Think you and your new drone are ready for takeoff? Not so fast. Even though your gadget looks like a toy, it’s actually an aircraft. Even though you can’t wait to get it into the air, there are a few things you need to do before that first ascent.
No. 1 on your list if you’re planning to fly outside: Registering your new unmanned aircraft system (UAS) weighing more than .55 pounds with the FAA. This $5 step is a must; or your penalty could be a fine of up to $250,000 and even imprisonment. Surprised?
Here are five more essentials to cross off your pre-flight checklist.
1. Read The Manual (For Real!)
Many drones come equipped with built-in functions like return-to-home, geo-fencing for designating boundaries and altitude limits that keep the gadget flying no higher than 400 feet—a limit created by an FAA rule meant to prevent collisions with manned aircraft that can cruise as low as 500 feet. But as Josh Olds, director of operations at the Unmanned Safety Institute, says, “If you don’t know about the safety features, they’re not going to help you.” Get acquainted with all that your UAS offers by checking the manual and taking the time to turn on these useful settings.
2. Look Up Local Rules And Conditions
“The FAA regulates airspace, but they don’t regulate local laws,” Olds explains. If you’d like to venture beyond the boundaries of your property, read up on your community’s ordinances and heed signs in public spaces. Parks, for instance, are sometimes off limits. (National parks are a definite no-no for hobbyists.) Since each municipality and state is different, check with your jurisdiction for specific requirements. The FAA also keeps tabs on state laws, with updates on their site.
Always think about where you’re pointing your device’s camera, so you don’t make people uncomfortable or invade their space. (In some cases, photographing people without their consent is considered a crime.)
3. Do A Pre-Flight Check
Flying can be great fun, but it’s also serious stuff: The propeller or rotators can spin faster than 9,000 rotations per minute, Olds says. Any time you’re preparing to send off your drone,
double-check that your device’s propellers are intact and properly attached, and confirm that there’s enough charge in the battery. If you run out of juice mid-flight, “it’s like a car running out of gas, except now your car is falling out of the sky,” says Fontaine Alexander, director of operations at Drone Safety Corp. You’ll want to avoid flying in areas near power lines, trees and other potential obstacles. One invisible hazard Olds warns against: densely clustered Wi-Fi networks, such as those above residential and commercial areas, that create interference. Verify that your device’s signal is strong, and choose a space that allows for better range, like a wide-open field, for example.
4. Keep It Legal
Along with hovering below 400 feet, you’ll also need to avoid traveling over stadiums or large gatherings of people, and within five miles of an airport unless you get permission from the tower, according to FAA rules. Always keep your UAS within view too. Disregarding any of these guidelines could result in fines, so visit faa.gov/uas for more details.
5. Pilot Like A Pro
To gain experience without risking your new equipment, try piloting a flight simulator program on your computer first. Some even allow you to use your drone’s transmitter to fly virtual skies on your monitor. According to Olds, this can help you develop psychomotor skills and increase your comfort in operating a UAS. “It’s a great way to prepare,” he says, “especially if you’re buying a $1,200 aircraft.” Certain drone models have practice simulators built in; your “flight” will be visible on the screen you hook up to the controller.
To familiarize yourself with your equipment, Alexander suggests running drills: Practice taking off; hovering; maneuvering left, right, forward, and backward; and landing in manual mode. Photo enthusiasts will want to rehearse how to circle an object they’d like to capture in images, orbiting clockwise then counterclockwise until the motion is smooth and steady. Alexander says, “It’s the baby-steps approach: Crawl, walk, run.” Or, in this case, hover, circle, soar.
Tech-obsessed? (We are too.) Check out the GEICO Mobile app for the latest and greatest features in your auto insurance policy.
By Catherine Strawn