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Will it be legal to fly DJI’s new FPV drone? People are asking…

We’ve had a number of inquiries about whether it will be legal to fly DJI’s new FPV drone (when it’s eventually released). Of course, the same regulations would apply to all FPV drones, not just a DJI product. We knew the answer, but thought it would be good to take a deeper dive.

Several people have suggested, in comments after stories and on our Facebook page, that flying an FPV drone in the United States is illegal. The argument they make is that it’s illegal because the pilot has goggles on, and can no longer maintain Visual Line of Sight with the drone. On the surface, that would be true: If you’re out on your own and flying FPV, you’re breaking the law.

But there’s a simple thing you can do to ensure your flight is legal.

The FAA perspective on Visual Line of Sight

The Federal Aviation Administration wants to keep the national airspace safe. It especially wants to minimize the possibility of an in-air conflict between manned and unmanned aviation. In other words, it wants to ensure drones don’t endanger aircraft.

That’s the primary concern. But the FAA, like its counterparts in other countries, also wants to ensure the safety of people (and vehicles, buildings, etc.) on the ground. That’s why Visual Line of Sight is so important: If the pilot is maintaining direct eye contact with the drone, he or she can see if there are things to avoid.

Can this pilot monitor the airspace around the drone? Nope.

That task becomes impossible once you have FPV goggles on. While you can see the pilot’s view from the drone, you have next to zero situational awareness. Is there something off to the side? Above the drone? Behind it but approaching? You simply cannot tell, as you’re locked into a fixed, forward view. And while there are some drones and fixed-wing RC aircraft that incorporate gimbals with head-tracking, that’s still not the same as seeing the airspace and the drone the way you can without goggles on.

We contacted Dr. Joe Cerreta (PhD), assistant professor, College of Aeronautics, UAS Flight Operations with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Here’s what he had to say:

The main rule concerning FPV flying is the ability to comply with the FAA’s beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) rules. The rules apply to either recreational or commercial drone operations. As the rule is currently written, either the FPV remote pilot or a visual observer must have line of sight with the drone at all times, so a solo FPV remote pilot, such as a person wearing goggles and flying without a visual observer, could not legally comply with the rules.

Joe Cerreta, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
What are the implications of FAA legislation for flying drones like these?

So. What are the rules?

The FAA’s rules on FPV flight

We already knew the basic answer: You can’t fly FPV solo legally. If you’re on your own, flying with your goggles on, you are violating the rules. Why? We contacted the FAA, which pointed us to some specific sections within Part 107. Here’s the first relevant piece.

107.31   Visual line of sight aircraft operation.

(a) With vision that is unaided by any device other than corrective lenses, the remote pilot in command, the visual observer (if one is used), and the person manipulating the flight control of the small unmanned aircraft system must be able to see the unmanned aircraft throughout the entire flight in order to:

(1) Know the unmanned aircraft’s location;

(2) Determine the unmanned aircraft’s attitude, altitude, and direction of flight;

(3) Observe the airspace for other air traffic or hazards; and

(4) Determine that the unmanned aircraft does not endanger the life or property of another.

(b) Throughout the entire flight of the small unmanned aircraft, the ability described in paragraph (a) of this section must be exercised by either:

(1) The remote pilot in command and the person manipulating the flight controls of the small unmanned aircraft system; or

(2) A visual observer.

The meaning here is clear: You need to see what’s going on. And you can’t do that while wearing goggles. But… note that last entry regarding a visual observer.

You must have a visual observer to fly FPV legally

And that visual observer has to be paying attention to the sky, not watching a monitor with the FPV feed. Specifically, here are the duties that must be carried out by that observer:

107.33   Visual observer.

If a visual observer is used during the aircraft operation, all of the following requirements must be met:

(a) The remote pilot in command, the person manipulating the flight controls of the small unmanned aircraft system, and the visual observer must maintain effective communication with each other at all times.

(b) The remote pilot in command must ensure that the visual observer is able to see the unmanned aircraft in the manner specified in §107.31.

(c) The remote pilot in command, the person manipulating the flight controls of the small unmanned aircraft system, and the visual observer must coordinate to do the following:

(1) Scan the airspace where the small unmanned aircraft is operating for any potential collision hazard; and

(2) Maintain awareness of the position of the small unmanned aircraft through direct visual observation.

Are there exceptions?

On the surface, this seems pretty clear cut. But there are exceptions and some gray areas. Once again, here’s Dr. Joe Cerreta:

FPV flight can be legally accomplished by using a visual observer, but there is another important aspect of legally flying in FPV mode. The FPV remote pilot must also have the “ability” to directly see the aircraft. So if the FPV remote pilot is wearing FPV goggles outdoors near where the drone is flying and using a visual observer, the remote pilot could take off the goggles to directly see the aircraft. That’s allowed under the FAA rules. But if the FPV remote pilot is in a car or building or something that could obstruct their ability to directly see the drone, even if using a visual observer, then they may be in violation of the rule. Don’t forget about all of the other FAA rules, they apply also. The FPV flight operation must remain compliant to all the other applicable FAA rules, such as maximum speed, maximum altitude, and airspace considerations.

Dr. Joseph Cerreta, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

What about sub-250 gram FPV drones?

A growing number of FPV drones are in the sub-250 gram class. That means they don’t require registration. But what about other FAA regulations? Do you still have to comply?

The only difference between a drone weighing less than 250g and a heavier done is the aircraft registration requirement. The same operational rules apply regardless of the weight. So the requirement for line of sight, maximum speed and altitude, and airspace authorizations are applicable and must also be met to fly in FPV mode.

Dr. Joe Cerreta, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

Always play by the rules

A great deal of thought has gone into the FAA’s existing legislation. It’s there to ensure airspace safety, as well as the safety of those on the ground, including property near your flying location. Following the rules keeps manned aviation safe and prevents you from potentially being fined or – even worse – being liable for an incident.

The bigger picture, of course, is that following legislation is good for the industry overall. Egregious violations, if they become a trend, could lead to more restrictive legislation in the future.

So by all means: Get out and have fun. But if you’re flying FPV, fly with a visual observer.

If you’d like to explore the legislation in greater depth, you’ll find it here.