Tommy got a toy drone for Christmas, what’s next?


NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — The presents have been opened and the wrapping paper placed in the recycling bin. Tommy is anxious to get outside and fly the new “Invader 700” drone, complete with a 10-times zoom digital camera that sends immediate videos to your new iPad.
Wow, you can’t wait to get out there with him and fly this thing. We can get to the instructions and safety rules later. Let’s go flying!
Whoa speed racer! It’s probably a good idea to take some time to go over the capabilities of your new aircraft, look at some safety aspects of your operations, and understand the responsibilities you have just assumed.
But this is a toy, right? Wrong. The Federal Aviation Administration has stated that unmanned aircraft systems are aircraft, not toys.
The Consumer Electronics Association believes 2015 was a defining year for the drone, with sales expecting to approach 700,000 this year. The industry must be selling all of those drones as FAA statistics show a surge in “close call with drone” reports by pilots of manned aircraft: about 700 incidents in 2015, roughly triple the amount recorded in 2014.
Maybe we should review some of these rules before the big day approaches, as you are probably now asking yourself, ”Rules? What rules? Do they apply to me? What is my liability?”

General rules
• Small unmanned aircraft must give way to all manned aviation activities: airplanes, gliders, parachutists, hang gliders, the Goodyear blimp, etc. If it flies or glides, it has the right of way.
• The operator must remain within visual line-of-sight of the small unmanned aircraft. You can’t control or remain clear of other aircraft when you can’t see your own small unmanned aircraft.
• Small unmanned aircraft may not operate over any persons not directly involved in the operation.

The A, B, Cs to start
The FAA divides the national airspace above us into categories: A, B, C, D, E and G.
• Class A is 18,000 feet and above sea level and you must be communicating with the FAA to operate up there. So just remember, Class A is “above” where small unmanned aircraft should fly.
• Class B/C/D is the airspace around airports and requires two-way communications with the airport’s tower, so small unmanned aircraft need to steer clear of these areas. Just remember not to fly within 5 nautical miles of an open airport/airfield/heliport, military or civilian.
• Class G airspace exists around uncontrolled airports (no two-way communications), but small unmanned aircraft must still remain clear by the 5 nautical miles.
“Nellis Air Force Base is Class B Airspace all the way down to the surface, which means anyone on Nellis – to include base housing – is not allowed to fly their own personal drones while on the base,” said Jim Callaghan, 57th Operational Support Squadron chief of airfield management. “Anyone who uses a drone also must have it registered to use for picture taking or anything of that sort.”

Know before you go
So, where can you fly? A good source of information is a local remote control club. They’ve studied the rules and scouted the local area for the best locations to fly your small unmanned aircraft.
If you prefer to go it alone, have fun but do it safely. But words of caution before you launch the Invader 700 on its maiden flight: if you become the latest close call and you’re not following the rules, you stand not only to lose your $1,000 aircraft, but you may be subject to an FAA fine of up to $27,500 for the most egregious violation.

Biggest takeaway
Many military installations have an airport, airfield, or heliport that requires the 5-mile rule, but for national security reasons small unmanned aircraft flights are not authorized on or over military installations unless authorized by the installation commander. Contact base operations, an airfield manager or a security manager to ascertain safe base operating areas and other limitations.
So, Merry Christmas, Tommy, and we hope you have a great time with your small unmanned aircraft — but do so smartly, safely and within regulations.

Editor’s note: Luana Shafer is a freelance author, editor and recent graduate of George Mason University. She is the daughter of a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. Airman 1st Class Jake Carter, 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs, contributed to the writing of this article.