No Fly Zones – Flying Your Drone in Restricted Airspace, Update

FAA Drone Zone

Unlocking an FAA No Fly Zone

For several years, the more expensive aerial drones on the market have been designed with built-in firmware that prevents start-up of the motors if the drone is in an FAA restricted airspace, also known as a no-fly zone (NFZ). These zones are typically found around airports, heliports, prisons, military installations, etc.

Here’s the latest information on No Fly Zones, updating my blogs (Part 1 and Part 2) posted last year.

Identification of No Fly Zones

The easiest way to determine if your intended flying area is in a No Fly Zone, is to check with one of the drone manufacturers’ web sites. For example, DJI posts their NFZ map online at this link. If you haven’t checked the map and you find your drone acting odd, you might be in a NFZ. Odd behavior means it won’t start up or it won’t fly past an invisible barrier.

FAA Permission

If you know your intended flying area is in an NFZ and you need access for a valid reason, there’s a way to get permission. You start with the FAA, which has a new web site portal that allows you to ask for airspace authorization.

Enter the information and the FAA will turn around their response in just a few days. Be prepared to offer a good reason for your request. If you’re Part 107 certified, your drone is registered, and you have a valid tasking from a client, then your approval will likely be straightforward.

The FAA will contact the appropriate authority, such as the airport’s Fixed Base Operator, who may come back with restrictions such as flight times, flight days, max altitude, etc. Or, you may be declined. If all goes well, the FAA will issue you a signed form (PDF) authorizing your flight plan.

Drone Manufacturer Unlocking

Submit that form to your drone manufacturer. For example, if your drone was manufactured by DJI, then go to their “Unlock a Zone” portal at this link. Enter the information and the manufacturer will turn around their response in just a few days.

In my experience, the process has been quite fast, with same-day approval from both the FAA and DJI. Once the drone manufacturer has approved your request, they will provide a method to download a firmware patch to your drone. Activate the patch using your drone’s control software. Your permission will typically include a geoposition and date range.

Your Rights to Retrieve a Drone If It Lands On Private Property, Part 2

What If An Irate Property Owner Has Your Drone?

What If An Irate Property Owner Has Your Drone?

Aerial drones are usually reliable, and in the hands of an experienced operator are brought home with sufficient battery power in reserve. However, there may be circumstances when the aircraft can’t be brought home and it lands on someone else’s property. I established in Part 1 that the property owner does not have a lawful claim on your aircraft. In this blog, we review your recovery options in less-than-friendly circumstances.

What Are My Options?

If the property owner refuses to return your aircraft, or allow you to retrieve it, then you should call local law enforcement to intervene. As long as no harm was done, then it’s likely that the property owner will hand over your drone to a law enforcement officer. Although the owner may be reluctant, they may come around after being advised that they face a charge of larceny if they hold onto it. There are several other ways this scenario can play out (such as intentionally destroying your aircraft), but if none turn out favorable to you, then you’ll have to ask for a law enforcement report and proceed with a civil or criminal complaint.

I recently heard of a scenario where a novice was using their drone for low-level spying, which violates state and federal privacy laws. If the property owner gets your drone under these circumstances (using any available means) your claim is going to be an uphill battle.

If your aircraft gets stuck in the owner’s tree or is on their rooftop, then be prepared to pay for a service to come out to retrieve it for you. For example, this may cost you $150 for a tree service to come out, climb the tree, retrieve your drone, and assure the owner that no harm was done to their tree.

Sometimes the best grease is money. If the property owner is annoyed, then you may offer a modest sum for their troubles. Conversely, if the property owner demands a “salvage” fee, then this may be the path of least resistance that gets your aircraft back. Even if the law of ownership is on your side, getting a legal judgment will be costly and take time. In the meantime, you’ll probably have to buy another drone.

There is the unpleasant scenario where your drone damaged property or injured a person (or animal). In such a case, your drone deprived the owner of their full enjoyment of the land and your situation has become a whole lot more complicated. This is why you need a good liability insurance policy.

What if the Property Owner Refuses to Return My Aircraft?

Aerial drones can be expensive, with the value of some in the thousands of dollars. At this price point, a court proceeding may be worth the cost. For less expensive drones, a court proceeding may give you some degree of satisfaction but the cost may exceed the drone’s value. Some property owners are so belligerent that they will destroy your drone. I wish I could be gentler in advising that you may need to be prepared to accept the loss of your drone.

