It’s time.  The FAA will now implement some of the changes in regulations for recreational drones which will follow on the passage of the FAA Reauthorization Act passed last year.

The FAA Reauthorization Act repealed Section 336 of the previous FAA Reauthorization, which protected recreational aircraft from new laws.  The move to repeal came in response to pressure from both national security agencies and commercial drone advocacy groups for more oversight over the hobby.

The changes in regulations now outlined by the FAA clarify where hobby drones can fly, and bring them into the some of the same regulatory processes that commercial drones currently follow.

Recreational flyers still don’t require a special certification (in future, they will need to take an online knowledge test before flying- still in development.)  They still need to follow the long-established safety rules, including staying under 400 feet in altitude.

The major changes, however, relate to flying in restricted airspace – especially the controlled space around airports.  Right now – until the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) is updated to include recreational flyers – recreational flyers can only fly at defined, fixed sites within 5 miles of airports.  (See details and links in FAA press release below.)

On a media access call this morning, the FAA’s Jay Merkle, executive director for UAS Integration and Teri Bristol, chief operating officer for the Air Traffic Organization, explained the changes. “We view this as a very positive step forward for the safe integration of UAS,” said Merkle.  “Including everyone under the same rules really does move everything forward.”

Teri Bristol emphasized that the FAA Reauthorization Act did “affirm the FAA’s authority” over recreational flight, which means that they will need to obtain the same authorizations as commercial drones in controlled airspace.  She also points out that the new requirement to obtain authorization prior to flight in controlled areas replaces the previous regulation that required “notification.”

Bristol said that they are making several upgrades to systems in order to accommodate recreational flyers, including LAANC.  When the LAANC updates are complete, “It brings recreational flyers under the same process as commercial flyers,” says Merkle.

“We know that processes will evolve,” says Bristol.  “But we see this as a very positive thing.”

Asked how the new regulations will effect Remote ID and Tracking capabilities: “It makes Remote ID regulations effective – we’ll be able to include recreational flyers in that initiative,” Merkle said.

The problem with the new regulations is the same as it has always been – while law abiding and well informed recreational flyers will stay out of controlled airspace, no regulation will suffice to keep drone pilots who are simply unaware of the rules 5 miles away from airports. It’s up to the drone industry – both recreational and commercial – to help with the efforts to educate new pilots.

The following is an FAA press release.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is implementing changes for recreational drone flyers mandated by Congress in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 (PDF).

While recreational flyers may continue to fly below 400 feet in uncontrolled airspace without specific certification or operating authority from the FAA, they are now required to obtain prior authorization from the FAA before flying in controlled airspace around airports. Furthermore, they must comply with all airspace restrictions and prohibitions when flying in controlled and uncontrolled airspace.

The new requirement to obtain an airspace authorization prior to flying a drone in controlled airspace replaces the old requirement to notify the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower prior to flying within five miles of an airport.

Until further notice, air traffic control facilities will no longer accept requests to operate recreational drones in controlled airspace on a case-by-case basis. Instead, to enable operations under the congressionally-mandated exception for limited recreational drone operations, the FAA is granting temporary airspace authorizations to fly in certain “fixed sites” in controlled airspace throughout the country. The fixed sites (MS Excel) are listed online and will be routinely updated.

The sites are also shown as blue dots on Unmanned Aircraft Systems Facility Maps. The maps depict the maximum altitude above ground level at which a drone may be flown safely for each location in controlled airspace.

In the future, recreational flyers will be able to obtain authorization from the FAA to fly in controlled airspace. The FAA currently has a system called the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC), which is available to non-recreational pilots who operate under the FAA’s small drone rule (PDF) (Part 107). The FAA is upgrading LAANC to allow recreational flyers to use the system. For now, however, recreational flyers who want to operate in controlled airspace may only do so at the fixed sites.

Another new provision in the 2018 Act requires recreational flyers to pass an aeronautical knowledge and safety test. They must maintain proof that they passed, and make it available to the FAA or law enforcement upon request. The FAA is currently developing a training module and test in coordination with the drone community. The test will ensure that recreational flyers have the basic aeronautical knowledge needed to fly safely.

Some requirements have not changed significantly. In addition to being able to fly without FAA authorization below 400 feet in uncontrolled airspace, recreational users must still register their drones, fly within visual line-of-sight, avoid other aircraft at all times, and be responsible for complying with all FAA airspace restrictions and prohibitions.

Additionally, recreational flyers can continue to fly without obtaining a remote pilot certificate provided they meet the eight statutory conditions of Section 349 of the Act, which are described in a Federal Register notice.

If recreational flyers do not meet any of the conditions, they could choose to operate under Part 107 with a remote pilot certification. Drone operators who fail to comply with the appropriate operating authority may be subject to FAA enforcement action.

Furthermore, flying a drone carelessly or recklessly may also result in FAA enforcement action.

The FAA will help recreational flyers learn and understand the changes by posting updates and additional guidance, including regulatory changes, on the FAA website.

If you are thinking about buying a drone, the FAA can help you get started with registration and important safety information.