This section explains the regulations and rules required to operate a drone for a boating organization.

Is your boating organization flying for “fun” or for “commercial” purposes?  The line between recreational and commercial usage can quickly become blurred. Nearly all of the examples of boating organizations using drones come under the FAA’s Commercial usage definition and require the drone operator be a licenses FAA Remote Pilot in Command (RPIC).

  • Commercial use of a drone is defined by the FAA as: “Flying for work, business, non-recreational reasons, or commercial gain.” This typically includes flying a drone for hire, compensation, to provide a service, or for economic benefit of an entity or person. This typically includes flying a drone for hire, compensation, to provide a service, or for economic benefit of an entity or person.  Intended use, not compensation, is the determining factor.
  • Recreational or hobby use of a drone is defined by the FAA as: “Flying for enjoyment and not for work, business purposes, or for compensation or hire.”

For example, if a parent flies a drone (for free) for a junior sailing program, it most likely would be considered hobbyist usage. But if a paid employee or volunteer of a sailing club/organization flies a drone as part of the club’s instruction of junior sailors, it would be considered commercial usage. While situations and usages by or at a yacht club or sailing program vary widely, it is safe to assume that most circumstances will fall under the Commercial use definition. It is important to know which category you fall under, because the requirements for operation, licensing, registration, and insurance differ depending on if the drone is flown for recreational or commercial purposes. Failure to comply with FAA and state/local drone regulations for drone licensing, registration, and/or operating can result in significant penalties and charges including: steep fines (in the thousands of dollars), civil charges (e.g., invasion of privacy), and/or criminal charges (eg, reckless endangerment).

Drone Pilot Licensing Requirements. If a drone is being flown commercially, the pilot must obtain a “Remote Pilot Airman Certificate”, which is earned by passing the FAA Remote Pilot Knowledge Test to ensure the drone pilot understands the rules of the road, so to speak, for the national air space.  The test is a 60 question multiple-choice exam, administered at FAA-approved knowledge testing centers and costs $150.  In addition to passing the test, the pilot must be 16 years of age and must pass TSA security vetting. If a drone is being flown for fun, no licensing is required. As of the end of 2017, there were 70,000 licensed, commercial drone pilots.  While the Remote Pilot Airman Certificate requires no practical testing of a pilot’s operating skills, it is strongly recommended that all drone operators (licensed and recreational), get hands-on training and/or practice before operating a drone at a sailing organization. Suggested drone training programs are discussed in the next tab.

Drone Registration.  Drone registration for hobbyist has been controversial, but Congress passed a law in Dec ember 2017 requiring all drones to be registered under the National Defense Authorization Act. All small unmanned aircraft (including drones) weighing more than .55 pounds and less than 55 pounds must be registered with the FAA and marked with a registration number. Registration can be handled online on the FAADroneZone website and costs $5.00 for a 3-year period.

Drone Operating Rules.  Most of the primary FAA rules for drone operation apply to both commercial and recreational use.  The basic rules are as follows and are further detailed on the FAA website:

  • Keep the drone in visual line-of-sight
  • Fly at or below 400 feet
  • Fly at or under 100 mph
  • Yield right of way to manned aircraft
  • Follow community-based safety guidelines (recreational rule)
  • Fly only during the daylight or civil twilight
  • Do not fly directly over people
  • Do not fly near emergency response efforts
  • Do not fly over national parks
  • Do not fly over large stadiums or major sporting events (baseball, football, NASCAR, etc.)
  • Do not fly from a moving vehicle, unless in a sparsely populated area (over-water is considered sparse)
  • Never fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Notify the airport and air traffic control tower prior to flying within 5 miles of an airport (recreational rule)
  • Obtain Air Traffic Control permission to operate in controlled airspace (commercial rule)

FAA Waivers for Commercial Pilots. The FAA has an online process to apply for and receive a waiver for certain elements of the Part 107 regulations.  The most commonly granted waivers are for Flying at Night (107.29) and operation in Controlled Airspaces (107.41). A list of granted waivers can be found on the FAA website.   Waiver applications are submitted electronically, but often take months to process.

Part 107 and Boating Operations

Commercial Drone Rules Part 107, Section 107.39, Operation over human beings: Operation directly over people is prohibited unless they are “directly participating in the operation”, an FAA-defined term, or “located under a covered structure or inside a stationary vehicle that can provide reasonable protection from a small unmanned aircraft.”    The FAA has ruled that drones can be operated over people at an angle so that if the drone failed and fell out of the sky, the drone would not fly into people.

Commercial Drone Rules Part 107, Section 107.25, Operation from moving vehicle states that No person may operate a small unmanned aircraft system—(a) From a moving aircraft; or (b) From a moving land or water-borne vehicle unless the small unmanned aircraft is flown over a sparsely populated area and is not transporting another person’s property for compensation or hire. FAA has ruled that overwater is considered “sparsely populated area.”

Airspace restrictions – as part of training for Part 107 Remote Pilot in Command includes detailed instruction on where drones can operate. Be sure to make sure you understand the airspace restrictions by checking  B4UFLY