Was that a Drone?!?
By Frank D. Mroczka, Esq.
The laws of drones are classified in essentially two sections: Those for hobbyists and those for commercial pilots. Both the federal and state governments have laws governing drones. There are general laws incorporated into Pennsylvania’s UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems), but none specifically enacted targeting them.
The universal drone laws essentially address the following limitations for hobbyists:
- Must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident of the U.S.;
- Must be 13 years of age or older;
- 400 foot vertical flight limitation;
- Prohibition against flight over people (exceptions within a commercial purpose and those individuals who are your authorized personnel;
- Must give leeway for manned aircraft;
- Pilot must have a line of sight with the drone;
- Three miles from sporting events;
- Five miles from an airport
- No flying at night, and;
- No flying while impaired.
With number 8, when flying within the 5-mile perimeter of an airport, the pilot must contact the airport and give them notice they will be operating the drone within the 5-mile limit. If the airport has a tower, notice must be given to the tower too. This can be done by a simple call to the airport, where you will give them data on your flight---range, height and for what period of time you will be flying. The FCC has an app you can download for free that allows to you determine if you are in a no-fly or notice zone. B4UFly has an interactive map that allows you to input your address and it will show you if you are within 5 miles of an airport and it will show all the locations of airports, helipads, armed forces locations and other structures that will affect your flight. Airport limitations are nationwide.
Respect for the privacy of others is also something every pilot should consider, apart from the overhead flights of pedestrians on the ground. Specifically, drones are not exactly quiet in nature, so if your neighbors are having a cookout next to you, although they cannot prevent you from taking off and landing on your property, you would just want to avoid any confrontations which may result in nuisance claims submitted to the authorities. This is truer when you respect their privacy rights—do not fly up to windows of their homes—that is just common sense.
A serious flight prohibition is that of emergency situations. It is crucial for the pilot to remember that he or she must never attempt to fly near a natural disaster or emergency response situation. These situations can interfere with life flight helicopters or planes, distract emergency response personnel and even inhibit their drone response equipment. It can also interfere with manned aircraft such as news helicopters covering the incident. An important hint, if something like this happens in your area, even if not a designated no-fly area, watch it on TV if you have to and never take your drone out during this extremely restricted flight situation.
Hobbyists must also register their drone with the FCC. This is mandatory. To do this, one would contact the FCC on their website for drone registration, pay a fee and obtain a certificate of registration. This is to be carried with you and the FAA registration number must be placed on your drone for proper identification. The mandatory registration by weight is from .55 pounds to 55 pounds in weight, and an operator of a drone over 55 lbs. must register their drone as an actual aircraft.
If you plan to fly in state parks or national parks, operation is extremely restricted.
State Park services have a website that indicate where it is perfectly legal to fly your drone. This list is short to say the least. Only about 6 state parks in Pennsylvania allow such operations at the time of this blog. As with other government rules, ignorance of the laws is no excuse for a violation. Also, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has rules prohibiting use on their land. Penndot.gov has useful information for drone flight.
Fines for breaches of drone laws are anything but weak. For example, a maximum fine of $10,000 and jailtime can be set at the doorstep of the innocent hobbyist. Fines for failure to register may be assessed by the FAA up to $27,500. Criminal penalties can be imposed up to $250,000 with imprisonment up to three years.
Clearly, operating over the lands of the Commonwealth in violation of drone laws can bring serious consequences. There is another area of drone law that governs the second class of pilot operation. Be sure to check back on our site when we will discuss a legal overview of commercial requirements to drone flight in Pennsylvania.