“What do I need to do to legally operate my drone?”

This simple question is one commercial operators have been asking in one form or another for awhile now, and so many people have gotten so many different answers to it. Many people are simply trying to figure out where things are with FAA drone regulations, and a great deal of that confusion is unavoidable in light of that fact that what operators and organizations can and want to do in the air continues to evolve.

Many have been critical of the FAA for the speed at which they’ve moved around defining regulation, but it seems their pace has now picked up considerably. In December of 2015 the agency rolled out their Small UAS Registration Rule, giving anyone using a model aircraft for hobby or recreation an easy way to register their drone and fly legally. As has been the case for awhile, anyone wanting to fly for commercial purposes needs to obtain a Section 333 Exemption, but even this is set to evolve with the release of Part 107. Whether commercial operators should push through and try to secure a 333 or wait for Part 107 is a whole separate question.

Regardless of how laws and regulations change in the future, it makes sense to run through the basics around what everyone should be aware of if they’re flying for commercial purposes. These issues extend to operators as well as to anyone looking to hire someone to fly a drone for their project.

That said, let me stress that what’s here shouldn’t be the end of your research, but just the beginning. A couple good places to gather more insight around legalities are via Jonathan Rupprecht’s Drone Law Blog and Peter Sachs’ Drone Law Journal. No matter your resources or approach, it’s essential to gather as much info as possible in direct and indirect manners before taking to the sky.


Have Your Section 333

Section 333 Exemptions allow the FAA to determine whether or not a person is deemed worthy to operate safely in the National Airspace System (NAS), and they are required to fly for commercial purposes. In short, if money is being exchanged in any manner, you need to secure a Section 333 Exemption.

Of course, securing a 333 Exemption isn’t the end of this journey, because even with the Section 333 you still need to have a certificated pilot in command of the aircraft when it’s in operation. So you don’t need to have a pilot’s license to get a 333, but the person flying the drone needs to have one. You also need to report all flights to the FAA, and there are numerous requirements that need to be adhered to in order to meet this requirement.

There are all sorts of people saying they don’t actually need to have a Section 333 for what they’re doing. Excuses for that range from not actually charging for “drone services” even if that company has been hired as a drone service provider, all the way to claiming that the FAA has no jurisdiction over the airspace. I’d be leery of any person or company making either claim.

Having that 333 is a critical consideration, because the operating conditions associated with each authorization are listed within the document they provide. While there are certain “blanket” details associated with a 333, the 333’s contain fine print that you definitely want to read. You can also check out some of the FAQ’s the FAA lays out around this topic.

As far as what it takes to secure a 333, Eric Andelin put together the excellent 10 Things to Know When Applying for a Section 333 Exemption which runs through the basics of what you need to do. As he details, you don’t need a lawyer to secure a 333, but being able to rely on someone to guide you through the process can be a critical consideration in terms of whether one is granted or not.


Work Through Insurance and Liability Issues

Liability is a concern for organizations of all sizes in everything they do, and drones have literally added another dimension to these concerns. As such, there is an increasing need and demand for insurance for commercial drone operations. Coverage will typically entail legal liability, physical damage and/or product liability. However much or little a project manager needs to concern themselves with in this regard will depend on the project’s size and scope, but it’s a decision that needs to be consciously considered.

That was something Richard Lopez went through with his employer, Hensel Phelps. As I documented in our UAVs in Construction report, the company justifiably didn’t want to be liable for everything that was being done with a drone operated by their employees, so Lopez started a completely separate company, Reality Capture Systems, to take responsibility for it. It’s a great illustration of the fact that there are multiple approaches around the issue.

Our friends over at Transport Risk Management Inc. have put together a document titled Instructions & Requirements for UAS/Drone Use, and it runs though the questions operators and anyone hiring a company need to consider when it comes to insurance and liability. The document also asks some critical questions that should be answered to ensure the drone is being operated legally.

Regardless of the decisions that are made around liability and insurance, it’s absolutely critical that they be actively considered to ensure operators and/or project managers are not exposing stakeholders to an unnecessary or dangerous amount of risk.


Adhere to the Requirements

This is an item that could be a whole series unto itself, and it’s a bit of a cheat for me to even list it like this. After all, there are restrictions that relate to operating a drone within visual line of sight, not flying within a 500 feet radius of anyone who is not part of the operation of the drone as well as flying at night. Such limitations go hand-in-hand with state and local restrictions that obviously vary from one place to another. Granted, those sorts of restrictions might not even be legal as far as the FAA is concerned, but if the police department shows up to shut you down, is that the argument you want to run with?

The great difficulty in such things is that there is nuance and change in all of it. There is a requirement around not operating a drone within 5 miles of an airport just as there is for not flying above 400 ft. Of course, contacting the airport and control tower can allow someone to operate in that space, and the 400 feet limit was just recently raised from 200 feet.

The best place to start around sorting through these requirements is to communicate with as many people as possible. Rather than wonder if the police department is going to shut you down, contact them to let them know what you have planned, and see what they have to say. Get in touch with your local FAA Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) to ensure you’re doing what’s necessary. The people there will be able to answer specific questions.

The Know Before You Fly campaign is also a great resource when it comes to ensuring you aren’t flying where you’re not supposed to be flying. The FAA’s B4UFly app helps determine whether there are any restrictions or requirements in effect at the location where they want to fly.


Make Sure The Drone Has an N-Number

This is an item that could have easily appeared in the section above, but it’s a basic requirement that anyone should be able to see and recognize immediately. That also makes it a great barometer to determine whether or not someone knows what they’re doing. If a service provider that’s been hired doesn’t have an N-number displayed on their drone, something is very wrong. Also, unlike recreational users, commercial drones will all have their own unique N-number.

Registration numbers will not exceed five characters in addition to the standard U.S. registration prefix letter N. N-Numbers are assigned to all registered aircrafts, and special N-Numbers can even be requested. You can also look up the N-Number for any craft to ensure the person and drone associated with it are accurate.


Stay Safe

Some may doubt the sincerity of the FAA when they say the reason for so many rules and regulations is because they place the utmost importance on safety, but those people should be giving the agency the benefit of the doubt. You only need to look to the outcry that comes from events like the “drone” that supposedly hit an airplane in the UK to see why there’s so much trepidation. In that case, the culprit most likely ended up being a plastic bag, but if the uproar over such a minor issue was that loud, one can only imagine what will happen when it’s actually a serious issue. Some have predicted it’s only a matter of time before that day comes.

Regardless of what happens on that day, the industry will survive, but by focusing on safety operators can be sure they’ll be doing everything possible to keep things pointed in the right direction for their business and the industry as a whole. All the talk about fines and regulation is just a response to ensuring the national space remains a safe place for the people operating in it as well the for the people who are simply residing under it.

Whatever you’re doing or whomever you’re working with, make sure the safety of everyone there and everyone who’s in the area is the absolute priority. Doing so will put you in a good position to deal with any sort of logistical or legal complications, regardless of whether or not they arise.