Next up in our “Ask Drone Girl” series is about when you need a visual observer for your drone flight. If you have a question for Drone Girl, contact her here.
Can you clarify the observer requirement for FPV racing drones over and under .55 pounds? This is for non-commercial hobby use.
I’m glad you’re thinking about having a visual observer! In many cases, having a visual observer isn’t just a legal requirement in the U.S. — it’s just a plain old, common sense, good flying habit to get into.
Especially if you fly FPV with goggles, it’s good to have someone else watching — not just for the sake of you and your drone — but to protect other people who might inadvertently get in the way (and which you may not necessarily be aware of with goggles on).
While I always recommend having a visual observer, here are some common types of FPV drone racing flights, and whether you legally need a visual observer when flying in the U.S.
Flying a drone less than 0.55 pounds, outdoors, for hobby use: Yes, you need a visual observer
While the FAA has explicitly stated that drones weighing less than 0.55 are exempt from drone registration requirements, they haven’t said the same for other rules, like having a visual observer.
That means, even if your drone is teeny tiny, you need to adhere to all of the FAA’s rules for “Recreational Fliers & Modeler Community-Based Organizations.” That includes the following:
Fly within visual line-of-sight, meaning you as the drone operator use your own eyes and needed contacts or glasses (without binoculars), to ensure you can see your drone at all times.
If your eyes are seeing the drone’s point of view, then that means you aren’t seeing your drone. Thus, you’ll need a second person on hand to serve as that “visual observer” and keep their eyes on the drone.
Flying a drone less than 0.55 pounds, outdoors, for commercial use: Yes, you need a visual observer
All drones flown for commercial use (assuming they weigh 55 lbs or less) are regulated by Part 107. Visual line of sight aircraft operation (§ 107.31) is required under those rules. Under 14 CFR 107.33, your visual observer must communicate with you and ensure they have eyes on the drone at all times.
Flying indoors: No visual observer needed
The FAA has no direct oversight over indoor drone flights. That means that not only do rules around visual observers not apply, but other rules like registration or commercial use don’t either. Of course, common sense does still apply.
Will rules around flying micro drones (drones under 0.55 lbs) ever change?
Many drone industry lobbyists hope the answer is yes. The industry has for years lobbied to create a special category of micro-drones that would be exempt from all, or most, regulation.
The FAA first contemplated a “micro” classification of small drones as part of a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” back in February 2015, which would define drones as “micro UAS” if they weighed no more than
4.4 pounds and were constructed of frangible materials “that break, distort, or yield on impact so as to present a minimal hazard to any person or object.” Those drones would be exempt from some rules, specifically being able to fly over people. But, after reviewing public comment, the FAA did not move forward with that.
A year later, a “Micro Unmanned Aircraft Systems Aviation Rulemaking Committee” (essentially a task force made up of key industry players including Google, DJI and Horizon Hobby) was formed.
While their work was also focused mostly on drone flights over people, they came to the conclusion in an April 2016 report that drones weighing 250 grams or less should be classified as “Category 1,” and thus able to fly over people.
And three years later, those recommendations are one more step closer to reality. The U.S. Department of Transportation last month announced proposed new rules that could allow drones to fly under certain conditions that were previously illegal without a waiver.
In January 2019, the FAA announced that it had proposed three categories of drone flight types. Category 1 would encompass all drones weighing 0.55 pounds or less. Drones in that category would be able to fly over people, and there would be no waivers and no design standards required for the hardware itself.
Again, their rules apply specifically to flying drones over people (as was the focus in the prior to attempts), but it seems likely that the categories of drones could apply to drone regulation as a whole.
So what does a visual observer actually do?
A visual observer chalks down to making sure you don’t bump into stuff. My visual observer has also served highly useful in deflecting conversations with the general public! A lot of people approach me as I’m flying and want to ask about what I’m doing, but I don’t really want to think about talking to people when I’m focused on flying!
Here’s that same thing, in official FAA speak:
Your visual observer must “maintain effective communication with the person manipulating the flight controls and remote pilot in command at all times, they must ensure the visual observer can see the unmanned aircraft, they must scan the airspace where the drone is operation and they must maintain awareness of the position of the drone at all times.
Does a visual observer need to have a Part 107 remote pilot certificate?
Legally, no. There’s just one rule: they must adhere to the FAA’s rules around alcohol and drugs — no operating an aircraft within 9 hours after the consumption of any alcoholic beverage. (No drinking and droning!)
I would recommend they go through the FAA’s free Part 107 small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) course. Going through this course is actually a requirement for existing Part 61 pilots (people who already have a manned pilot’s license).
The course takes about two hours to complete and is free as a self-study tool to the general public. There’s a free practice test at the end. It will go through basic rules, operating procedures and safety.
If they decide they want to take the full Part 107 test, that’s great too! Check out my guide to how I studied for and passed the test.
Happy flying, and happy observing!