In Any Scenario with Complications, Document Everything and Take Pictures

If your operations require flying over private property, then carry an insurance policy that covers liability AND loss of aircraft. If it goes down, then collect as much information as possible about the circumstances, take pictures, print out your controller’s log files, and take names. When dealing with property owners, always be professional and affirm their rights as well as your own. Even though the law is on your side, the property owner has possession of your drone so carefully assert your rights in the kindest manner possible.

No Fly Zones – Flying Your Drone in Restricted Airspace, Part 2

DJI's Fly Safe GEO Zones

DJI’s Fly Safe GEO Zones

Is my flight location in a restricted airspace zone?

No matter what make and model drone you’re flying, you can find out if you’re in or near restricted airspace on the DJI Fly Safe GEO Zone Map (GEO – Geospatial Environment Online). Of note, the DJI GEO-Map is much more comprehensive than the FAA’s online map, from Part 1.

DJI’s GEO-Map System delineates where it’s safe to fly, where your flight may raise concerns, and where flights are restricted. Restricted airspace zones that prohibit flights are implemented around locations such as airports, power plants, and prisons. They’re also implemented temporarily around major stadium events, forest fires, or other emergency situations. Certain restricted airspace zones don’t prohibit flight, but do trigger warnings that inform users of potential risks.

The procedures below are specific to the DJI brand of aerial drones. Other drone manufacturers may have their own procedures.

DJI’s Restricted Airspace Boundary Color Codes

Green– warning zone, such as the outer zones of restricted flight areas.

Yellow– authorization zone, such as the inner zones of restricted flight areas – unlock is available online.

Red– restricted zone, unlock is available by providing evidence from an authorization authority to DJI.

FAA Part 107 requires the remote pilot to receive permission from the airport Fixed Base Operator prior to flying within 5 miles of the airport. If your drone is inside the “green zone”, that is it’s inside the 5-mile radius but outside the 1.5-mile radius, DJI assumes the pilot has this permission – your drone will fly; no further action needed. However, if you’re inside the 1.5-mile “yellow” radius, the drone’s firmware prevents the drone from starting and/or entering this airspace.

DJI provides an easy method to unlock your drone’s firmware so you can enter “yellow zone” restricted air space, such as around regional airports. DJI assumes the pilot has this permission and simply verifies your identity in their online process. Here’s how:

Unlocking a Yellow Zone Restricted Flight Area

Unlocking a yellow zone boundary, such as within 1.5 miles of an airport, requires permission via the DJI website, which verifies your identity and coordinates the “Unlock” with your DJI online account. A reminder that you should have a valid reason, such as a commercial photo shoot, prior to asking the airport’s Fixed Base Operator for permission.

Procedure

Open the DJI Fly Safe web page:  https://www.dji.com/flysafe

Click on the “UNLOCK A ZONE” tab and enter your DJI account information.

Enter your drone model, location, authorization date range, and controller serial number. Your remote controller serial number is not printed on the remote, but you can look it up in your DJI Go app. You can also look it up in a Litchi flight log under the column FlyControllerSerialNumber.

Choose to verify your identity by credit card or mobile phone (with text capability):

1. By phone, enter the number (no hyphens), press send and you will receive a text message. Enter the token.

2. By credit card, enter the number (no hyphens) and info.

If successful, you will get this notice: “This Authorization Zone has been unlocked. You can check your unlocking records in the DJI GO app.” Caveat: you may not see the “unlocking record” in your app but you will be prompted to fly safe before taking off. Also, this procedure only works for the DJI Go app; other after-market apps may not work.

Unlocking a Red Zone Restricted Flight Area

Permission to fly in a red zone is done via e-mail to flysafe@dji.com. You will need to provide evidence from an authorization authority. DJI will then process your request and, if approved, unlock your drone via your DJI online account.

Fly Safe!

No Fly Zones – Flying Your Drone in Restricted Airspace, Part 1

Aerial Drone Restricted Flight Zone Signs Coming Your Way Soon

Aerial Drone Restricted Flight Zone Signs Coming Your Way Soon

This blog outlines some of the latest No Fly Zones in the United States. These are places that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) states you cannot fly your aerial drone. This subject is dry and boring, so all you need to know is that you can’t fly your recreational drone near airports, military installations, major sporting events, and nuclear research labs.

Of note for our DJI drone pilots, DJI has software lock-outs to keep their drones out of restricted airspace. Part two of this series outlines the procedure for DJI drone pilots to unlock their drone’s restrictions, such as when they have permission to fly in restricted airspace.

