FAA tests app for safe hobby drone operation

FAA tests app for safe hobby drone operation

As the Federal Aviation Administration continues to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace, one thorn in the side of the regulator has been hobbyists. The small, inexpensive and increasingly popular drones are exempt from most regulations, but most operators have little or no aviation experience.

To address that knowledge gap, the FAA has launched a mobile application called B4UFLY that provides information about restrictions or requirements in effect at users’ current or planned flight locations. Tested by volunteers in the sprint, the FAA released the beta application to an additional 1,000 users at the end of August.

The app's features include:

• A clear “status” indicator that immediately informs operators about their current or planned location.
• Information on the parameters that drive the status indicator.
• A “Planner Mode” for future flights in different locations.
• Interactive maps with filtering options.
• Links to other FAA resources and regulatory information.

A smartphone’s location service lets the app determine any local restrictions and/or requirements, taking into consideration airspace, proximity to airports, temporary flight restrictions, current law and other FAA guidance and procedures.

The goal is for people to access this information in real-time, wherever they are (or wherever they can receive a cellular signal), the FAA said in its FAQ. “We think this offers the best path to voluntary compliance with aviation regulations, which is what the FAA wants to promote.”

While voluntary compliance with regulations is ideal, some hobbyists have not followed the rules, forcing governments and private industry to respond with various methods of detecting and thwarting unwanted aircraft. These proposals have included complicated sensor solutions – involving video cameras, acoustical sensors and near-infrared cameras – and legislation that limits altitude to prevent unwanted spying or protects emergency responders from liability for downing drones interfering with operations.

Most unmanned aircraft systems operators must obtain permission from the FAA in order to fly. These operators consist of anyone pursing commercial use, regardless of the size of the unmanned aerial system, and those – most typically in government – that wish to fly larger UASs for various purposes (search and rescue, infrastructure monitoring, etc.) which are larger than 55 pounds and fly higher than 500 feet.

Hobbyists, on the other hand, are exempt from this regulation so long as the aircraft is flown strictly for hobby or recreational use, remains within the operator's line of sight, and operates in accordance with community guidelines. Hobbyist drones may not interfere with manned aircraft, fly within five miles of any airport, weigh more than 55 pounds, or exceed an altitude of 500 feet or speeds of 100 miles per hour.

This limited beta test is expected to run for several months, after which the FAA said it plans to make a final version of B4UFLY available for the general public. The beta version was built for iOS devices initially, but the FAA intends to release a future version for both iOS and Android devices.

B4UFLY complements the Know Before You Fly educational campaign, which provides prospective drone operators with information and guidance they need to fly safely and responsibly.

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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