Posted on January 30, 2017
This is a special guest post done in collaboration with Jon Nyquist, a filmmaker and photographer who is also a FAA-Certified drone pilot.
As a licensed FAA Part 107 drone pilot I would like to share some helpful things I wish I would have known before I got my license.
You may already know about the drone rules like how you can’t fly above 400ft (120m) here in the U.S. But what other things should you know about?
Well that’s what this post is about and in it I discuss the following:
- How high can I really fly my drone?
- What is AGL or Above Ground Level?
- What are the rules for flying in cloudy situations?
- Why should I be careful flying in foggy situations?
- What do I need to know about flying in higher altitude regions?
The FAA is taking the drone surge very seriously, as it should since these flying pieces of plastic can do decent damage if the person at the controls isn’t careful.
If it were up to me, just like how a license is required to drive a car, I’d make everyone have to get a license to fly any non-toy drone.
I believe this would make drone pilots aware of the hazards that coincide with taking to the skies.
However, that is not yet the case.
So as someone who has recently obtained their Part 107 License from the FAA, here are a few things I thought would have been helpful to know even if I was just flying as a drone hobbyist.
(quick warning some of the points discussed below include some more advanced aviation concepts but I think they are worth sharing)
Point 1: Height limit is 400ft AGL (or Above Ground Level)
This is because manned aircraft cannot fly below 500ft AGL which gives us all a 100ft buffer.
You can go 400ft above buildings, though if you fly within a 400-foot radius of a structure.
If a building’s height is 1,200ft, you are allowed to go to a maximum of 1,600ft.
This is helpful to know because in the event you are flying up over a hill, your maximum altitude can adjust accordingly.
However your drone may have an altitude limiter stopping you from flying above 400ft from where you took off so you’ll need to check your settings.
For more info on this you can read through the FAA’s Advisory Circular PDF. This is specifically what is says regarding the info above AGL:
(small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS…) Cannot be flown higher than 400 feet above ground level (AGL), unless flown within a 400-foot radius of a structure and does not fly higher than 400 feet above the structure’s immediate uppermost limit…
Also, stay away from tall radio antennae. The FAA advises drone pilots to give a buffer of 2,000ft around antennae as they have hard to see ‘guy-wires’ that extend 1,500ft.
Point 2: In cloudy situations, the drone must be 500ft below and at least 2,000 feet horizontally from the clouds.
This is to give maximum visibility to manned aircraft and so that you can truly keep the drone within line of sight.
This is important because you want to be able to determine how far under the clouds you can fly your drone.
If you have access to the necessary information, you can calculate the cloud base by finding the difference between the surface temperature and the dew point.
The difference between the surface temperature and the dew point is called the “spread”.
To determine what the spread is you first need to:
- Find the difference between the surface temperature and the dew point
- Then divide that number by 4.4 if the temperature is in °F (fahrenheit) or 2.5 if the temperature is in °C (celsius).
- Then multiply that number by 1,000
For example, let’s say that the surface temperature where you are going to fly is 65 °F and the dew point is 61 °F.
65 – 61 = 4 (that’s our spread)
Then divide that spread number by 4.4 and multipy the answer by 1,000. So…
4 / 4.4 x 1,000 = 909
So your cloud base is 909 feet AGL (Above Ground Level).
Instead of figuring all that out you could go look up what the cloud ceiling is in the area by visiting a weather reporting website like this one.
But hey, that’s cheating ;)
Point 3: Higher Density Altitude and Lower Density Altitude
Higher density altitude occurs at higher altitudes or in mountainous regions where the air is thinner.
This results in reduced performance of your aircraft and shorter battery life.
Lower density altitudes have thicker air and your aircraft has stronger performance because the blades have more air to grab.
Batteries are also affected by the cold so keep an eye on battery voltage and not just the percentage of life left.
Some manufacters like DJI let you know if you have low battery voltage by turning the voltage color on your app from green, to yellow and then to red.
Not paying attention to the voltage could result in your drone just falling out of the air.
Point 4: It is not advisable to operate in foggy conditions
Not only is there poor visibility, but the weather conditions that create the fog can have effects on drones such as cool air pockets which can cause the aircraft to lose height.
Point 5: In an emergency always fly right
Just like in boating, if for some reason you are ever on course for a head-on collision with another aircraft (big or small), veer right.
In doing so, your chances of preventing a collison are signficantly reduced due to both aircrafts turning in the opposite directions.
Point 6: The FAA has two checklists they recommend all pilots go through before each flight
The PAVE Checklist
This consists of a series of questions a pilot should ask themselves before taking off:
- Pilot in Command – am I physically and mentally fit to fly?
- Aircraft – is the UAS (unmanned aircraft system) capable and ready to fly?
- enVironment – Do I have all the information I need about the weather/terrain/airspace?
- External pressures – Am I stressed? Am I dealing with an unhealthy safety culture?
The IMSAFE checklist
This also consists of a series of questions a pilot should ask themselves before taking off:
- Illness – Am I sick?
- Medication – Am I impaired or drowsy?
- Stress – Am I under psychological pressure?
- Alcohol – Have I had a drink in the last 8 hours?
- Fatigue – Am I tired?
- Emotion/Eating – Am I upset? Am I well-nourished?
Much like assessing yourself for driving a vehicle, you should ask yourself similar questions before manning a lawn mower that flies in the sky.
The FAA has also identified “hazardous attitudes” as a reason for someone not being allowed to fly.
- Anti-Authority – Someone that doesn’t like anyone telling them what to do.
- Impulsivity – Someone that does things on impulse without stopping to think of the best method.
- Macho – Someone that tries to prove they’re better than everyone else. Takes risks.
- Resignation – Someone that doesn’t see themselves as being able to make a difference and leave the action to others.
- Invulnerability – Someone that thinks accidents happen to others, not them.
There are two types of drone pilots: those that have crashed and those that will
Point 7: Practice, a lot, and in the right spots
What I tell my friends when they get a new drone is to practice in a large open field.
I’ve had so many friends try out their new drone in the house and soon after had to replace their mom’s now broken lamp or go to the barber to fix the hair trim their drone just gave them.
Other friends were a little wiser and went out to their backyards, just to turn their drone into an expensive hedge trimmer.
Don’t do that either.
Always find a wide open space with no people around, and get to know what your drone can do and how it reacts
And the bigger/more expensive a drone is doesn’t always equate to more fun.
The most fun I’ve had was flying a little $50 stunt drone from Walmart at a vacant baseball field.
Check out the following tutorial to find some drone practice exercises that every drone pilot should master as well as info to make sure you fully understand what both control sticks do and the difference between yaw, pitch, throttle and roll.
I hope these suggestions were helpful to you for better understanding some of the more technical concepts behind flying a drone that no one talks much about!
If you are thinking about taking the next big step to become an official FAA-Certified drone pilot then I can’t recommend enough the course I personally used called Drone Pilot Ground School (that link includes a $50 off discount).
99% of the people who have gone through the course passed the FAA’s test the first time.
I’m happy to share that I was one of them and passed the test my first time with a 98%.
All the stuff I shared above came from lessons taught through the Drone Pilot Ground School program.
Well thanks for reading and safe flying!
Have a question or comment? Feel free to drop a comment down below.
About the Author
Jon Nyquist is a filmmaker, photographer and professional bed bouncer. You can view Jon’s work at Nyquistcreative.com