The FAA does not require an Aerial Drone Visual Observer (VO) for Small UAS operations. However, the optional VO is an important member of your team as he/she can help maintain situation awareness. For example, things can get dicey real fast when a low flyer, such as a helicopter, suddenly appears. This is especially true when operating near airports, private fields, hospitals, etc.
The VO helps the pilot assess the drone’s position, attitude, altitude, and direction. The VO also observes the air space for other air traffic or hazards.
Prior to getting airborne, the VO should be briefed on the flight plan and maintain communications with the pilot. The VO is not required to have any kind of certification and cannot operate the drone. If there’s more than one drone operation going on at the same time, the VO must be dedicated to one drone only.
I’m a Drone Pilot, so how can a Visual Observer be Useful to Me?
The FAA states in Part 107.33 that . . . “the visual observer (if one is used), and the person manipulating the flight control of the small unmanned aircraft system must be able to see the unmanned aircraft throughout the entire flight . . .” The FAA goes on to state that either the VO or (emphasis mine) the person manipulating the flight control satisfies this requirement.
Many of my commercial drone flights go behind buildings and landscape features such as trees. So, I often engage the client as a VO or my wife, who accompanies me on many of my flights. For some of my more complicated flight plans, we use earbuds with our cell phones so we can position ourselves to maintain visual contact with the drone and voice contact with each other.
Can I use Binoculars to Keep Track of my Drone?
The FAA states that vision must be unaided by any device other than corrective lenses. Since small drones tend to be real hard to spot when their distance from the operator exceeds several hundred feet, a strobe light can greatly extend your line of sight. For example, Firehouse Technology offers compact, self-contained strobes that weigh less than 8 grams. You’ll want to ensure it doesn’t impact your drone’s airworthiness.
Can I use the Drone’s Camera View to Maintain Visual Contact?
Aerial drones can operate at great distances from the operator and download a camera view in real time. However, the FAA requires that the pilot/VO must maintain visual line of sight to the drone. This question was more explicitly addressed in development (pre-Part 107) documents.
Want More Information?
Please refer to the FAA’s requirements for Visual Observers found in Part 107.33 of Title 14 CFR.