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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.

goggles designed to provide a 'first-person view' from the model," the proposed rule states. "Such devices would limit the operator's field of view thereby reducing his or her ability to see-and-avoid other aircraft in the area. Additionally, some of these devices could dramatically increase the distance at which an operator could see the aircraft, rendering the statutory visual-line-of-sight requirements meaningless."

The wording earned the FAA the scorn of Boing Boing because it could apply to even small toy drones.

Like the model aircraft enthusiasts, the ITIF sees "having someone stand on the side and watch the device as a bystander" as a reasonable safety precaution, consistent with the intent of Congress that the FAA take "community guidelines" into account.

The dividing line between hobbyist and commercial uses of small unmanned aircraft is also at issue. Again, the FAA thinks the dividing line is clearly whenever any money changes hands. The agency offered these examples:

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Critics suggest it will be too easy to trip over that line, however. "If someone takes a picture from a drone or model airplane then sells that picture, they can be dinged with a huge fine," McQuinn said. "There is no difference from a safety perspective for a hobbyist to fly a friend a package and not charge for it, whereas if a company flies a package to the same person and charges for it, that would be illegal, they could be charged a huge fine. We argue that it's no different."

The Academy of Model Aeronautics argues the interpretation of what constitutes a hobbyist use is inconsistent with other FAA rulings and those of other agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service. "For instance, an individual who owns and operates his own full-scale aircraft for his personal pleasure and recreation is allowed to conduct aerial photography as a private civil operator whether or not he/she intends to sell the photographs. However, under the Interpretive Rule, a model aircraft enthusiast who uses his model aircraft for aerial photography and subsequently sells the photograph to an interested party is no longer considered a hobbyist. Moreover, the IRS would not allow the deduction of the operating expense and aircraft acquisition cost based merely on the sale of a photograph. The IRS will also tell you that a business that is recreational in nature and does not turn a profit over time is in fact a hobby."

The FAA declined a request for an interview with the authors of the rule, but provided a written statement arguing that it was merely providing needed clarification of how it will interpret the law, not imposing new restrictions. "While flying model aircraft for a hobby or recreation does not necessarily require FAA approval, all model aircraft operators must operate according to the law," the FAA states.

Part of ITIF's argument is that the FAA should restrict itself to regulating for legitimate safety issues and not get too far ahead of rapidly developing technologies. "Our position is we shouldn't regulate for potential harms," McQuinn said. As complications arise, rules can be devised to address them, he said.

Safety is not necessarily the only issue in play. The domestic use of drones has also provoked privacy concerns, which have been the subject of other proposed legislation. An FPV drone could fly into a neighbor's backyard and peer through the bedroom windows. Might not avoiding such scenarios have been in the minds of those in Congress who voted for that "line of sight" restriction?

McQuinn argued the language is open enough to allow the FAA to be more permissive in allowing the use of technology such as FPV. The privacy issues might not be the FAA's concern in any case. Politico recently reported that the Obama administration is preparing an executive order making the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an arm of the Commerce Department, responsible for regulating that aspect of drone operations.

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