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Rules & Regulations

Contacting Airports: Hobby vs. Commercial Drone Requirements

Find out what you need to do when it comes to flying near airports

June 26, 2017

Hobby and commercial drone operators have a very different set of requirements when it comes to flying near airports. It’s useful to be aware of the differences.

Hobby drone operators

The first thing to do as a hobbyist is to download one of the many smartphone apps that display the location of local airports — the B4UFly and Airmap apps are both good choices for this purpose. Is there an airport within 5 miles of you? If so, the FAA requires that you contact the air traffic controller (ATC) of any airports, heliports, and sea-based airports. Here’s some general information to have on-hand, so you can communicate these basic points to the ATC operator:
  • Where and when you will fly
  • How high you will fly (remember, stay below 400 feet)
  • How long you will fly
  • What kind of drone you will fly
  • Who you are and how to contact you
The requirement to contact your tiny local airport that’s 4.8 miles away might seem excessive. But consider this: You don’t even need to talk to anyone. If you call and no one answers, just leave a message with the required information. Of course, it’s better if you do talk to an ATC employee, but it’s not necessary. Also, more than 125 airports are using Airmap’s Digital Notice and Awareness System, which allows you to just send a message to the ATC through the app.

According to the FAA, an airport operator "can object to the proposed use of a model aircraft [drone] within 5 miles of an airport if the proposed activity would endanger the safety of the airspace. However, the airport operator cannot prohibit or prevent the model aircraft operator from operating within five miles of the airport. Unsafe flying in spite of the objection of an airport operator may be evidence that the operator was endangering the safety of the National Airspace System. Additionally, the UAS operator must comply with any applicable airspace requirements."
Commercial drone operators

If you’re a commercial operator, it all comes down to airspace. This makes things slightly more complicated. But in a lot of ways, it’s pretty useful.

You can look up the formal airspace charts to check what airspace you’ll be operating in (after all, you should know how to read those VFRs after taking your Part 107 test). However, you can also just check in the Airmap app. It’ll let you know what type of airspace you’re operating in depending on the location you select.

Class G airspace is free to fly for commercial drone operators. If you want to fly in controlled airspace (Class A, B, C, D, or within the lateral boundaries of the surface area of E), you need prior permission from the ATC. But don’t call the ATC. They can’t approve your flights, so that’s just wasting everyone’s time.

Instead, you need to apply to the FAA for a Part 107 authorization. Do not apply for both an authorization and a waiver for “107.41 Operation in Certain Airspace” — the FAA will reject your request. If you want to fly in controlled airspace, submit for the authorization.

Be sure to give yourself plenty of lead time. The FAA is backlogged,  so apply at least 90 days before you know you need to fly. To help speed up the airspace approval process for areas that don't fall under class G, the FAA has released a number of its UAS facility maps. Pro tip: If you know you’ll fly in a location often, ask for the authorization to last for six months. Less paperwork for everyone.
Featured image: pixabay/RitaE