There is no denying that personal drones are in the public eye these days. Unfortunately they tend to receive more negative press than positive. This past weekend, there were news reports of a wildfire in California. Efforts to fight the fire were hampered when no less than five drones were spotted flying in the area. Some reports even stated that two of the drones followed the firefighting aircraft as they returned to local airports. This is the fourth time this month firefighting planes have been grounded due to unmanned aircraft in the area. It’s not a new problem either, I’ve subscribed to a google alert on the word “Drone” for over a year now, and it is rare for a week to go by without a hobby drone flying somewhere they shouldn’t.
The waters are muddied by the fact that mass media loves a good drone story. Any pilotless vehicle is now a drone, much to the chagrin of radio control enthusiasts who were flying before the Wright brothers. In this case there were two fields relatively close to the action – Victor Valley R/C Park, about 10 miles away, and the Cajun Pass slope flying field, which overlooks the section of I-15 that burned. There are claims on the various R/C forums and subreddits that it may have been members from either of those groups who were mistaken as drones in the flight path. Realistically though, Victor Valley is too far away. Furthermore, anyone at the Cajun pass flying site would have been fearing for their own safety. Access requires a drive through 3 miles of dirt road just to reach the site. Not a place you’d want to be trapped by a wildfire for sure. Who or whatever was flying that day is apparently lying low for the moment – but the problem persists.
Rules and Regulations
In the USA, the FAA rules are (finally) relatively clear for recreational drone operations. The layman version can be found on the knowbeforeyoufly.org website, which was put together by the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), and other groups in partnership with the FAA.
About a month ago, the FAA – the governing body for nearly everything that flies in US airspace – proposed an interpretation of their rules governing model aircraft. The world hasn’t ended quite yet, but if the proposed rules go into effect, an entire hobby will be destroyed in the United States. While congress has given the FAA authority over nearly everything that flies, there are specific laws saying what the FAA has no jurisdiction over – model aircraft being one of the major exceptions.
Congress, however, is working on a definition of model aircraft that is at least 10 years out of date and doesn’t have any leeway for the huge advances in technology that have happened since then. Specifically, all FPV flight with video goggles would be banned under the proposed FAA rules. Also, because model aircraft are defined as being for, ‘hobby or recreational purposes,’ anyone who flies a model aircraft for money – a manufacturer conducting flight tests on a new piece of equipment, or even anyone who records a video of their flight, uploads it to YouTube, and hits the ‘monetize’ button – would be breaking the law.
The proposed FAA rules for model aircraft are not in effect yet, and you can still make a public comment on the proposal until 11:59 PM EDT Friday. If you leave a comment, please make a well-reasoned statement on why the FAA’s interpretation of the rules governing model aircraft are overly broad, do not take into account technological advances made since the drafting of Congress’ working definition of ‘model aircraft,’ and the effects of a complete ban flying model aircraft for any type of compensation.
Of course, if the proposed rules for model aircraft go through, the only option will be to turn to the courts. Historically, the FAA simply does not lose court cases. Recently, cases involving drones have come up with successful defenses and judges deciding in favor of drone operators. The legal services for the eventual court case challenging the proposed FAA rules will most likely be funded by the Academy of Model Aeronautics, who just so happen to be offering membership at 50% off.
Below is a video of some RC people we really respect – [Josh] from Flite Test and [Trappy] of Team BlackSheep – talking about what the proposed rule change would do to the hobby. There’s also a great podcast featuring the first lawyer to successfully defend drone use in federal court that’s worth a listen.
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