FAA’s Drone Registration System Struck Down For Hobbyists

The US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has struck down a rule requiring recreational drone users and model aircraft pilots to register their drones with the FAA.

This began when [John Taylor], an RC hobbyist and attorney, filed suit against the FAA questioning the legitimacy of the FAA’s drone registration program. This drone registration began early last year, with the FAA requiring nearly all drones and model aircraft to be registered in a new online system. This registration system caused much consternation; the FAA Modernization And Reform Act of 2012 states, ““…Federal Aviation Administration may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft…”, defining model aircraft as any unmanned aircraft flown within visual line of sight for hobby or recreational purposes. Despite this mandate from Congress, the FAA saw fit to require registration for every model aircraft weighing between 0.55 and 55 pounds, regardless of the purpose of its flight.

In our coverage of the FAA’s drone registration program, we couldn’t make heads or tails of the reasons behind this regulation. In addition to the questionable legality of this regulation, there are questions over the FAA’s mandate to regulate anything flying under the 400 foot ceiling cited in the FAA’s rules. The question of safety is also open — a 2 kg drone is likely to cause injury to a passenger on a commercial flight only once every 187 million years of operation. In short, the FAA might not have the mandate of managing the air traffic, certification, and safety of the nation’s airspace when it comes to model aircraft.

While the Circuit court struck down the rule for registration concerning model aircraft, this still only applies to small (under 55 pounds) planes and quads flown within line of sight. Commercial drone operators still fall under the purview of the FAA, and for them the drone registration system will stand.

Don’t Like the FAA’s Drone Registration? Sue Them!

When the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began requiring registration of quadcopters (“drones”) in the US, it took a number of hobbyists by surprise. After all, the FAA regulates real 747s, not model airplanes. [John Taylor], an RC hobbyist, has done what you do when faced with a law that you believe is unjust: he’s filed a lawsuit in the DC District Court, claiming that the FAA has overstepped their mandate.

Which one is the "aircraft"?
Which one is the “aircraft”?

The lawsuit will hinge (as legal battles often do) on the interpretation of words. The FAA’s interpretation of quadcopters to be “aircraft” rather than toys is at the center of the dispute. Putting hobbyists into a catch-22, the FAA also requires recreational RC pilots to stay under a height of 400 feet, while requiring “aircraft” to stay above 500 feet except for emergencies, take-off, or landing. Which do they mean?

The editorial staff at Hackaday is divided about whether the FAA ruling makes no sense at all or is simply making hobbyists “sign their EULA“. This writer has spent enough time inside the Beltway to know an expanse of a mandate when he sees it, and no matter which body of the US government is to blame, regulating toy planes and helicopters as if they were commercial aircraft is an over-reach. Even if the intentions are benign, it’s a poorly thought-out ruling and should be revisited.

If you agree, you now have the chance to put your money where your mouth is. The DC Area Drone User Group is putting together a legal defense fund to push [Taylor]’s case. Nobody would be cynical enough to suggest that one can buy the legal system in the US, but, paraphrasing Diamond Dave, it sure as heck can buy a good enough lawyer to get the law changed.

FAA Finalizes Rules For Drones, UAS, and Model Aircraft

The FAA and DOT have finalized their rules for small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS, or drones), and clarified rules for model aircraft. This is the end of a long process the FAA undertook last year that has included a registry system for model aircraft, and input from members of UAS and model aircraft industry including the Academy of Model Aeronautics and 3D Robotics.

Model Aircraft

Since the FAA began drafting the rules for unmanned aircraft systems, it has been necessary to point out the distinction between a UAS and a model aircraft. Thanks to the amazing advances in battery, brushless motor, and flight controller technology over the past decade, the line between a drone and a model aircraft has been fuzzed, and onboard video systems and FPV flying have only blurred the distinction.

The distinction between a UAS and model aircraft  is an important one. Thanks to the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2012, the FAA, “may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft” under certain conditions. These conditions include aircraft flown strictly for hobby or recreational use, operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines (read: the safety guidelines set by the Academy of Model Aeronautics), weighs less than 55 pounds, gives way to manned aircraft, and notifies the operator of an airport when flown within five miles of a control tower.

Despite laws enacted by congress, the FAA saw it necessary to create rules and regulations for model aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds, and operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines. The FAA’s drone registration system doesn’t make sense, and there is at least one pending court case objecting to these rules.

The FAA’s final rules for UAS, drones, and model airplanes change nothing from the regulations made over the past year. If your drone weighs more than 250 grams, you must register it. For model aircraft, and unmanned aircraft systems conducting ‘hobbyist operations’, nothing has changed.

Unmanned Aerial Systems

The finalized rule introduced today concerns only unmanned aircraft systems weighing less than 55 pounds conducting non-hobbyist operations. The person flying the drone must be at least 16 years old and hold a remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating. This remote pilot certificate may be obtained by passing an aeronautical knowledge test, or by holding a non-student Part 61 pilot certificate (the kind you would get if you’d like to fly a Cessna on the weekends)

What this means

Under the new regulations, nothing for model aircraft has changed. The guys flying foam board planes will still have to deal with a registration system of questionable legality.

For professional drone pilots – those taking aerial pictures, farmers, or pilots contracting their services out to real estate agents – the situation has vastly improved. A pilot’s license is no longer needed for these operations, and these aircraft may be operated in class G airspace without restriction. Drone use for commercial purposes is now possible without a pilot’s license. This is huge for many industries.

These rules do not cover autonomous flight. This is, by far, the greatest shortcoming of the new regulations. The most interesting applications of drones and unmanned aircraft is autonomous flight. With autonomous drones, farmers could monitor their fields. Amazon could deliver beer to your backyard. There are no regulations regarding autonomous flight from the FAA, and any business plans that hinge on pilot-less aircraft will be unrealized in the near term.