National Security Sensitive Facilities/National Defense Airspace

FAA NOTAM FDC 7/7282 governs restricted air space. The restrictions extend from the ground up to 400 feet, apply to all types and purposes of Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) flight operations, and remain in effect 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

This NOTAM identifies in an online map the FAA’s restricted UAS flight operations airspace: https://uas-faa.opendata.arcgis.com/

At this time, the restricted airspace is typically around military installations, large airports, and nuclear research labs. It seems reasonable to expect that power plants, prisons, and other critical infrastructure will be added to this online map.

This NOTAM also states the enforcement actions and penalties: $32,666 for a small business, $13,066 for an individual not acting as an airman, or $1,437 per violation for an individual acting as an airman; and revoking FAA certificates and authorizations to operate UAS’s under Title 49 U.S.C. Sections 44709 and 46301. I’ve also seen reports that military installations can shoot down unauthorized aerial drones.

Sporting events

FAA NOTAM FDC 7/4319 restricts UAS operations around stadiums and motor speedways.

UAS’s are prohibited from flying at or below 3,000 feet within a 3 nautical mile radius of any stadium with a seating capacity of 30,000 or more people during a Major League Baseball, regular or post-season National Football League, NCAA Division I football game, or major motor speedway event. This temporary flight restriction applies to the entire U.S. domestic National Airspace System, and takes effect starting one hour before the scheduled event time until one hour after the event concludes.

The FAA’s Go-To Resource

B4UFLY is an easy-to-use smartphone app that helps unmanned aircraft operators determine whether there are any restrictions or requirements in effect at the location where you want to fly. B4UFLY pulls its information directly from publicly available FAA data sources and packages the information in a user-friendly and intuitive format. You can download B4UFLY from Google Play (Android) or Apple’s App Store (IOS).

More information is available online at:  https://www.faa.gov/uas/where_to_fly/b4ufly/

Future Developments – ID and Tracking Your UAS

ID and tracking technology is actively being considered as a requirement for UAS’s by the Aviation Rulemaking Committee. Yes – this is about adding transponders to future drones so big brother can identify your drone (and you), and possibly override your control.

Their most recent report is found here:  ARC Recommendations Final Report 9/30/2017

The FAA welcomes UAS questions at their e-mail:  uashelp@faa.gov

Fly Safe!

Aerial Drone Flights and Flight Restricted Zones

Washington DC has a 15-mile radius flight restricted zone around the White House

Flight Restricted Zone Around Washington DC

Aerial drone pilots have on occasion set up for a flight only to find that their drone won’t start up. This can happen, for example, in Northern Virginia where your intended flying site is within the 15-mile “inner ring” of the Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ) that surrounds Washington, DC. This ring covers a lot of area and has caught more than a few drone pilots off guard.

The problem is in the drone’s software, which prevents the propellers from starting whenever its GPS tells the drone that it’s within one of these zones. Manufacturers of these sophisticated drones are required to include the FRZ’s  in their software. If you start up outside, but then try to fly into it, the drone will stop at the invisible barrier and skirt the boundary.

Although intended to protect the air space around our nation’s capital, this zone extends well into Northern Virginia and Central Maryland. For example, if you’re in Lorton, Fairfax, Oakton, or Vienna you’re either within or very near the edge of the DC Flight Restricted Zone.

Recently, FRZ’s have been added for local airports, such as those run by municipalities. Their radius varies, with 1.5 miles typical, but the same symptoms apply: Your drone won’t operate in these zones. Find out if you’re in an FRZ at this web site: http://www.dji.com/flysafe/no-fly

In General, Where Will I Find No-Fly Zones?

Are there other No-Fly Zones that drone pilots are required to avoid? There are many, notably airports and heliports where drone operations are not allowed within 5 miles without permission from the Air Traffic Controller. Others include most U.S. National Parks, special events, and political events.

How about government buildings, nuclear power plants, and prisons? The FAA and other regulatory agencies are working on flight rules and the wise drone pilot will avoid flying around these sites without specific permission.

Where Can I Safely Fly My Aerial Drone?

That brings us to the safe areas where drone pilots CAN fly. FAA-certified drone pilots are trained to read aeronautical charts and to understand the air space in which they can operate. Air space classified as A through E includes airports and the air space in which most aircraft operate. Without specific ATC permission, they’re off limits. Everything else is Class G – uncontrolled air space, which is where most small drones will operate.

Fortunately, Class G air space extends from the surface to the overlying aircraft air space, which includes just about any terrain the drone pilot typically needs to fly. Here, the FAA allows drone operations at altitudes up to 400 feet above ground level. In the vicinity of tall structures, drones can operate higher than 400 feet (your drone may be firmware-limited to 1640 ft) but must stay within 400 feet of the structure.

Fly Safe!