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Do I Have to Keep My Drone in Sight at All Times?

When you fly a drone, it is necessary to keep visual contact with it at all times. Of course, you will be flying it in and out among trees, hills, buildings, and many other obstacles, making it difficult for you to use aids such as telescopes and binoculars to keep the aircraft in sight. So, the best thing you can do to avoid losing it is to maintain visual contact. Make sure to keep it in sight and a distance that allows you to monitor and control it effectively to avoid accidents.

When you are flying a drone, FAA regulations state that you must keep your drone in visual line of sight at all times. The exception for recreational flyers is the use of a visual observer. Commercial drone pilots can apply for a Part 107 waiver if they need to fly beyond visual line of sight. 

Most countries have rules in place which require that you maintain visual contact with the drone whenever you fly it. This is called the visual line of sight (VLOS) rule, and the purpose is to limit your chances of losing sight and control of the drone. 

The Line-of-Sight Rule

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)  has instituted rules to help the public to fly drones safely when they venture out. The line-of-sight rule is intended to safeguard human life and reduce accidents.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. You can fly beyond visual line of sight rules in times of emergencies. For instance, the rules may allow you to fly beyond the visual line of sight when assessing the operational environment. They also allow a pilot to fly the drone in areas around large roofs if they believe that burglary is in progress. Also, they can fly over a heavily forested area when looking for a missing person.

Another notable exception is that you are able to use a visual observer to keep eyes on the drone while your eyes are elsewhere. More on that in a minute.

Whether you are flying a drone for recreation or as a professional, here are some of the rules you must follow:

Stay below 400 ft above ground level

The maximum allowable height is 400 feet or 121 meters. However, it would help if you always stayed below the max altitude. The main reason for this is to avoid collisions with manned aircraft such as airplanes. But you may need to check the rules applicable in your state.  Some of them include:

Visual line of sight

Always ensure that you can see the drone at all times during your flight. Do not solely rely on the drone FPV camera or any other vision-assisted aids. Ensure that you can see the drone with naked eyes. If the fog and the clouds are obstructing your view, bring the drone down lower to where you can see it. Fog and cloud may impede your vision and make it difficult to see and control the drone.

The FAA-approved exception to this rule is the use of a visual observer. This is a second person who is standing near you, in clear and constant communication with you. If you as the pilot cannot keep your physical visual focus on the drone, for instance, if you are using FPV goggles, the visual observer can then do it for you. 

Don’t fly the drone above people

It is fun to fly your drone on a popular beach. It will give you stunning images, to be sure, but you need to remember that flying a drone over people or a group of people is illegal and is therefore not permitted.  Always, ensure to fly your drone away from populated areas, public places, and stadiums.

Fly as per a set of community guidelines

Your local authority may have instituted a set of rules that regulate flying drones. As such, you need to check and ensure that you observe the rules. If there are no local authority rules to reference, the country’s aviation authority suffices.

Options for commercial drone pilots

If you are flying as a commercial drone pilot, and the job you’re doing requires that you fly your drone beyond your visual line of sight, you can accomplish this legally by filing for a Part 107 waiver. This waiver will be specific to the job and to the exact type of exception needed. 

Once your waiver application is accepted, you will be able to fly your drone beyond visual line of sight for specific jobs and for specific purposes, as outlined in your waiver application.

To learn more about commercial drone rules and what’s involved in filing for a Part 107 waiver, check out our article on What Can You Do With a Part 107 License?

If you’re not sure what it takes to get into flying a drone professionally, read more about How to Become a Professional Drone Pilot.

What if my drone can go farther than I can see it?

As a pilot that adheres to the line-of-sight rule, you will have no problem enjoying flying your drone around. Yes, you will be fine in the first few days, but you will want to explore more and test your limits with time. You will want to explore more to have more spectacular pictures and videos. Also, you will want to test how far the drone can fly.

After flying the drone for several weeks and months, you will probably want to fly it in unique areas. Eventually, you may accidentally fly it too far, or try to rely on the FPV view on your screen, rather than on your actual sight of the drone. 

Tempting as it may be to fly beyond your ability to see the drone, it’s not only illegal, it’s dangerous too. You can easily get disoriented and lose the ability to give your drone accurate signals to avoid obstacles. The result could be disastrous for people or property. 

Another danger of flying beyond your visual line of sight is the potential to fly out of range. If the drone flies out of range, you will lose the connection with the controller, and it may become difficult to control the drone. 

If you’re wondering where the outer limits of your drone’s range are, check out our article on How Far Can a Drone Fly (From the Controller)?

You can only control a drone well if you fly within the drone’s range. If you have an older drone, flying it out of range may result in a crash. 

However, the newer drone models tend to feature more systems that make it less likely to be able to fly your drone out of range and crashing into buildings. Such drones feature memory GPS, which allows them to store the home position, so whenever it gets out of range, it returns to the exact place where it took off.

The return to home feature

Many drones have a RTH feature that can be activated manually. If activated, it directs the drone to return to the starting point. Many drones also default to RTH when they experience signal loss. But if the battery is getting low, and there is not enough power to get the drone all the way home safely, it may be lost somewhere. 

Also, for pilots that prefer flying their drone in the SPORT mode, RTH may not work. As a result, you will need to rely on manual control. So, if you enjoy flying it in a sports mode, ensure to fly it safely, and definitely keep the drone within your visual line of sight, or use a visual observer.

What happens if I lose sight of my drone?

The first thing to do if you lose sight of your drone is to fly it back to where you can see it. If you’ve gotten disoriented and can’t seem to get your drone back to where you are, it’s the perfect time to push the Return to Home button. Hopefully, you’ll see your drone flying back to you in no time. 

If your drone gets beyond your line of sight, some things that could happen could be to lose connection to the app, get out of range, or run out of power.  The modern type will return home since they have the RTH feature. If the app is shut down or loses connection due to software issues or a USB cord, it will execute the planned path and return home as soon as the battery reaches the 25% level.

But if a loss of connection occurs between the drone and the remote controller, it may crash into a building or something. Also, if the GPS signal is lost, the drone will land where it is since it may not be able to find its location due to a lack of GPS.

If your drone has lost signal, the first place to look for the drone is where you started your flight. Or check the flight log to see where it initiated an automatic landing. If you’ve lost your drone, you can try these methods to find it again

In order to fly your drone legally and safely, you need to keep it in your sight. There probably isn’t anyone out there watching to make sure you do, but if you run into problems, such as a crash or accident involving injuries or property damage, you could be in big trouble if you weren’t following the rules. So keep that drone in your line of sight!