The FAA estimates 7 million drones to be buzzing around in the airspace system by 2020. As a pilot, there are understandable concerns about what it means to have so many people sharing the same airspace. Having functioned as both an airplane pilot and a drone pilot, I’ve gained some takeaways from both sides that help dovetail the airspace use a little better. Whether you embrace these additions to the sky or not, let’s look at some of the ways that drone flight can affect you as an airplane pilot.
The highest a drone can be legally flown is 400 feet above the ground. For a drone, 400 feet is WAY up there. If I were flying a hobby drone that high, I would feel like I lost it. It takes equipment like my Phantom 4 with a good bit of automation to confidently fly near that height because of the first person view camera and GPS stabilization. Plus, the same automation that lets me fly that high also automatically stops gaining altitude at 400 feet and gives an audible “maximum flight altitude reached” warning. Given that the minimum safe Visual Flight Rules altitude in an airplane is 500 feet AGL over sparsely populated areas, this should allow a good 100 foot buffer from any planes flying low and drones flying high. My takeaway as an airplane pilot is that I should have a 100 foot buffer over most areas. In an unpopulated area, however, I can fly low to the ground as long as I don’t get closer than 500 feet from any person, structure or vessel. This puts me in the shared space with drones and I might not be able to see the drone or the operator. Although they are required to bring their drone down if they hear or see an airplane, I should practice extra diligence.
That 400 foot rule changes a little around an obstruction such as a tower or a building. A drone may legally fly up to 400 feet above the height of an obstruction when it is within 400 feet laterally of it. It should go without saying that there are certain obstructions a drone cannot legally get near, such as crowded stadiums or nuclear plants, but then neither should an airplane pilot. I expect to see a lot more drones being used to inspect the tops of towers for light outages or damage, and being used in general where it is more dangerous for humans to go. As an airplane pilot, I like to steer well clear of obstructions as it is, but my takeaway here is to visualize a cylinder around any obstruction with a 400 foot radius that extends 400 feet above it. That cylinder is the area that drones can fly. Stay out of that cylinder.
As an airplane pilot, you are most often near the ground when taking off and landing. Except for you backwoods bush pilots, this is usually happening at an airport. For this reason, a drone operator must notify the airport before it flies within five miles of it. The airport operator has the right to deny the request if they feel the safety of airplanes nearby would be compromised. My takeaway as an airplane pilot is that while I have a layer of confidence that the airport will manage any potentially unsafe drone flights, it doesn’t guarantee I’ll know about it even when I’m in communication with the control tower or Common Traffic Advisory Frequency. The pulse I’ve gained is that the airport operators aren’t likely to allow any drones to fly in a known arrival or departure flight path.
Expect to see Notices to Airmen (NOTAMS) regarding areas of drone activity if you haven’t already. I consistently see a NOTAM for Peachtree Dekalb Airport (KPDK) for the surface to 200 feet AGL with a radius of 5 miles from the airport. Commercial drone operators are currently required to call and submit the information for a NOTAM 24-48 hours before their flight. This, of course, doesn’t include any recreational drone flying or the rogue drones that break airspace rules, but it’s where the system is currently. Drone operations that occur within the five mile radius of an airport will be referenced in the NOTAM as an area centered on the airport, but if the flight includes areas outside of that five mile airport radius, the NOTAM will be referenced from a particular VOR radial.
The What If
I know, for every scenario I’ve posed, you’ve thought, “yeah, but what if…” and you aren’t alone in thinking that. What if somebody flies a drone above 400 feet? What if they don’t notify the airport? I have a hunch that professional drone operators are more likely to be in compliance with the rules than somebody who thinks it’s a fun toy and flies it right out of the box without any regards to the rules. Then again, there will likely be less large, expensive, high flying drones being used recreationally. Rules will be broken, but my hope is that the drones that stray from their intended zones will tend to be accidental in nature. There is a well known landmark near the Milledgeville Airport (KMLJ) near where I live. The 1001 foot smokestack of a coal plant was just taken down. The demolition was filmed by all sorts of people. It was quite a spectacle. I should have brought some hot dogs and cokes to sell – I would have made a fortune. Among those filming were several drones. According to my good friend who is a flight instructor at the airport, only one of those drone operators contacted the airport about flying the event. The takeaway as an airplane pilot is to expect a drone like I might expect a bird. Know the zones they can fly in but don’t be surprised when some otherwise upstanding citizen will act irresponsibly and fly a rogue path with a drone.
Of the many different uses for drones, it is my opinion that the vast majority will not be flirting with airspace that airplanes realistically use. Kids with hobby drones flying well below the tree lines and racing drones that don’t need to get very high probably take a good chunk of the projected numbers. Birds do a lot of hanging out on power lines, in trees and on the ground. Sometimes they are up in the same regions we pilots fly and we have to manage that. I think of the drones the same way I do birds. Most will stay where it is legal and safe, but for those who wander out of their lane, we have to keep our eyes sharp and know what to look for. Now if we could just get these same rules apply to the birds…
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