photo by Gabriel Garcia Marengo
With Christmas and Hanukkah behind us, it is safe to assume that many thousands of brand-new recreational drone aircraft have been freshly unwrapped and are now in the hands of owners who are eager to fly them.
A year ago, I was one of those happy new drone operators, thanks to my wife. Since that time, I have enjoyed hours of satisfying flying, getting still and video shots of beaches, sunsets and even aerial fireworks on the Fourth of July.
I am lucky to have a vacation home near a Florida beach that is far from any airports, and that is where I do most of my flying. But even there, I am careful to follow the rules that have been established for hobbyist drone pilots. I never go above 400 feet and usually don’t even approach that height. This ceiling is meant to avoid conflict with manned aircraft, which ordinarily are not supposed to fly below 500 feet over populated areas except on takeoff and landing. I also never let the vehicle get outside my direct line of sight. It can be hard to spot a tiny 1.1-pound drone when it is a half-mile out over the ocean, but at least I can see any other traffic.
This isn’t a purely academic exercise. Already, I have had to maneuver my drone to stay clear of an individual flying an ultralight aircraft along the beach at low altitude. This was perfectly legal on the operator’s part; the flight rules for single-person ultralights permit daylight operation over open spaces, with no minimum altitude and not even a licensing requirement for the pilot (although training is strongly recommended). It was my responsibility – not that of the ultralight pilot – to maintain separation between the two aircraft. That pilot’s safety was at stake, which is why I take that responsibility seriously.
Not all drone operators do, unfortunately. Most egregiously, one or more of them upended the travel plans of more than 100,000 passengers who had plans to travel through London’s Gatwick Airport in the week before Christmas.
Beginning the night of Dec. 19, Gatwick’s runways were closed due to drones repeatedly flying across the airfield. Incoming flights were rerouted to a variety of airports, some as far away as Amsterdam. Some outgoing flyers were rerouted to London Stansted Airport, while many others were simply stranded. Sussex Police issued a statement that the drone activity was a “deliberate act” of disruption but said there was no indication of terrorist intent; they also noted that the drones seemed to be of “industrial specification,” rather than the type an amateur would generally use, The Wall Street Journal reported. Gatwick chief executive Stewart Wingate described it as a “highly targeted activity.” In other words, the culprits were clearly not ignorant of the effects of their behavior.
On Dec. 20, the British Army deployed “specialist equipment” to Gatwick in an attempt to restore airport operations, in addition to the more than 20 police units from two forces searching for the operator. After about 36 hours, the airport resumed operations, though more than 1,000 flights were canceled in the meantime.
A week prior to the chaos in London, Mexican authorities began investigating a possible midair collision between a jetliner and a drone. The Aeromexico flight landed safely, but sustained considerable damage to the nose of the aircraft during the flight. As of this writing, the involvement of a drone has not been confirmed, but given the facts of the incident, it seems likely.
Indications that the disruptions at Gatwick were caused deliberately make the incident all the more concerning to us drone pilots, as well as the flying public at large. (Most drone pilots fly on commercial aircraft, too, of course.) At this writing, the perpetrators and their motivations at Gatwick were not yet known, despite initial speculation from law enforcement and the recovery of a damaged drone nearby. It could have been a form of low-cost, low-grade terrorism, or even a trial run in preparation for a larger and potentially more dangerous assault. Or it may have been the simple, witless behavior of a terrorist wannabe or a general misanthrope.
The British rules about flying drones near airports are notably more lax than those here in the States, although I suspect that this will change in short order following last week’s incident. Drones are allowed to fly as close as 1 kilometer (0.62 of a mile) to an airport over there, though they are required to stay below 400 feet. Here, any drone operations – even by hobbyists – within 5 miles of an airport require the operator to first notify the airport tower, assuming the airport has one, or the airport’s operator that drones will be in use. Drone operators are supposed to state the location, time and altitudes at which the drones will fly, and we must comply with any air traffic restrictions. Flight controllers will not provide direction for drone pilots, but if it is warranted, they may advise departing and arriving fixed-wing pilots that drones are in use nearby. “Professional,” licensed drone operators can request access to restricted airspace by filing a request with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
I use the FAA’s B4UFly app to familiarize myself with these and other considerations before I launch the drone in any new or sensitive territory. Last summer, for example, B4UFly informed me of the presence of a small private airstrip just a couple of miles west of a beach where I planned to fly. The airstrip was oriented east-west, meaning that a plane taking off or landing conceivably might fly over my flight area, although at several miles out, that aircraft should be much higher than I intended to go. I could not reach anyone at the airstrip, which probably has negligible traffic anyway, but I kept my flights below 100 feet just to be safe.
Compliance with these rules isn’t just a matter of common sense or good citizenship. The airspace above everybody’s head is common property, regulated by the government for the welfare and safety of everyone. Using that airspace is not a privilege to take lightly. If it is routinely abused, whether maliciously or not, the rules are apt to change in ways that will not make drone pilots especially happy.
That would mean fewer post-holiday smiles in the future. So if you got a new drone this year, learn the rules, follow them and then enjoy those beautiful aerial pictures.