Thursday, September 23, 2021

Person of the Week

Attorney Jennifer Sills Yoxall Hopes to Help Operators Navigate Drone Law

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As an attorney and an instrument-rated small airplane pilot, Guilford resident Jenifer Sills Yoxall has been charting new territory as one of the few local attorneys familiar with drone laws, and hopes to help others navigate some of the more important aspects of drone operation. She’s shown here with her plane on Block Island, Rhode Island during a family trip. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Sills Yoxall

As an attorney and an instrument-rated small airplane pilot, Guilford resident Jenifer Sills Yoxall has been charting new territory as one of the few local attorneys familiar with drone laws, and hopes to help others navigate some of the more important aspects of drone operation. She’s shown here with her plane on Block Island, Rhode Island during a family trip. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Sills Yoxall)

As an attorney and an instrument-rated small airplane pilot, Guilford resident Jenifer Sills Yoxall has been charting new territory as one of the few local attorneys familiar with drone laws, and hopes this story will help recreational and commercial drone flyers navigate current and evolving regulations and other important aspects tied to drone operation.

Whether launching a drone from your backyard to catch a sunset or maneuvering a drone on the job, all drones are aircraft flying in the National Airspace System and subject to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, and for good reason, as Jen explains.

On a very serious note, “even relatively small drones can take down manned aircraft, causing serious injury and possibly death,” says Jen, who corresponded with the Courier, provided an interview, and shared documents with information for this story.

There are many missteps a drone operator can make that may lead to unintended consequences, and the FAA takes all of them seriously, she adds, giving the example of a recreational drone pilot who was just subjected to a proposed FAA fine topping $182,000.

According to DroneXL.co news (dronexl.co), in early November 2020, a Philadelphia drone pilot going by the moniker “Mikey” received 123 FAA infractions of up to $1,500 each for various violations (such as flying over 400 feet, reckless flying, and flying in the rain, fog, and in strong winds) for a total in civil penalties adding up to $182,004.

In addition, the laws governing drone operation continue to evolve and change, Jen notes. For example, the FAA will soon be implementing Standard Remote Identification of drones, “which will ultimately apply to many drone pilots,” says Jen.

Two Types of Drone Flying

There are two kinds of drone flying, and it’s very important to know which kind you’re doing, says Jen. One group includes those who take out their drones for recreational flying, including educational groups. For this group, the FAA has hobby laws. The other group, commercial drone operators (who don’t need to earn money from the flights to be considered as such) need to have a remote pilot certificate (14 CFR part 107) and are subject to additional FAA regulations.

“If you just fly for fun, it’s recreation. As soon as you fly in connection with a business, whether you get paid for it or not, such as whether you’re paid for the pictures you took or not, if it’s used in connection with a business, that flight is commercial, and you need a Part 107 license and you’re subject to all the Part 107 laws,” says Jen, who also recommends any educator leading a school drone group gets the Part 107 certificate.

Consider a broad range of commercial drone operators—from those assisting real estate groups to those photographing events, providing views for construction companies and marketing materials, or other programs for businesses—and the big picture on who needs to get that certificate, and seek applicable aviation insurance, begins to come into focus.

“If somebody is using a drone in connection with their business, they absolutely have to know what they’re doing, or hire somebody who does,” says Jen.

There are, of course, some rules that apply to everyone, such as staying away from emergency scenes.

“Another important consideration for drone pilots, hobby or commercial, is not to fly over emergencies,” Jen adds. “You can prevent first responders from doing their jobs, putting the people they are trying to help at risk, and you can put the first responders at risk by flying too close or distracting them.”

Have a Safe Recreational Flight

While the intricacies of drone law are many, with the warm weather approaching, it’s a good time for recreational drone flyers to bone up on laws that apply to operating their small craft safely and within regulations. For starters, operators need to always keep the drone in sight (usually within a quarter mile to less than half a mile). Their drone should be flying at or about 400 feet and never fly through or above clouds. Drones can’t fly over people, moving vehicles, public events, or emergencies. Never fly near manned craft and stay out of controlled airspaces.

“Controlled airspace is typically within a five-mile radius of airports like Tweed-New Haven or larger,” Jen explains. “It’s easy to find out if you’re within controlled airspace by using the free B4UFly app.”

FAA airspace restrictions are also available on the B4UFly app and are provided through community based organizations such as the Academy of Model Aeronautics (www.modelaircraft.org).

Jen also points out that recreational flyers may not recognize that drones of a certain weight, 0.55 pounds or greater (the weight includes any ounces added by equipping it with a camera, etc.), must be registered, with registration number marked on the outside. It costs $5 to register online at FAA Drone Zone (faadronezone.faa.gov.)

