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.
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Congress, however, is working on a definition of model aircraft that is at least 10 years out of date and doesn’t have any leeway for the huge advances in technology that have happened since then.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.