With nearly 864,000 drones now registered with the FAA, chances are increasing that you may encounter one in flight.
To safely navigate these encounters, it helps to understand the capabilities of these small aircraft and the regulations governing them. Be prepared for such an encounter, and prime yourself to respond consciously rather than instinctively reacting.
Pilots should familiarize themselves with the FAA drone rules for recreational and non-recreational operations, which in part state that drones should not operate near any aircraft, should not exceed 400 feet above ground level (or beyond 400 feet from any point on the nearest structure), and must yield right of way to crewed airplanes and helicopters. Most drone operators are required to maintain visual line-of-sight at all times. However, the FAA does authorize some operations beyond that limit, provided the operator can maintain active surveillance of all traffic in the airspace—including you.
Begin your preflight with a comprehensive review of notices to air missions, known as notams. Some drone activities, particularly those conducted on test ranges or otherwise beyond visual line of sight, necessitate filing a notam. The information it provides gives you a better picture of what to expect. Most commercial and recreational operators are not, however, required to file a notam.
Secondly, the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) can provide useful insights. This database documents recent drone encounters, with details on altitude and location, which can help you identify recurring patterns along your planned route.
Drone operations conducted in controlled airspace require prior authorization from the FAA via Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC). Remote pilots (including recreational pilots) obtain authorization to operate near certain airports from various third-party providers. Using one or more of those apps, many of which are free, may provide some insight into the operations conducted in controlled airspace. The B4UFLY app is a similar resource geared toward recreational drone users. The app displays flight plans filed by drone pilots, although recreational users cannot submit requests for LAANC authorizations using this app. Those users can use one of the LAANC-enabled alternatives. Use these apps as a tool, not a definitive guide.
The FAA's Remote ID requirements for registered drones will take full effect on March 16, 2024. (The FAA recently announced it would delay enforcement of the new requirements that took effect in September.) This means all drones (excluding those that weigh less than 0.55 pounds) must transmit essential details such as registration, altitude, location, and speed. As more drone pilots become compliant, more data will be available, and you can anticipate the rise of apps capable of displaying such information, offering another layer of preparation and awareness.
In flight, if you spot a drone, remain calm, and document its details for an FAA investigation. Notify air traffic control about the observation, providing your recorded data. If flying under visual flight rules, contact the nearest flight service station to file a pilot report (see Safety Spotlight: PIREPs Made Easy) to document the drone sighting. If a collision appears imminent, prioritize safety, recalling your collision avoidance training and, if necessary, executing evasive maneuvers.
Postflight, report your drone encounter to the FAA via your local flight standards district office and the ASRS website. Documenting your encounter is not a procedural necessity but is a service to your fellow pilots, as your report will contribute to understanding in-flight drone activity patterns and help formulate additional safety measures as required.