So you got a new drone and want to take some pictures and video of your San Juans’ cruise. Now what? We traveled with our drone for several years and, although we’re not experts, we learned a few lessons. This article presents some of our hard-won tips so you (hopefully) won’t make as many mistakes as we did during our first flights.
Tip 1? Get your drone registered
U.S. citizens are now required to register their Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) if it weighs between 0.55 to 55 pounds. The FAA process is fairly straightforward and you can find a lot of information on UAS’s and how to register them on the FAA web site (www.FAA.gov).
The FAA is serious about drone registration and has the authority to assess civil penalties of $27,500, criminal penalties of $250,000, and/or up to three years of imprisonment. Non-U.S. citizens must also register their drones with the FAA when operating in U.S. airspace. They use the same registration process as U.S. citizens and are required to follow the same operational rules as U.S. citizens.
At the time of this writing, Canada does not require drones used for hobby or recreational use to be registered unless they weight more than 77 pounds (35 kilograms) used for work or research. However, Transport Canada is reviewing the management of UAS use in Canada. Transport Canada also has an excellent web page on the use of UAS in Canada (www.tc.gc.ca).
Make sure to read the requirements for flying a drone, knowing where you can and cannot fly is essential. Here is a short summary of the FAA requirements for flying your drone:
- Fly below 400 feet over land and below 500 feet over water
- Never fly near other aircraft
- Keep the UAS within visual line of sight
- Keep away from emergency responders
- Never fly over stadiums, sports events, or groups of people
- Never fly drones under the influence of drugs or alcohol
- Never fly within five miles of an airport without first contacting air traffic control and airport authorities
There are some additional considerations that every drone pilot should take into account before they fly their UAS:
- Make sure flying of UAS is not banned in the area. Poor behavior by some previous drone pilots has already caused them to be banned in many state and federal parks.
- If you plan to fly in areas where military exercises take place, make sure no exercises going on when you plan to fly. Better yet, don’t fly in those areas.
- Look around before you launch the drone. Make sure there are no power lines, towers, masts, markers or other obstructions that you could fly into during your flight.
- Do not harass wildlife with the drone. I can speak from direct experience that eagles and crows will attack a UAS, and the drone will lose!
Tip 2 – Preflight check
It is important to check over the drone prior to flight. Check the blades, landing gear, and body of the aircraft for any damage. Don’t fly a damaged drone. Follow the instructions for connecting the drone to an electronic controller. We use an iPhone to control our drone. Occasionally, the iPhone does not connect correctly, but this can usually be remedied by resetting the drone network connection between the drone and the controller (e.g., iPhone in this case).
Check your battery condition before you take off. I made this mistake only to discover instead of the 15 to 20 minutes of flying time I expected, I only had just enough time to safely land the drone. Lithium batteries power most drones and provide a great, relatively lightweight power source. However, lithium batteries have some challenges. Most lithium batteries do not fair well when stored fully charged, and most manufacturers design the batteries to slowly discharge over time. Therefore, if your drone hasn’t been used for a couple of weeks, the battery might not have a full charge. Lithium batteries are also sensitive to mistreatment. If they are charged too long, discharged too fast, exposed to saltwater (possibly any water), or their covering is damaged, they have a habit of going up in smoke. Be careful with these batteries and regularly inspect them for damage. If your batteries fail to charge correctly or exhibit any damage, replace them. Discharged batteries need to be disposed of properly and you should research proper disposal locations.