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.

20 thoughts on “FAA Finalizes Rules For Drones, UAS, And Model Aircraft

  1. All someone needs to do is commercially produce a scaled up quad-copter which weighs more than 55 Lbs, at which point we can then point to all sub-55 Lb quad-copters as “Model” aircraft (since they will be the likeness of a larger commercially produced aircraft). At which point the “is this regulation legal” debate would be well and truly over.

    1. Actually, it’s airspace below 1200 ft AGL away from airports (non-private). When near a non-private airport, it has a ceiling of 700 AGL or doesn’t exist at all depending on the airport. If you are near a private airport, the ceiling for class G typically remains at 1200 AGL. In sparsely populated areas, class G can extend up to 14500 AGL.

  2. Sounds to me like we should take advantage of the fact they didnt regulate autonomous flight. Just make every drone autonomous, and our transmitter signals will just be “suggestions” that the drone can choose to follow.

    1. Don’t we still have an LOS (Line of sight) issue? I was playing around with idea of UAV but admit it gave me second thoughts about the UAV crashing and someone calling the police.

    2. One could argue that quadcopters are already that because the user does not control each motor directly, it simply instructs the on-board microcontroller which direction to move in and that decides (based upon internal sensors) exactly how it is going to move.

    3. The rule for autonomous flight is that the “pilot” must maintain line of sight to the craft. The FAA defines pilot as a human operator… in the case of an autonomous flight that would be the person who started the autopilot program…. or the person who started the automatic process that started the autopilot…. or the person who started the Rube Goldberg machine that starts the autopilot…

      There isn’t much loop hole there

      1. That’s how I understand it which really kills UAV autonomous flying unless you just want to watch fly around a field. If you watch some of these videos they are going 10s of thousands of feet and often tens of miles. No one is going to do anything until they crash and the person that finds it reports the UAV, Then the “pilot” can be charged and fined. That is my fear.

  3. Given that congress basically told the FAA to go regulate drones, and gave them the funding to do it (above and beyond what the FAA had asked for), it’s hard to argue they are going against Congress’s wishes.

    1. That’s my take of the issue The US Congress has two conflicting expectations of the FAA. The problem with this issue IMO is Congress, I don’t recall Benchoff ever pointing that out.

  4. ” Now the definition of ‘drone’ is settled: it is an unmanned, non-autonomous, remote-controlled flying machine not flown for hobby or recreational use. ”

    The general public will never stop calling anything with a camera and any kind of mobility a drone. Thanks fox news.

    1. I belive it’s basic human rights it violates, because, hey, let’s just fly to any point on earth an kill people there. No one (who would have the chance to stop us) will care as long as we take care not to kill any Freedom People.

      Sorry, just had to say I hate it if someone is complaining about remotely Killing people without any due process but specifically references americans in this complain. Who cares if they violate local law when they’re violating basic human rights.

  5. I keep seeing reporting that states that you must register your sUAV, drone or model aircraft. Has the registration requirement changed? Last I heard it is the owner/pilot that is registered.

  6. Care to provide chapter and verse for this claim:

    “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.”

    ???

    I’m not seeing that anywhere in the newly published docs… pilot certification (“remote pilot airman certificate”) is still required. There is no free pass, as far as I can tell. Please, prove me wrong.

Leave a Reply to Tom Brusehaver Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.