High Altitude Weather Balloon Laws and Regulations

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Update (4/16/17): On June 21, 2016, the FAA released Part 107 regarding Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). Under 101.7(b)2, the FAA has clarified that weather balloons under Part 101 do not fall under the new UAS/drone laws. The blog post below has been updated to reflect this new guidance, removing the need for any drone registration numbers, etc.


Although High Altitude Balloon (HAB) launches can be fun and educational, care must be taken to abide by the governing laws and regulations to ensure the safety of pilots and those that may be impacted by the launch and landing. Below are [our interpretations] of the applicable laws and regulations that apply to High Altitude Weather Balloon launches.

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Laws and Regulations

Always check for the latest updates at the links below to ensure that the Laws and Regulations listed below are up to date:

Here is a summary of the applicable rules and regulations that apply to your weather balloon. Note that the standard HAB BOM design as presented in our previous blog post complies with all standards listed herein, as long as the steps of our User Guide are followed without modification.

  1. Any Cellular Phones must be turned off (Airplane mode enabled) for any aircraft and/or balloon as soon as it leaves the ground.
    1. Our tracking software has a Launch-detect mechanism built into the software will put the tracking cell phone into Airplane mode automatically after launch, and will wait to disable Airplane mode until landing.
  2. Any individual payload must weigh less than 4 pounds and have a weight-to-size ratio of less than 3.0 ounches/square inch (total weight of the payload only divided by its smallest face).
  3. Any individual payload/package must be less than 6 pounds.
  4. Total payload of two or more packages carried by one balloon must be less than 12 pounds total.
  5. The balloon cannot use a rope or other device for suspension of the payload that requires an impact force of more than 50 pounds to separate the suspended payload from the balloon.
  6. No person may operate any balloon in a manner that creates a hazard to other persons, or their property.
  7. No person operating any balloon may allow an object to be dropped therefrom, if such action creates a hazard to other persons or their property.
  8. No person may operate any unmanned free balloon in a manner that creates a hazard to other persons, or their property.
  9. No person operating any unmanned free balloon may allow an object to be dropped therefrom, if such action creates a hazard to other persons or their property.

If any of the above regulations from Part 101.1 are not met (e.g. payload is heavier than 6 lbs.), then FAA Regulation Part 101 Subpart D applies. Make sure to abide by the above rules so that you do not have to comply with all of Subpart D, but it is still recommended to review Subpart D of prior to launch as it offers great protocol to follow as a precaution (visibility requirements, Air-Traffic Control notification, etc.).

As long as the above criteria in #2-5 above are met, no prior notification to the FAA is required; however, we always strongly encourage issuing a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) by contacting your local FAA Air-Traffic Control (ATC) within 6-24 hours prior to your launch and notifying them of: Intended launch date/time, launch location, estimated time to burst altitude or 60,000 feet (whichever is lower), expected duration of flight, estimated location of impact, and diameter or balloon and weight/length of payload.

If you are launching outside the Continental United States, make sure to look up your local FCC and FAA laws and regulations before undertaking any weather balloon launch.

Airport Proximity

Skyvector
Skyvector

We also recommend that you check out Skyvector to make sure that your launch and landing locations are out of controlled airspace whenever possible. Especially if you are near an airport, ensure that your launch location (which you have the most control over) is not in line with any takeoff or landing runways of the nearby airport.

If you are looking to see how to read these VFR (Visual Flight Rules) charts, the FAA has a good overview here. In the above image at Manchester (MHT) airport, the inner circle is 43/SFC (surface of the earth), meaning that it is controlled airspace from ground level to 43,000 ft in that circle. The outer circle of 43/25 means controlled airspace from 25kft to 43kft.

Lastly, remember to always use common sense; if you aren’t sure, ask! Once you have all the rules and regulations understood, you are ready to start your flight planning.

Next Post: Flight Planning

Note: This blog post is completely the opinion of the author(s) and should not be taken as official legal guidance. Always research yourself to ensure you comply with the most recent laws and regulations, and whenever in doubt, ask! We do appreciate any feedback and additional input on this topic so that we can share with the HAB community.