For many good reasons – with safety at the top of the list -- the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has some pretty strict rules about where and how a drone, or unmanned aerial system, or UAS, can be operated. Many residents and visitors may be unaware of the airspace restrictions in our area while others may just ignore them. There have been a number of reported incidents of drones operating in restricted airspace without permission, including some that have had near-misses with aircrafts.
There are two types of UAS pilots: those who fly for commercial operations and hobbyists. Commercial drone operators take special training and must have FAA certifications and all required authorizations to fly for compensation in controlled airspaces. Hobbyist flying is for strictly non-commercial purposes. While it does not require the same certification, it is still subject to the same rules, and that’s where there is a bit of confusion.
With our proximity to Norfolk International Airport, Naval Air Station Oceana, Fentress Air Field and Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story there is a great deal of restricted airspace, especially in the northern half of the city and along the southern border with Chesapeake near Fentress. Additionally, flying over an active military base isn’t just prohibited, pointing a camera at it, which most drones come equipped with, is illegal! Military installations have what’s called a “zero bubble,” meaning absolutely no UAS operations over their facilities, period.
Facilities with airfields also have a five-mile no-fly zone around their airspaces, which covers much of Virginia Beach, including one of our most popular places to fly – the oceanfront. But violating restricted airspace is so serious that offenders are reported to the FAA, which can assess civil fines and revoke a pilot’s license or drone registration. And military personnel are able to confiscate drones that violate military airspace.
Anyone who wants to operate a UAS within controlled airspace must have permission from the airfield(s) within five miles of where they want to fly. For now, that means getting permission from the air traffic controller of the airspace in question.
The FAA is set to launch a new feature called LAANC (Low-Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability) where drone operators can request permission from local air traffic controllers to fly in restricted airspace and receive an answer in a matter of minutes. However, military bases and their airspaces are not included in the new LANNC request. If the airspace is unrestricted, commercial pilots and hobbyists are free to fly their drones, provided they follow all other applicable FAA, state and local regulations.
So why all the restrictions? Simply put, drones pose a danger to aircraft operating in the area. In fact, piloted aircrafts have to regularly report their speed, altitude and headings so air traffic controllers can safely direct them around each other. If there’s an unauthorized and unaccounted drone operating in the same airspace, air traffic controllers and pilots may not be aware of it until it’s too late.
For professionals or enthusiasts who fly, the FAA has a free app for Android and iOS devices called B4U Fly that assists pilots in determining if they’re in controlled or restricted airspace. When in doubt, ask permission before taking flight.
For more information about FAA rules, regulations and registration, please visitwww.faa.gov/uas. For drone laws specific to Virginia, please visit the Virginia Department of Aviation website atwww.doav.virgina.gov.