flyer fixed site that has an agreement with the FAA. The FAA has posted a list of approved sites (MS Excel) and has depicted them as blue dots on a map. Each fixed site is limited to the altitude shown on this map, which varies by location.NOTE: Flight in controlled airspace is temporarily limited to these fixed fields. The FAA is upgrading the online system, known as LAANC (the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability), so that recreational operations can get automated airspace authorizations to fly in controlled airspace. This system is currently only available for certified Part 107 drone pilots.NOTE: If your organization is interested in establishing a letter of agreement for a fixed flying site, please contact us at 9-AJT-UAS-Integration@faa.gov.
  6. Keep your drone within your line of sight, or within the visual line-of-sight of a visual observer who is co-located and in direct communication with you.
  7. Do NOT fly in airspace where flight is prohibited. Airspace restrictions can be found on our interactive map, and temporary flight restrictions can be found here. Drone operators are responsible for ensuring they comply with all airspace restrictions.
  8. Never fly near other aircraft, especially near airports.
  9. Never fly over groups of people, public events, or stadiums full of people.
  10. Never fly near emergencies such as any type of accident response, law enforcement activities, firefighting, or hurricane recovery efforts.
  11. Never fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Most of these rules are completely commonsense, and similar to, if not identical to, the previous rules. However, the rule that represents the big change is #5, Do Not Fly in Controlled Airspace. Under the previous rules, to fly recreationally within 5 miles of an airport, you simply had to notify the airport (which, in Bloomington at least, involved a quick call to the Monroe County Airport (BMG) tower). The new rules eliminate this requirement, and instead require recreational pilots to obtain authorization from the FAA before flying in what is known as the controlled airspace around airports — that is, the airspace that is managed by the Air Traffic Control system (ATC).

In Monroe County, the controlled airspace (referred to as Class D airspace — controlled airspace is classified as Class A, B, C, D, and E) around the Monroe County airport (BMG) extends to 4 miles around the airport. Following is a map of the controlled airspace, from the Web application Airmap:

As you can see, the class D airspace around the BMG airport includes all of the west side and downtown Bloomington and goes all the way to the edge of IU, at Indiana Ave. There is a tiny exception, represented by a green circle, to the north of the County — this is the airfield of the Monroe County Radio Control Club.

If you are a recreational drone pilot, you almost certainly do not have FAA authorization for the controlled airspace. You cannot obtain authorization by calling the airport tower (which you could under the previous rules). Currently, there are two ways to obtain FAA authorization: 1. through the FAA’s Drone Zone portal — a process that can take months; and 2. though LAANC, an app-based instant-authorization system. Unfortunately LAANC isn’t even available at this time to recreational pilots!! This is ostensibly a temporary condition — the FAA has stated that they are working to include recreational pilots in LAANC, in addition to certified Part 107 pilots.

In addition, LAANC isn’t actually available for the controlled airspace around the BMG airport yet. It is available at all FAA-operated ATC towers around the country, but is not yet available to all contractor-operated towers, of which the BMG tower is one. I’m still trying to get some better information on when the BMG tower still start using LAANC. It is actually a really nice system — I used it last week flying near Miami International Airport, and it worked perfectly.

There is another change coming on the horizon — the new rules require that recreational drone pilots pass a test of aeronautical knowledge and safety. However, the test isn’t available yet, so that rule hasn’t actually gone into effect — but coming soon.

So hopefully, LAANC will be available to recreational pilots soon, and will be available at BMG. But for now, you are actually technically breaking the law if you fly within 4 miles of BMG airport without written FAA authorization!

Drone Use and Local Governments: Secretive Task Force Founders

Screenshot 2017-10-24 08.04.10I have become quite interested in the intersection between drones (“unmanned aerial vehicles”) and local government regulation lately, and will be using this blog to post news and developments that cut new ground in this area.

Yesterday’s Washington Post featured an article about a secretive subcommittee (so-called “Task Group 1 of the Drone Advisory Committee”) that has been tasked by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with making recommendations about the manner in which state and local governments should be able to regulate drone use : A U.S. drone advisory group has been meeting in secret for months. It hasn’t gone well.

TL;DR version:

  • The Federal Government (through the FAA) has exclusive jurisdiction over US airspace, under the principle that you can’t have each and every local jurisdiction passing laws and regulations about the airspace above it.
  • Open question that the proliferation of drones pose is whether the Federal Government should allow local governments to control the airspace at ultra-low altitudes — usually under 400 feet above ground level — that is — should local governments be able to specify when, where, and under what conditions drones should be able to fly
  • FAA formed the Drone Advisory Committee to study and make recommendations on integrating drones into the US airspace.
  • The committee created a task force to study and come to consensus upon an approach to the balance of regulation between the FAA and state/local government with respect to ultra-low altitude airspace, in preparation for a pilot initiative to give local/state governments more control over drone regulation.
  • The task force composition and conduct have come under fire, even from within the task force. It appears to be heavily laden with industry lobbyists, and in fact is co-chaired by a lobbyist for DJI, a major Chinese drone manufacturer that makes pretty much every drone you can buy at your local big box store. Members have been asked to sign strict confidentiality agreements, which triggered something of a revolt by dissenters (which included the National Association of Counties).
  • It isn’t clear what the next step is — however, what is clear is that the debate between 100% federal regulation of ultra-low altitude airspace and some local government regulation will continue.