The Present and Future of Personal Aircraft and Drones

Check out some of the players and regulations in modern drones and personal aircraft

Commercial flights and private pilots have been around a long time, but both everyday individuals and businesses are now laying claim to their own piece of the sky through drones and new personal aircraft. Exploring this new frontier has all the excitement and innovation you’d expect. And there are a series of Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) laws that govern pilots and tech before they’re cleared for take-off.

New advances in drones

The start of 2018 saw drone registrations soar. Over a million U.S. applications for drone ownership have been filed across the recreational, commercial and public sectors since January. Although operated by human hands, drones are classified as a UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) by the federal government under Public Law 112-95, Section 331(8).

DJI is a prime example of a company at the cutting edge of drone tech. They’re thrilling amateur flyers, revolutionizing photography and taking business and mail delivery to the next level. The company’s designs provide high-resolution photography, 7km flight ranges and speeds of up to 65kph. Drones are capable of live-streaming, as well as obstacle detection in 5 directions.

Agriculture, construction and public safety are only a few of the areas benefiting from modern drones. They’re proving their worth beyond recreation by contributing to repair efforts in disaster zones like Puerto Rico. Innovators like Aerones are deploying drones to aid in firefighting and de-icing of wind turbines.

New heights in personal aircraft

Say “personal aircraft” and the term may conjure images of large-scale private jets. Today’s leading innovators are taking aviation tech in a different direction by downsizing the scale. Kitty Hawk is developing the Flyer: a new type of personal aircraft designed to make solo flight accessible for all.

The Flyer is meant for recreational use over water and uncongested areas. First-rider flights maintain a low altitude of 10 feet and a top speed of 20mph; stats which will doubtless increase with pilot skill. The highly-maneuverable light craft is powered by all electric motors which keep the running volume to a minimum.

Interested viewers can learn the piloting basics on Kitty Hawk’s Instagram page. The aircraft is not currently available for purchase and the price is still under wraps – but Kitty Hawk is currently taking applications from any organization looking to bring Flyer to its community.

Current regulation for drones

Drone registration with the FAA is federal law; it’s an inexpensive requirement at $5 per aircraft. The exceptions are amateur flyers and hobbyists who need only pay a single fee, regardless of the number of drones they own. Gaining a remote pilot certificate is costlier, at around $150.

If registering via paper, the unmanned aircraft must weigh 55 pounds or more, be intended to be operated outside of the territorial airspace of the United States or registered through a trust or voting trust. Online registration is only for drones weighing less than 55 pounds and more than 0.55 pounds (250 grams) on takeoff. This includes everything on board or otherwise attached to the aircraft.

All recreational flyers must contact any airports, heliports, sea-based airports and air traffic control towers within five miles of the proposed area of operations if flying under the Special Rule for Model Aircraft, Public Law 112-95, Section 336. Federal law forbids drones flying within three nautical miles of a stadium hosting a major sporting event such as an NFL or Major League Baseball game.

The FAA imposes heavy fines and punishments for non-registration. They do assess the situation fully and offer education for uninformed flyers; but in the worst instances, penalties can reach fines up to $250,000 and/or three-years imprisonment.

Current regulations for groundbreaking personal aircraft

It may be surprising to note that Kitty Hawk’s manned Flyer operates under fewer constrictions than a drone. The Flyer must adhere to FAA CFR Part 103 regulating Ultralight aircraft. This means that a pilot need not meet any requirement of age, aeronautical knowledge or experience, nor are Ultralights required to be registered.

Pilot training is fully recommended of course, as are standard safety steps and regulated fly times (30 mins before and after sunset and daylight hours in-between). This lenient registration opens numerous opportunities for anyone with access to an Ultralight, and the FAA is showing no signs of making the regulations more demanding.

Regulation for the future

Drone regulation for hobbyists looks to be tightening up, however. Google and Amazon have been pursuing airspace for their own drone programs and seeking tighter controls on recreational flyers who could impede commercial airspace. The U.S. Transportation Department has filed two proposals with the White House to allow drones to fly directly over populated areas and to initiate remote tracking and identification of unmanned aircraft.

Geo-fencing is one proposed regulation that could become law. This may see drones internally programmed to avoid certain coordinates. Alternatively, a border signal may be continually broadcast from no-fly zones and received by both manned and unmanned aircraft.

Drunk driving has traditionally been thought of as a land-based crime but that looks set to change too, as drones fall under review. The tech is advancing to such a degree that NASA has been involved since 2016. They’re in the third stage of developing an unmanned aircraft traffic management system. NASA’s expertise will help to bring order to the hundreds of thousands of drones set to be airborne by 2020.

Further resources

You can access the FAA’s guide to becoming a drone pilot here, as well as learn safety tips and where it’s acceptable to fly. The FAA also offer its own safe-flying app available for free download from Google Play and iTunes.

More competitors will doubtless arise in the drone and personal aircraft markets, furthering consumer and business-use options and marking the coming years as an exhilarating new era in flight.

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