Drones and Space Launches
By Rebekah Waters, FAA UAS Integration Office
People of my generation probably remember the feeling of excitement and anticipation when a teacher rolled the TV cart into the classroom on launch day. We all joined NASA command in the countdown at “T minus ten,” and the room erupted with cheers as the shuttle lifted off. Watching a space launch used to be a rare and special occasion. Today, space launches have become so common that many of us don’t think twice about them, and I can’t remember the last time I stopped what I was doing to join in on the countdown.
With the increase in the number of commercial space launches (we’re averaging more than one per week), what does this mean for drone pilots? It means learning about the dangers and restrictions of flying near a commercial (or any) space launch site.
Getting your drone in the air for that perfect shot or video of a space launch may seem super tempting. In fact, it’s so tempting that many traditional aircraft pilots try to do this very same thing! Although it’s understandable as to why it makes sense to keep traditional aircraft away from active launch sites, it may seem as if drones would pose a smaller risk. After all, most drones are very small, with no pilots aboard, so what harm could they actually do?
Actually, drones do pose a significant risk to launch operations. They can interfere with or disrupt the launch, and if a drone collided with the rocket, it could result in significant damage.
Commercial space launches are complex operations that require a lot of planning, preparation, and coordination. The FAA establishes temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) around launch sites to restrict the operation of drones and other aircraft for everyone’s safety and as a matter of national security. The TFRs extend vertically and laterally from the launch site. Their shape can vary depending on the specific launch operation and typically extend several miles in all directions.
According to FAA Aviation Safety Inspector Tim Beglau, the restricted airspace area isn’t arbitrary. Based on past incidents as well as safety requirements, the airspace restrictions are large enough to protect the launch zone and also the area that might be part of a mishap investigation if things don’t go as planned. If you fly your traditional aircraft or drone in these restricted areas, you risk losing your pilot certificate, being fined, and possibly face criminal charges.
It’s important for drone pilots to understand the restrictions surrounding commercial space launch sites. The consequences of flying near a space launch can be severe. It could cause the operator to scrub the launch or possibly create a launch mishap.
If you plan to fly near a location used for commercial space launches, it is vital that you check for NOTAMs online, by calling 1–800-WXBRIEF, or by using the B4UFLY app. The FAA may establish TFRs as early as forty-eight hours or as late as six hours before a launch and they may remain active up to two hours after a launch. Operating a drone within a TFR requires specific approval, usually granted through the special governmental interest waiver (SGI) process.
By checking for airspace restrictions and following the rules and regulations, drone pilots can help ensure the safety and success of commercial space launches.
Rebekah Waters is a senior communications specialist in the FAA’s UAS Integration Office.