Survey Mapping with a Drone in an Urban Environment

by Jim Crume P.L.S., M.S., CFedS

We are coming upon the first year anniversary of the FAA Part 107 which was implemented in August of 2016. A lot has happened since that time for me.

I have flown over 60 missions, mostly of which have been in the Phoenix Metro urban environment since August of last year. It has been a real challenge navigating the Class B, D and E airspace in this area and Class C in Tucson, Arizona. I have acquired airspace authorization in Class B, C and D without any problems other than the time for the FAA to review the application. It is taking longer and longer with each application. I am still waiting on a few that are very near the 90 day mark. The amount of time the FAA said it would take to review the applications. It is getting very frustrating dealing with the wait time. I am not sure just how much work I have lost because I am unable to get airspace authorization quickly enough. Most of my clients are very patient but a few have ventured out and contracted someone else that is not going through the proper procedures to get authorization. They just go fly it and worry about the consequences later. In most cases, they will never get caught unless there is an incident.

There is a civil disobedience movement that is starting to build amongst the Part 107 pilots across the country. I am not one of them, but it is hard to pass up work when I know that I can operate safely in congested airspace. I have flown manned aircraft for many years in the same environment that I now fly drones in and at a much lower altitude.

The real rub is that a recreational pilot can call the airport ATC and get instant approval while the trained, tested, safe professional remote pilot has to wait for 90 days or longer for authorization. Go figure……

Some of the experiences I have encountered as a drone pilot, is low flying manned fixed winged aircraft and helicopters that are operating way below the minimum Above Ground Level (AGL) altitude requirements. The minimum altitude for a fixed wing is 1000 AGL and a Helicopter is 500 AGL in an urban environment. They are clearly violating the airspace rules when they venture below that. As a drone pilot, I have to give the right a way to manned aircraft, even when they are clearly in violation. I have aborted several missions so that I can move my drone out of their way, even when my AGL is only 200′. One time I was at 150′ AGL and had to abort. Only if we would all play by the rules, the airspace would be much safer. I have not read any articles that point out that manned aircraft pilots are violating the airspace rules, probably more so than drone pilots.

I have not read any articles that point out that manned aircraft pilots are violating the airspace rules, probably more so than drone pilots.

On some missions, I will use an additional visual observer to help with locating manned aircraft in heavy traffic areas.

Some tricks I have learned when operating near airports is to determine which way the air traffic is flowing. For example: Manned aircraft will climb higher and quicker when taking off. When landing on final approach they will be lower and fly slower. Knowing that little tidbit will help in determining where to look for and avoid them when flying missions near airports (with airspace authorization of course).

Helicopters can be anywhere and at any altitude near airports. You really need to listen and watch out for them.

From a manned aircraft pilot perspective, it is impossible to see a little drone flying around 200 feet AGL with all of the urban housing, highways, roads, cars, etc. in the background, the drone blends in. These pilots are not looking down, they are panning the horizon looking for other manned aircraft.

Most manned aircraft pilots don’t review the NOTAM’s like they are suppose to. So if you file a NOTAM as a drone pilot noting where and when you plan on flying a mission, it probably won’t be read by a manned aircraft pilot. Filing a NOTAM is no guarantee that everyone flying at the same time and in the same area will know that you are there.

As a Part 107 remote pilot, it is your responsibility to review NOTAM’s for no-fly zones and special events, METARS for adverse weather, Sectional Charts for airspace designations and request airspace authorization for all Class B, C, D & E areas. I have talked to many Part 107 pilots and they don’t look up the airspace they are in. They just go fly. They have been tested and should know the rules. They got their license and that was end of it for them. It takes a lot of effort, experience and on-going training to be a true professional remote pilot. From what I see, most remote pilots don’t take it to a professional level.

Civil disobedience is one thing, not understanding the rules is another.

I use Skyvector.com (Sectional Charts),  Airmap and FAA Facility Maps to determine what airspace I intend to fly in and what restrictions maybe in place. These are free utilities that will run in any browser.

I have a great respect to all of the professional remote pilots that play by the rules and take piloting seriously. Thank you for your efforts.

Happy Survey Mapping and Safe Flying!!!

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