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The Drone Rules That Never Became Law
A Weird Time for Drone Operators
Last week saw the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act become law, and the new legislation has quite a few implications for people who fly small drones or model aircraft as a hobby. Before diving into the latest changes, it’s worth reviewing how the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has regulated such things in the past.
Way back in 1981, the FAA issued an “Advisory Circular” that provided guidance for people flying model aircraft. Most modelers considered those guidelines reasonable enough, but if you didn’t conform to them, it was no big deal—they weren’t rules, just recommendations. So, for example, if you flew a model sailplane and caught a thermal that took it more than 400 feet off the ground, the FAA really couldn’t object that you were in violation of its advice to keep lower.
The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 clarified the picture somewhat, because it included Section 336: Special rule for model aircraft. That section essentially said that the FAA may not regulate model aircraft. It did, however, restrict the definition of model aircraft to something that was flown purely for recreational purposes and was kept within the line of sight of the operator. It further restricted the FAA’s hands-off posture to models that weigh less than 55 pounds, aren’t being flown near an airport, and are “operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization.” That last clause has been interpreted various ways, but clearly reflects the interest of organizations like the Academy of Model Aeronautics.
A key part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 was the distinction it made between model airplanes and helicopters being flown for fun and other small unmanned aircraft being operated for commercial purposes. The latter category, that law made clear, was subject to FAA regulation. A 2014 “interpretation” issued by the FAA also expressed the position that flying “within the line of sight” meant the operator was looking at the aircraft, not using video goggles to fly by FPV, or first-person view, by which the pilot controls the model using video from an onboard camera.