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Can You Fly a Drone in Special Use Airspace?

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As new as drones are to civilians, there are few regulations that are specific to them. Special-use airspaces are one of those areas where the distinction between manned and unmanned aircraft is hard to find.

Are you allowed to fly your drone in Special Use Airspace?

You should be able to fly a drone in special-use airspace, but it’s still not recommended. Special use airspace might be dangerous for drone pilots, so it’s better to stay out.

Most of the restrictions laid out in this article are the general directions from the FAA. There’s lots of great information to come, so make sure you keep reading!

What is special-use airspace? #

Special use airspace (SUA) usually consists of one of four areas:

  • Prohibited
  • Restricted
  • Military operation
  • Alert

Depending on what it is being used for, the flight restrictions will change.

The FAA regulates SUAs and therefore can restrict or prohibit flights for manned and unmanned aircraft by law.

In prohibited airspace, drones are unable to fly and may not obtain a permit. In restricted areas, a permit is usually required by the agency in the area.

Military operation areas (MOA) may or may not restrict activity. Alert areas are typically not restricted but are in place to warn pilots of increased training or other aerial activity.

1. Prohibited airspace #

Prohibited airspace is a non-negotiable area for manned and unmanned aircraft. The FAA has ruled that certain sites in the United States cannot be flown over by anyone.

Examples of areas in a prohibited zone are:

  • Thurmont, Maryland, site of Presidential retreat Camp David
  • Amarillo, Texas and its Pantex nuclear assembly plant
  • Bush Ranch near Crawford, Texas; Area 51, etc.

Prohibited zones are indicated on aeronautical charts by a P followed by a number (e.g., P-49). These are areas that should be avoided at all costs and can result in legal action if entered by any form of aircraft.

2. Restricted airspace #

This type of special-use airspace is slightly more complex because there are few strict regulations, and they mostly act on case-by-case situations.

Generally, this type of special-use airspace is reserved for hazards on the ground that may affect aircraft but may not be completely visible to pilots. The FAA states that this occurs with missile launches, artillery firing, and aerial gunnery.

When restricted airspaces are active, the controlling agency is responsible for authorization. When the site is inactive, the FAA regains control and typically does not require authorization prior to flying.

3. Military Operation Area (MOA) #

MOAs have more specific rules and are clearly defined by the military agencies working within them.

MOAs exist when military operations and training are occurring in a certain area. This can be dangerous to pilots because there are typically high-speed aircraft making difficult maneuvers close to the ground.

MOAs are almost always restricted airspace and pilots are unable to receive permission to fly within them. There are times that it may be possible, but authorization is difficult to obtain.

The military entity operating in the area must be contacted to request permission to fly. Luckily, when it comes to MOAs, they are usually in remote areas where there would be no reason to fly a drone in the first place.

4. Alert areas #

Alert areas do not have any active restrictions but are in place as more of a warning to pilots. These areas have high volumes of air traffic for training or other unusual activities.

In alert areas, it is always good to be more alert and have a visual observer if possible. These areas will most often be above the legal ceiling for drone pilots, but there should always be an extra measure of caution when flying in alert areas.

5. Other Special Use Airspace #

Areas that are not always considered special-use airspaces but should be regarded the same are also important to understand.

The most common are temporary flight restrictions and National Park restrictions.

Temporary flight restrictions or TFRs are put in place when certain areas are hazardous for aircraft or the flight of said aircraft may cause issues for people on the ground.

The most common TFRs are due to natural disasters and evacuation attempts.

Other reasons for these restrictions may be because the President or another high official is traveling in an area, an event has the potential to cause congestion in the air, or any type of hazard would be worsened by nearby aircraft.  

One special-use airspace that applies solely to drone pilots is within National Parks. The National Park Service has also banned all drone operations within National Park boundaries in the United States.

Most people would love to fly a drone over the Grand Canyon or capture the beauty of a herd of bison in Yellowstone, but those activities are strictly prohibited.

Permits are unavailable to the public and are given only on rare occasions to commercial operators who would benefit the parks in some way.

Special Use Airspace and drones #

Drones are becoming more and more popular around the world, and you are reading this because you already know that.

Special-use airspaces have been around long before drones because they apply just as much, if not more to manned aircraft. Understanding the difference between the rules of drones and airplanes can be tricky, but it is possible.

Special-use airspaces are one of those areas. Most of the time, the same rules apply to drone pilots because the reason the warnings or restrictions exist is due to safety concerns that often become more dangerous the lower altitude an aircraft is.

For example, an MOA is in place due to military training operations or weapons testing which would cause problems for any size of aircraft.

The best way to go about special use airspaces is to contact the controlling agency (the nearest control tower will be aware of who that is) and request permission with specific details of the flight.

Always be conscious of pilots in the area and be prepared to give them the right of way no matter the area.

Conclusion #

The four designations of special use airspace are prohibited, restricted, MOA, and alert. Each one consists of different regulations and often requires permission to fly.

Never fly a drone if you’re unsure of the rules and restrictions active in an area. Consult apps designated to indicate fly zones and FAA control towers to determine the best course of action and safe places to fly.

These areas will typically be present on apps such as B4UFLY to notify pilots of any flight restrictions present in certain areas.

Be smart when flying and plan flights ahead of time to know where authorization is required and where it is appropriate to fly without it.


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