When is a Drone Visual Observer Required

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Whether you are flying commercially or for fun, having a buddy with you to act as a visual observer is always a good idea. Piloting a drone is actually a pretty stressful situation. Between looking at the drone, the controls, and the screen, and people randomly approaching you and asking questions, there are a lot of things seeking the attention of a drone pilot.

Having a visual observer with you takes off some of the stress of being a drone pilot, ultimately making it a safer and more fun activity. Read on as we discuss what makes a good visual observer, and how you yourself can be a good visual observer.

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Why would you need a visual observer?

Ideally, a drone pilot should always pay attention to the drone and its immediate surroundings. Realistically, this is very hard to pull off. The mere act of the pilot having to switch between looking at the drone, the controller, and the camera feed means that there will be moments when they are not looking at the drone.

This is where having a visual observer will come in handy. A visual observer is dedicated to maintaining visual contact with the drone and its surroundings. This leaves the remote pilot free to focus on flying, or on taking photos or videos.

What does Part 107 say about having a visual observer?

Apart from generally being a good idea, having a visual observer is recommended by Part 107 under specific circumstances. According to Section 107.31, the remote pilot in command or a visual observer is required to maintain visual line-of-sight contact with the drone at all times. If a drone pilot is unable to maintain visual line-of-sight with the drone, such as when the pilot is doing FPV flight, then a third-party visual observer will essentially be needed.

The basic duties of a visual observer are outlined in Section 107.33. The regulations require the visual observer and the remote pilot in command to maintain effective communication at all times. It is their joint responsibility to ensure that the visual observer is able to see the drone’s altitude, direction, and any airspace hazards which may cause an accident. This means that the responsibility of the visual observer extends beyond monitoring the drone itself, but also scanning the surroundings to identify any potential collision hazards.

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What are the basic requirements of a visual observer?

The first quality of a visual observer cited by Part 107 is for the visual observer to be of sound physical and mental condition to perform their duties. This means that a visual observer cannot be under the influence of alcohol or drugs which may hinder their senses or mental faculties.

A visual observer must be able to perform their duties with unaided sight. This means no binoculars. Even with a visual observer, the remote pilot-in-command cannot fly the drone beyond the allowable 3 statute mile range.

Both the drone pilot and the visual observer cannot be responsible for more than one unmanned aircraft at a time. This rule is pretty self-explanatory. However, given the right technology, this is a rule that can be waived upon approval of the FAA.

The visual observer is required to maintain communication with the remote pilot-in-command at all times. This can be done be done by positioning the visual observer near the remote pilot so that they can hear each other’s comments and commands. However, the FAA does not require that the visual observer to stand next to the pilot. This opens the possibility of the visual observer and remote pilot being located far from each other and communicating by walkie-talkie’s.

What are the responsibilities of a visual observer?

A remote pilot and a visual observer may come up with a unique system of shared responsibilities that work for them, but in many situations, the visual observer is responsible for the following items:

  1. Knowing the Part 107 regulations, and ensuring that the remote pilot in command flies within the legal limits
  2. Know about the usual airborne and ground hazards
  3. Know how weather conditions affect drone performance, and be able to recognize when the weather conditions render drone flight unsafe
  4. Constantly scan the immediate surroundings of the drone to identify potential hazards, and notify the remote pilot in charge of the presence of such hazards
  5. Direct the remote pilot in charge as needed to avoid accidents
  6. Relay any relevant information promptly and accurately to the remote pilot in charge
  7. Focus on nothing else but on visual monitoring of the drone.

Tips on being a good visual observer

When flying with a visual observer, establishing trust between the drone pilot and the visual observer may take some time to develop but is highly essential. To facilitate this process, these are the best tips to be a good visual observer.

1. Develop a common language

The drone pilot and the visual observer must be able to communicate on the same level of language. Even before takeoff, both pilot and visual observer must agree on the reference point of directions being relayed: will they be in reference to the drone or in reference to the pilot? Are they on the same page with regards to the forward and backward direction?

This is probably the most important tip, as effective communication between visual observer and pilot is probably the most essential factor in safe drone flight.

2. Be a proficient drone pilot

It’s not absolutely necessary, but it would be a great help if the visual observer was a similarly skilled drone pilot. It eases the process of developing a common language, and the visual observer will know how different issues may affect drone performance. The visual observer may even take over piloting duties if the pilot gets in a pinch.

3. Be aware of Part 107 regulations

Part of the responsibilities of a visual observer is knowing when the drone is flying outside of legal limits. This means that the visual observer must have an understanding of the Part 107 rules and restrictions. The observer does not have to be a licensed drone pilot – a short orientation from the remote pilot in charge should do.

4. Keep binoculars on hand

The Part 107 requirements for visual observers specify that a visual observer must be able to maintain visual contact without any sort of aids such as binoculars. However, it would not hurt to have binoculars on hand just in case a drone gets too far away to be visible.

5. Have 2 visual observers

For extra safety, you may even consider having 2 visual observers – one to monitor the drone, and another to monitor the surroundings. This can be useful if you are flying in an area that requires airspace authorization, as manned aircrafts can come it at anytime and you have to be able to spot them quickly and react.

Final thoughts

Experience has taught many seasoned drone pilots that it is a bad idea to fly a drone alone. Between controlling the drone, getting the best angle for your photo, and any number of ground-based distractions, maintaining full visual contact with the drone is just impossible. This renders the pilot unable to anticipate hazards and react quickly to avoid accidents.

Having a visual observer is a good idea for safety whether you are flying commercially or for leisure. Visual observers are essential during commercial drone flights, as the pilot will usually be busy with doing other tasks, such as shooting a video or operating the mapping equipment. Flying for leisure can be a bit more relaxed, but the same elements of distraction will still be there, along with all the hazards.

The FAA is cognizant that not all drone pilots have the luxury of having a buddy to act as visual observer, and so it has not dictated any circumstance where a visual observer will be absolutely required. Technically, you will not be violating any laws when flying without a visual observer.

You can consider this as a guideline that the community has collectively agreed on in the interest of safety. After all, safety is still everyone’s responsibility, legally required or otherwise.