Legal requirements for drone use

By |  September 4, 2017

GeoCue Group’s small unmanned aerial systems subsidiary company, AirGon LLC, began flying drones for mine site mapping in 2013.

While the company’s initial intention was to limit flying to only that required for testing the hardware and software built for this industry, it grew to the point that GeoCue has now flown more than 600 missions, both for testing and as a service to mine site, construction and paper mill operators.

One of the company’s early concerns was the legal framework for performing drone mapping services. As a company both selling technology and performing mapping services, the concerns present were probably a bit more pressing than those of a small, independent mine operation that might consider “flying under the radar,” so to speak. Many of GeoCue’s customers demand a portfolio of liability insurance, as well as assurances that all operations are conducted within the proper legal framework.

Grasping the legalities

Aggregate producers should familiarize themselves with the requirements before deploying a drone.

When GeoCue first began drone operations, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had a rather draconian system in place for commercial drone operations. These original commercial rules (called a Section 333 exemption) required filing a very detailed exemption request with the FAA, as well as licensing of operators as at least private pilots.

Because the 333 filing required legal assistance and the pilot license required a minimum of 40 hours (although 75 is typical) of flight school flying hours, this was a major investment of both time and money. For most mine operators, this set the bar too high to consider internalizing drone operations.

This legal framework was significantly relaxed in August 2016 with a new set of FAA rules called Part 107. While still quite restrictive for many drone applications, Part 107 regulations are ideal for mine site (including stockpile inventory) operators. A new class of license was created called a remote pilot airman certificate. This FAA certification requires only a U.S. driver license and passing a 60-question multiple-choice exam. There is no requirement for actually demonstrating you know how to fly a drone.

To prepare for the written exam, check out the book “Remote Pilot Test Prep – UAS” by the ASA Test Prep Board. The book is available from Amazon for about $15.

As a check on how difficult passing would be for the average mine site staff person, GeoCue had one of its engineers who has no experience whatsoever with FAA regulations or aeronautical charts study this book. He spent about 18 hours studying and passed the exam on his first attempt. Thus, the FAA remote pilot exam should not be considered an obstacle to developing a drone program.

Other considerations

There are quite a few restrictions associated with flying under the Part 107 rules, but none of these pose a serious impediment to small area mapping. The ones most relevant to mine site mapping include:

◾ The flying height must be 400 ft. or lower relative to ground height. Take this to mean the top of a pit, not the bottom.

◾ Flying is permitted in all Class G airspace with no air traffic control permission required. This is quite a relaxation compared to the older Section 333 rules that forbid flying within three to five miles of any airport.

For example, GeoCue flew a mine site right after the Part 107 rules took effect (see photo). This site surrounds a fairly active airport on three sides. However, the airspace is Class G and, thus, the company was able to fly with no additional permissions or waivers.

◾ The pilot in command (the FAA remote pilot-certified person responsible for the flight) must have the drone in sight at all times. The reverse of this is that no flying beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) is permitted. The FAA does state that brief moments of non-visual contact due to obstructions are OK. We take this to mean that the occasional occlusion due to a stockpile between the pilot and the drone is acceptable.

◾ No operations over unprotected, uninvolved persons. This one is easy for a mine site – just ensure that your staff is briefed on the time of each flight.

◾ No operations over persons in moving vehicles. GeoCue has always taken this to mean uninvolved persons in privately owned vehicles, not mine site equipment. Since mine site personnel are “involved” in the flight project, there shouldn’t be a problem with this, especially because they are generally in protective cabs.

There are a number of other regulations but none that would impact mine site flights.

Takeaways

When you have a number of sites that need to be periodically flown, it makes the most sense from an operational and cost perspective for you to do the flying yourself – even if you opt to outsource the data processing.

The first step you should take is to select a few staff members to qualify as remote pilots. With perhaps 20 hours of self-study, they should be able to successfully pass the FAA examination. If you acquire your own drone, you will need to register it with the FAA. This is a very simple online process you can complete through a self-service portal at https://registermyuas.faa.gov.

Also, it would be wise to put in place a drone safety program. While most commercial systems tend to be fairly reliable, failures do happen. You want to ensure that if one of these falls from the sky, it is not going to damage property or injure personnel.

One of your best practices would be an alerting system so all staff members are aware that a flight is in progress and they can remain within vehicles or buildings if they are under the flight pattern.

Drone mapping has become fairly easy to legally implement for mine site mapping/volumetrics and offers quite a few advantages over ground-based survey methods. With a proper plan, you should be able to implement a fully-functional mapping system within three months.


Lewis Graham is the president and chief technical officer of GeoCue Group Inc.

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