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FAA Rules On Drones Vs. Model Aircraft Protested

Proposed FAA dividing line between model aircraft and drones is too limiting to hobbyists, says the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and Academy of Model Aeronautics.

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Proposed FAA rules would define model aircraft too narrowly and commercial drones too broadly, The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) protests in comments filed with the agency.

The Federal Aviation Administration is currently accepting comments on its Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft, which attempts to clarify the distinction between a model aircraft and a drone. Model aircraft are minimally regulated, as opposed to commercial unmanned aircraft, a category for which the rules are still being written.

The ITIF is a prominent technology think tank, in a league with the RAND Corporation, with IT industry backers that include Google and Cisco. Google has bought a couple of drone manufacturers and is exploring how unmanned aircraft might fit into its operations. Hobbyist groups such as the Academy of Model Aeronautics are also protesting the proposed rules, but the ITIF's motivation is more to avoid choking off avenues for experimentation and innovation. The position paper makes a comparison with early rules limiting the Internet to noncommercial uses, which if not changed would have prevented the emergence of the whole online economy.

"We try to argue for policies surrounding the idea of permissionless innovation," Alan McQuinn, principle author of the ITIF's comments, says in an interview. In other words, the FAA should not create rules that prevent revolutionary applications of the technology from being created in some tinkerer's garage, he says.

[Should we worry? Read Wearables, Drones Scare Americans.]

Although the Federal Aviation Administration recently began approving the first commercial drone flights over land on a case-by-case basis, guiding regulations are required to help companies seeking to take advantage of technology understand what is and is not legal, as a rule. Under the FAA Modernization Act of 2012, Congress charged the agency with drafting rules for the commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems by September 2015. The agency has expressed confidence it will meet that deadline, although the FAA's own inspector general's office doubts it.

Meanwhile, the proposed model aircraft rule is an early indication of how the FAA will interpret the provision of the law exempting model aircraft from tight regulation and allowing them to be governed mostly by voluntary guidelines of the hobbyist community.

Drone pilot with video goggles, assisted by a spotter.(Image: FPV Pilot by Patrick McKay via Wikimedia Commons)
Drone pilot with video goggles, assisted by a spotter.
(Image: FPV Pilot by Patrick McKay via Wikimedia Commons)

Technological advances driven by the proliferation of military surveillance and killer drones, as well as by model aircraft manufacturers and hobbyists, mean there is no longer a sharp distinction between a drone and a model aircraft. Thus the FAA considers a model aircraft to be a type of unmanned aerial system (UAS), drawing distinctions based on the size of the vehicle, as well as how it is used. A UAS consists of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV or "drone") plus all the remote control gadgetry.

Some parts of the law seem unambiguous. For example, in order to fall into the model aircraft category a vehicle must weigh less than 55 pounds. The FAA did clarify that the weight includes payload -- you couldn't legally operate a 30-pound aircraft carrying a 30-pound block of cheese to your picnic and claim the hobbyist exemption.

However, the rules also state that the aircraft must be operated within the "line of sight" of the pilot, and there the FAA and its critics have a difference of opinion. Model aircraft enthusiasts want to be able to use first person view (FPV) goggles, the increasingly popular accessories that allow the pilot to see through drone camera eyes. In the absence of a ruling to the contrary, groups such as the Academy of Model Aeronautics have suggested a workaround of having FPV pilots work with a copilot, or spotter, who will keep an eye on the aircraft, side-by-side with a goggle-wearing pilot. Now, the FAA is saying that its "plain language" interpretation of the law is that the pilot should be watching the aircraft with his own eyeballs.

"To ensure that the operator has the best view of the aircraft, the statutory requirement would preclude the use of vision-enhancing devices, such as binoculars, night vision goggles, powered vision magnifying devices, and

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David F. Carr oversees InformationWeek's coverage of government and healthcare IT. He previously led coverage of social business and education technologies and continues to contribute in those areas. He is the editor of Social Collaboration for Dummies (Wiley, Oct. 2013) and ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Ninja
7/28/2014 | 10:12:27 AM
LoS part, okay. Commercial part, huh?
The line of sight part makes sense to me. Reduces the chance of collisions I would think.

The commercial/non commercial part makes no sense to me at all. Not sure what problem that part is trying to solve.
User Rank: Strategist
7/28/2014 | 10:12:44 AM
Thank You Big Gubmint
Everything not mandatory is forbidden.
David F. Carr
David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
7/28/2014 | 10:21:11 AM
Re: LoS part, okay. Commercial part, huh?
If you're thinking commercial use of small drones / model aircraft should be unregulated, you'd have to take that up with Congress. The only lattitude FAA would have is exactly where to draw the line. I thought the hobbyist group quoted in the story made a reasonable point about one sale of one photo not being enough to qualify as a business in the eyes of the IRS, so maybe the FAA should allow some latitude there.
User Rank: Strategist
7/28/2014 | 10:55:08 AM
Not sure if these people know what they're doing...
The LOS part stinks.  Many model aircraft flyers go out by themselves. I wouldn't want the requirement to have someone to tag along if I had first person view equipment.  The advances in technology will far outstrip any laws these clowns want to write today.


I appears to me that the gov't is trying to figure out a way to get additional tax money from drones.  If people are flying them as a hobby, then it's a hobby.  If they use them in business, then they should be treated like trucks and cars currently used as business equipment.  The FAA should simply specify what space they can fly in - period.
User Rank: Ninja
7/28/2014 | 11:14:52 AM
I don't envy the FAA's task
For starters, it couldn't possibly be fun to try to apply existing statute to a brand new category of aircraft (acts of Congress tend to be horribly complex, but its the bureaucrats who get blamed for it).  Then we have the privacy concerns (imagine a drone controlled by a paparazzo), and public safety concerns (imagine a privately owned automated bomber).  And we have model aircraft hobbyists who don't want their options limited any more than they have to be.

This is definitely not a good time to be a rule writer for the FAA.

David F. Carr
David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
7/28/2014 | 1:35:53 PM
More objections to the FAA drone / model aircraft rule
Academics have their own objections to the lines the FAA is trying to draw:

Professors object to FAA restrictions on drone use - Associated Press - 
User Rank: Author
7/28/2014 | 2:58:18 PM
Re: More objections to the FAA drone / model aircraft rule
The photography questions with regard to drones have just started. We will need much more privacy protection as consumers than the current laws ever envisioned us needing.
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
7/28/2014 | 4:48:37 PM
Re: LoS part, okay. Commercial part, huh?
I actually sympathize with the FAA. Crafting rules to cover all the possibilities is thankless and there's no way to please everyone. 
User Rank: Ninja
7/28/2014 | 5:00:14 PM
Base Regulation on Who Manufactured the RC item
Putting the regulation of drones/hobby planes under the NTIA umbrella sounds practical in theory, NTIA is, after all, an arm of the Commerce Dept.,but then again, one of the agency's stated goals is to keep phone and cable TV affordable.  Anyone who subscribes to either utility knows that the NTIA has epically failed on that count.  All that being said, and in consideration of the gnashing of teeth from both opponents as well as advocates with regard to the FAA's criteria, the only solution with regard to regs is to distinguish between manufacturers - was it a consumer product oriented company selling RC hobbyist items, or a civilian contractor manufacturing drones? 
Paul Burnett
Paul Burnett,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/28/2014 | 11:58:40 PM
Re: I don't envy the FAA's task
"(imagine a drone controlled by a paparazzo)" Imagine a 12-gauge shotgun...
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