=== Laws ===
disclaimer: I'm no lawyer. The advice you are about to read is from information gathered from the internet and talking to others experienced in the field.
Why is following the law important?
Picture this: you launch your balloon project into the air. Suddenly a 747 flies by and your project gets sucked into a jet engine, causing it to explode. The plane crashes taking all 300 passengers on board with it. Still having fun?
Ok, so the chances of that happening are very slim, plus jet engines are tested with frozen chickens... I mean, safety test engineers literally shoot frozen chickens into running jet engines to make sure they can handle flying through flocks of birds without problems.
More likely it'll cause planes to be redirected to avoid that strange blip on the radar.
Picture this: you launch your balloon and have a successful flight. It then lands, and as you're driving to it, you discover it fell into a restricted area. I dunno, like Camp David, the White House lawn, Area 51, or some other military base, etc. You'll be damn sure to have men in black show up at your door... or at least the FBI or CIA or whatever paying you a visit for violating restricted air space.
The following sections have been worded like an FAQ to answer your most pressing issues in a non-boring manner. It'll likely squash your dreams, and definitely lack the Hollywood movie excitement that my intro above had.
Can I make it autonomously controlled?
A) isn't within your visual range
Supposedly anything which changes course with seeming randomness puts fear into air traffic controllers.
Can I launch near my city?
Simply put, operating out in the middle of no-where dramatically reduces the chances of any 'bad things' happening.
Make sure your launch location, the landing location, and the entire predicted flight path never goes within the cities bounds. This includes any and all airports in your area, too. If you don't trust your predicted flight path, drive even further away.
Can I do intercontinental flights?
But lets say those aren't issues . . .
To launch from country A, make sure you follow all the laws of country A. Draw out the flight path, then make sure your device is compliant by law for the next five or so countries it can passes through. In other words, you need to read and follow the laws of every single country your device might potentially pass through. Hopefully you can find the relevant laws written in English . . . reading legalese in English is hard enough, try reading legalese in French!
But alas, the problem here is that laws of each country can contradict the laws of others - especially when it comes to transmission frequencies. How do you fly in the US with one frequency and then in the Eurozone with another? Do you double the weight of your balloon to have transmitters for both frequencies, intelligently swapping as your balloon crosses borders?
Then again, I doubt police from France will arrest you at your home in Idaho for a balloon experiment. Unless maybe of course your balloon causes damage or casualties . . .
[put's on tin foil hat] On second thought, I on rare occasion read about countries that put you on their watch lists. As soon as you enter the country for vacation, they nab you at the border . . . [takes off hat]
Now for the more mundane stuff . . .
The Actual Laws
note: if that site ever goes down, I've made a local copy of it here.
For free floating balloons, both Subpart A General and Subpart D Unmanned Free Balloons must be read. It covers regulations defining weight and size limitations, material properties, popping requirements, requirements to notify the Federal Aviation Authority, etc.
And Some More Laws
FAR Part Section 91.119:
Except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below the following altitudes:
(a) Anywhere. An altitude allowing, if a power unit fails, an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface.
(b) Over congested areas. Over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement, or over any open air assembly of persons, an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft.
(c) Over other than congested areas. An altitude of 500 feet above the surface, except over open water or sparsely populated areas. In those cases, the aircraft may not be operated closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure.
More can be found on the FAA website. It mainly guides manned aircraft, however unmanned aircraft are subject to the same laws:
The FAA expressly forbids commercial usage of UAV's, period. You can't even sell imagery from a UAV. This limits UAV usage to only hobbyists. This may however change around August, 2014, when a planned '2 year moratorium' will go into effect. The above laws will likely experience change afterwards.
One may legally apply for testing of UAVs that violate certain laws. I've been told by a lawyer who specializes in UAV law that it requires a 'certificate of authorization,' which is a 25 page application and requires at least ~6 months to process. And fees.
Because Laws are Fun to Read!
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