Municipal Drones and Your Town

One of Jen’s recent efforts to assist others in the area of drone law has been to share her insights on laws governing municipal drones. In June 2020, Jen presented a webinar hosted by Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM), Municipal Drone Programs: FAA Legal Requirements and How to Protect the Public, Your Program, & Your Personnel.

With drones rapidly coming online as tools for public safety operations and more uses, more towns and cities are owning and operating drones. That means new responsibilities and knowledge is needed to ensure drone programs don’t expose a town to liability from the likes of personal injury, property damage, or FAA enforcement actions.

“Running a successful drone program means complying with FAA regulations that are unfamiliar to many people,” Jen points out, in an overview of the CCM presentation. “And it means running the program in a way that doesn’t compromise governmental immunity or insurance coverage.

In other words, “they really need to be sure their insurance covers their operations,” she says.

Her presentation, which can be viewed at www.ccm-ct.org/MunicipalDrones061820, reviews three different legal frameworks for operating a drone program, considers the pros and cons of each, outlines safe program basic elements, gives an overview of applicable FAA regulations (as of June 2020), and highlights the most likely ways to “inadvertently jeopardize the liability protections typically available to municipal departments and individual employees,” she notes.

“They need a program operations manual, training and time for their operators to train, and they need to know the laws, and they need to know when the laws change,” Jen adds.

A prime example of the need to keep up with the latest FAA regulations as a commercial/municipal drone pilot is a new FAA regulation that just become effective last week.

“Currently, many commercial and municipal drone pilots are allowed to fly at night because they have obtained what’s called a Part 107.29 daylight waiver from the FAA,” she notes. “Pursuant to new FAA regulations effective as of March 16 of this year, all of those waivers automatically expire on May 17, 2021 regardless of the expiration date identified on the waiver.”

Those operators who want to continue flying at night must take recurrent training that will become available from the FAA on April 6.

Standard Remote ID Rules Will Apply

Standard Remote ID is on the way for most every U.S. drone operator. The FAA program becomes effective as of April 2021, and in use as compliance law beginning September 2022 for manufacturers, and September 2023 for drone pilots.

“With limited exceptions, all drones will have to broadcast information about the flight, every time they take off,” Jen explains of the new remote ID rules.

The information will need to be broadcast from all craft (with the exception of “very light drones”) to allow for tracking of drone flights, so that its location, altitude and control station will be known—and also will be available to the public to track, using an app.

“Anything beyond very light toy drones will be subject,” says Jen of the ID program. “Beginning in September of 2023, you will either need to fly a drone from a manufacturer with equipment that complies, or you will need to retrofit your drone with a broadcast module, or you will be limited to a federally approved field, which are the fields like the ones the model aircraft fly at.”

Taking Flight

A couple of years back, in the course of her work as an attorney with Carmody, Torrance, Sandak & Hennessey based in New Haven, Stamford, and Waterbury, “an email came through asking if anyone knew anything about drone law,” says Jen, who decided to learn as much as she could.

“It’s a totally new area of law that, unless you’re a manned pilot, you probably have no interest in. It’s a lot of FAA regulations. It’s stuff I think is really cool,” says Jen, who has been piloting a small airplane for many years.

A Guilford native (GHS Class of 1983) who moved back to town from Durham as an adult, Jen met her husband, Bill, thanks to their shared love of flight. Jen and Bill, a Sikorsky engineer, are both instrument-rated pilots and fly their small plane frequently out of Chester.

“What’s really great is we always fly together, so there’s an extra pair of eyes,” says Jen. “And as an engineer, my husband totally understands how everything works, which is nice!”

Like many pilots, they also share their experience with other pilots in conversation. Jen’s hoping to bring that idea forward to further assist municipalities using drone operators.

“We call it ‘hangar flying’ in manned aviation, when you sit around the hangar talking about flying,” says Jen. “One of the things I’d like to do is a quarterly hangar talk for municipalities [that] use drones. It’s just so much fun to talk about it with other people that have had different experiences, and the technology is constantly changing.”

Drone hangar talk can also be the place to pick up tips from other drone operators. Before signing off, Jen shares this one, thanks to working with some clients who operate drones as part of an animal rescue group as well as speaking with experienced first responder drone operators: During searches, infrared cameras on drones can track heat in areas of cover such as woods, while fluorescent collars also help pets to be spotted via drone.

“So if you have a dog that’s subject to bolting, Fido needs a fluorescent collar,” says Jen.

This story has been updated to correctly state drones of 0.55 pounds or greater must be registered (instead of 0.55 ounces, as originally reported); and to include a new date announced for when FAA recurrent training becomes available, which is now April 6, 2021.


Pam Johnson covers news for Branford and North Branford for Zip06. Email Pam at p.johnson@shorepublishing.com.

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