DJI Phantoms are now ‘drones’

This is a quick aside, but I must point out the FAA press release was written by someone with one of two possible attributes. Either the author of this press release paid zero attention to detail, or the FAA has a desire to call all unmanned aircraft systems ‘drones’.

The use of the word ‘drone’ in the model aircraft community has been contentious, with quadcopter enthusiasts making a plain distinction between a DJI Phantom and a Predator drone. Drones, some say, have the negative connotation of firing hellfire missiles into wedding parties and killing American citizens in foreign lands without due process, violating the 5th amendment. Others have classified ‘drones’ as having autonomous capability.

This linguistic puzzle has now been solved by the FAA. In several places in this press release, the FAA equates ‘unmanned aircraft systems’ with drones, and even invents the phrase, ‘unmanned aircraft drone’. Language is not defined by commenters on fringe tech blogs, it is defined by common parlance. Now the definition of ‘drone’ is settled: it is an unmanned, non-autonomous, remote-controlled flying machine not flown for hobby or recreational use.

FAA Reauthorization Bill Includes Provisions For Hobbyists

Every year, Congress passes bills directing the funding for various departments and agencies. Sometimes, this goes swimmingly: congress recently told NASA to attempt a landing on Europa, Jupiter’s ice-covered moon. Sometimes, it doesn’t go as well. The draft of the FAA Reauthorization act of 2016 (PDF) includes provisions for drones and model airplanes amid fears of privacy-encroaching quadcopters.

As would be expected, the 2016 FAA Reauthorization act includes a number of provisions for unmanned aerial systems, a class of aircraft that ranges from a Phantom quadcopter to a Predator drone. The draft of the act includes provisions for manufacturers to prevent tampering of modification of their product, and provide the FAA with a statement of compliance, and prohibit these devices from being sold unless these conditions are met.

For a very long time, the Congress and the FAA have had special rules for model aircraft. Since 2012, the special rules for model aircraft have been simple enough: model aircraft are flown for hobby or recreational use, must operate in accordance with community-set safety guidelines, weigh less than 55 pounds, give way to manned aircraft, and not be flown within five miles of an airport. The 2016 FAA Reauthorization bill adds several updates. No model aircraft may be flown higher than 400 feet above ground level, and the operator of a model aircraft must pass a knowledge and safety test administered by the FAA. Under this draft of the FAA Reauthorization bill, you will have to pass a test to fly a quadcopter or model plane.

While this is only a draft of the 2016 FAA Reauthorization bill, there is a considerable risk flying model planes could quickly go the way of amateur radio with a Morse requirement for the license. This, of course, is due to Congress’ fears of the impact drones and model airplanes could have on safety, despite recent studies that show a 2kg drone is likely to cause injury to a human passenger once every 187 million years of operation. In other words, politicians don’t understand statistics.

FAA Rescinds Drone Ban Around DC

Late last year, the FAA expanded a Special Flight Rule Area (SFRA) that applied to Unmanned Aerial Systems, drones, and RC airplanes around Washington DC. This SFRA was created around the year 2000 – for obvious reasons – and applies to more than just quadcopters and airplanes made out of foam. Last December, the FAA expanded the SFRA from 15 nautical around a point located at Reagan National to 30 nautical miles. No remote-controlled aircraft could fly in this SFRA, effectively banning quadcopters and drones for six million people.

Today, the FAA has rescinded that ban bringing the area covered under the Washington DC SFRA to 15 nautical miles around a point inside Reagan National. This area includes The District of Columbia, Bethesda, College Park, Alexandria, and basically everything inside the beltway, plus a mile or two beyond. Things are now back to the way they were are few weeks ago.

The 30-mile SFRA included a number of model flying clubs that were shuttered because of the ban. DCRC is now back up. The Capital Area Soaring Association worked with the FAA and AMA to allow club members to fly.

Of course, limitations on remote-controlled aircraft still exist. For the most part, these are rather standard restrictions: aircraft must weigh less than 55 pounds, fly below 400 feet line of sight, and must avoid other aircraft.

Anti-Drone Mania Reaches Panic Levels for Superbowl

According to this report at FOX News Technology, the FAA may use “deadly force” against your remote-controlled quadcopter, ahem, “drone” if you’re flying within a 36-mile radius of the Super Bowl this weekend. We call shenanigans on using “deadly” for things that aren’t alive to begin with, but we have no doubt that they intend to take your toys away if you break the rules. We are curious to see how they’re going to do it, though.

sect_6_6446The actual Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) has the details, and seems pretty comprehensive. You can’t fly your sea plane or go crop dusting either. Model rocketry is off the table within the circle on Sunday afternoon. It tickles our superiority-bone to note that only “drones” made the headlines.

But we also see our loophole! The ban only extends from the ground’s surface up to 18,000 ft (5,500 m) above sea level. (No, we’re not thinking of flying quadcopters in tunnels under the stadium.) They didn’t rule out high-altitude balloon flight over the Super Bowl? Don’t even think about it.

On the other hand, those of you near the game should count your blessings that you don’t live within 30 miles of the US Capitol and spend the day drone racing.

Continue reading “Anti-Drone Mania Reaches Panic Levels for Superbowl”

Surviving the FAA Regulations: Modelers Move Indoors

New FAA rules are making radio-controlled aircraft a rough hobby to enjoy here in the USA. Not only are the new drone enthusiasts curtailed, but the classic radio-controlled modelers are being affected as well. Everyone has to register, and for those living within 30 miles of Washington DC, flying of any sort has been effectively shut down. All’s not lost though. There is plenty of flying which can be done outside of the watchful eye of the FAA. All it takes is looking indoors.

Continue reading “Surviving the FAA Regulations: Modelers Move Indoors”