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Drone On, But Know the Regulations

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Drones and cherry blossoms don’t mix, at least in Washington, D.C., warned the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently — no matter how much you want to take that beautiful aerial photo. The FAA has stepped up publicity on both new and older regulations that apply to drones, whether for business or personal use.

Know, for instance, that the FAA prohibits flying any type of unmanned aircraft, or drone, without specific approval, within a 15-mile radius of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

This regulation is less strict than an earlier rule, which was rescinded in February, that banned all private drone aircraft flights within the outer ring — that is, between a 15- and 30-mile radius — of the airport. The new regulation allows both commercial and public users to operate in the outer ring under specific conditions. For private, non-commercial operators, this generally means they must remain under a 400-foot altitude limit, fly only during the day, keep the aircraft in sight at all times, and notify airports in advance of any unmanned aircraft operations within five nautical miles of an airport.

Those same regulations regarding altitude, daytime flights, sight lines and airport notification also apply to areas around BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Among the most important — and one of the most recent — requirements is to register your drone for personal use or to apply for an FAA exemption for commercial use.

Know the Rules

Regulations are different for personal and commercial use, said Steve Lewicky, an attorney with Davis, Agnor, Rapaport & Skalny, in Columbia.

“Even if you’re flying a drone strictly recreationally, there is a registration requirement,” Lewicky said. “It’s pretty straightforward, but you could face fines if you don’t comply. To use a drone commercially, the user must seek a Section 333 exemption from the FAA.”

The FAA is reporting that, due to the high volume of Section 333 petitions received, the agency is experiencing delays in processing petitions.

If you’re new to the regulations, your first step should be to visit the Federal Aviation Administration website (www.faa.gov) to check out which rules apply to your usage, Lewicky said.

If you ignore the regulations, you could face a maximum fine of $27,500, though drone hobbyists insist that’s unlikely.

In March, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced that the FAA expects to release an even newer set of regulations that will allow for routine commercial operations of small drones within certain limitations. “It will, for the most part, eliminate the need to issue Section 333 exemptions on a case-by-case basis, and it will open up access to the national airspace system, while maintaining today’s high safety standards,” he said.

That would be good news for local companies.

For instance, UAV Solutions, of Jessup, has launched a family of unmanned aircraft systems that meet a wide array of surveillance and security needs for the private and public sector. Customers use UAV’s products for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, as well as for experimentation purposes.

When navigating through the FAA Section 333 process, UAV Solutions enlisted the help of Southern Maryland-based Alaris to prepare and submit the application. “Their expertise in this area gives us time to create and build new unmanned systems,” said UAV Solutions spokesperson Sharon Corona.

UAV Solutions uses the term “unmanned aerial vehicle” — not “drone” — on its website and other collateral materials. “In our opinion, unmanned aerial vehicle is a military term,” said Corona. “Drones comes from the RC [remote control] hobby and [the term] has become widely used in the public and commercial sector.”

At this point the terms are interchangeable, Corona said.

The FAA Rules

Currently, the FAA takes the position that it — not localities — has control of U.S. airspace. “Right now, for example, there are all kinds of regulations that say you can’t fly a drone in Central Park,” said Lewicky. “The FAA says those regulations are unenforceable.”

Fort Meade does not have a specific local policy, but abides by FAA regulations, confirmed Fort Meade spokesperson Mary Doyle. “We have had requests from people on a case-by-case basis. We feel like we’re close enough to the national capital region that people understand it’s not a good idea to fly drones.”

Terry and Belinda Kilby, co-owners of Elevated Element, an aerial imaging company based in Owings Mills, said they are careful to stay on top of changing regulations related to drones.

It’s worth following the FAA, social media, trade publications and other avenues not only to avoid fines, but to continue to refine creative products for an ever-growing customer base, said Belinda Kilby. “You can’t deny that having that elevated perspective enhances your understanding of a situation,” she said. “Ultimately, I think for us, we love evolving along with the technology.”