Guest Post: by John Goglia
FAA Role to Change for Hobbyists
Fast-forward to more recent times. For decades the FAA did not regulate hobby flying at all. Flying clubs—many under the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA)—had safety guidelines meant to ensure the safe operation of model aircraft and fueled many an aviation career. In 1981, the FAA put out an advisory circular suggesting some non-mandatory safety guidelines for flying model aircraft. Then, with the Pirker case, the FAA began its march to regulating model aircraft, culminating in the new federal aviation regulations applicable to anyone who flies a model aircraft regardless of its size or weight, location of flight and purpose (hobby or commercial). Yes, the new rules eliminate the long-standing hobby/non-hobby distinction and instead carve out from the “commercial” or Part 107 rules hobbyists who can comply with all of the Part 101 requirements. Sound easy? Well, it’s not. And the consequences for students and educators are significant.
For one thing, Part 101 requires that model aircraft remain in visual line of sight. The FAA has interpreted this to prohibit use of first-person-view (FPV) devices. This interpretation means that drone racers cannot fly FPV without a Part 107 certificate and meeting the requirements of Part 107 (which for FPV flying would include a visual observer). So while this erects a significant barrier to all drone racers—and from a safety perspective it should be noted that most racing drones are extremely small and light weight and flown at very low altitudes—it’s particularly burdensome to children under the age of 16. That’s because the age limit for a Part 107 certificate is 16.To fly FPV legally, children under the age of 16 would need both a certified pilot and a visual observer on hand each and every time they fly. Sounds like a lot of government red tape to race a tiny drone.
Drone Racing Also in Jeopardy of New Rules
Drone racing might not sound like a big deal, but it is a huge deal when it comes to getting kids interested in aviation. I’ve seen the excitement kids of all ages have in building and flying these drones. And the competition really fuels their interest. It’s an educator’s dream: a sport that has real math and science skills behind it, that gets kids away from their video games into the outdoors and that fosters teamwork and competition.
Other than the prohibition on FPV flying, the Part 101 rules apply only if you fly under the safety guidelines and programming of a community-based, national aeromodelling organization. No one really knows what that means. The FAA has said that the AMA meets this definition, but no one knows if that means you have to be a member. The FAA won’t say if any other organization meets this requirement. So people who don’t belong to the AMAmight not be able to fly under Part 101.
The other section that is difficult to comply with is the notification to airports and ATC within five miles of an airport. I’ve talked to several drone attorneys who tell me this section causes a lot of concern among their clients. The FAA has interpreted this notification requirement to apply to private airports, heliports and seaports, regardless of how often they’re used. Notification is no easy feat at many of these small airports. Even some quite busy airports have no one answering the phones. So if you try to notify but fail, does that constitute notification? Or if you operate after failing to get through to anyone, are you violating Part 107 and flying without a certificate?
FAA Combining Hobbyists With Commercial
The point of all this is that the FAA’s new rules put many hobby fliers and most teachers in the same regulatory group as commercial operators like Amazon and Google. The requirement for getting a certificate under Part 107 might not seem like much of a barrier to entry to most commercial operators but it could well be to most students (especially those who don’t meet the age requirement) and many teachers.
The solution I see—and one that Congress considered at one time—is a so-called micro UAS rule that would remove all this senseless red tape from the smallest drones, which have the least likelihood of any safety impact. Another alternative is an exemption for teachers and students participating in a school course or club.
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