RC Flying and the Law in 2016

By Terry Dunn

2016 is a year for all RC pilots to be cognizant and proactive in order to preserve the hobby.

2015 was a year of unprecedented legal challenges for RC aircraft hobbyists. Numerous local governments around the US proposed laws intended to get a tighter grip on RC flying activities. The most far-reaching efforts affecting RC pilots took place on the national stage, within the halls of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Congress. Several of these nationwide debates are bleeding over into 2016.

The current legal situation is very fluid. Not only are we facing the prospect of additional regulations, but provisions that were previously secured for the modeling community are once again uncertain. Depending on how it all plays out, the impacts to aeromodelling could range from marginal to crippling. 2016 is a year for all RC pilots to be cognizant and proactive in order to preserve the hobby.

Decisions made in 2016 could have a big impact on the future of model aviation.

How We Arrived Here

RC flying existed for decades without any hint of intrusion from lawmakers or the FAA. The vast majority of flyers were members of clubs that provided safe flying locations, common-sense rules, and hands-on guidance for rookies. It was a system that worked exceptionally well to avoid any shenanigans.

The recent influx of GPS and auto pilot-equipped multi-rotor "drones" allowed RC-curious newcomers to bypass the traditional mentor-based training. By doing so, they also missed out on the related lessons regarding courtesy and safety. It wasn't long before news feeds became filled with stories of ignorant RC pilots doing ignorant (and dangerous) things.

There is no question that the FAA had to act before some wayward RC model caused a major incident. I don't know any modelers who disagree with the FAA taking action. The current friction between many RC pilots and the FAA has to do with the broad brush with which the agency has painted RC flyers. Their enacted and proposed policies to address renegade pilots reflect this monochromatic vision. They affect nearly everyone rather than just the troublemakers.

The FAA's drone registration system is now active (and mandatory), but it is still being challenged in court.

Quite naturally, many long-time hobbyists place blame for the current situation squarely on the new-fangled "drones" and the people who operate them. They would like nothing more than to dissociate from the drone pilots, and by doing so, detach themselves from whatever rules may emerge. It's a convenient fantasy, but not terribly likely to happen. Until the media and non-flying population makes a distinction between traditional RC modelers and drone pilots, any self-applied internal divisions are counterproductive. Like it or not, we're in this thing together.

One particular aeromodelling group that is trying to embrace drone pilots is the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA). This organization is actually older than the FAA and has traditionally been the voice of the aeromodelling community to the FAA and Congress. The AMA's stance is that educating new pilots is the key to keeping them out of trouble. Rather than abandoning the proliferating drone crowd, the AMA is reaching out to give them guidance whether they actually join the AMA or not. Of course, many separatist-minded AMA members do not support the organization's unified strategy.

Educating new pilots is vital to the survival of the hobby. It is a burden best handled at the local level.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that there is quite a bit of overlap between traditional aeromodelers and drone-pilots. I include myself in that group along with several of my local club mates. Current AMA membership stands at about 185,000 people. Yet, the FAA has reported more than 400,000 RC pilots have registered in their database. There is clearly room for more integration of the two groups. I think we're going to need all the unification we can get.

FAA Registration

Late in 2015, the FAA announced that it was implementing a registration system that would be mandatory for all pilots flying RC models of any type weighing more than 250 grams. That threshold captures that vast majority of RC aircraft. The FAA used some pretty creative logic to justify both the legality of their plan and their rushed, non-standard implementation. I won't rehash all of that drama here, but you can read about it if you're unfamiliar.

There is one legal challenge against registration working its way through the courts. It is currently one step away from the US Supreme Court. Even though I am already registered, I remain hopeful that this case will force the FAA the rethink their registration policy to make it more effective. We'll just have to wait and see how it pans out.

The deadline for pilots to register was February 19th. Although the system is now active, it is not yet fully operational. The FAA website states that it will eventually be adding a function where anyone can look up a pilot's contact information by their registration number. Law enforcement agencies are already supposed to have access to the data.

I recently read a thread on an RC advocacy forum that was posted by a sheriff's deputy who is also an RC enthusiast. According to the thread, this deputy's department received a call about a drone that had landed in someone's yard. The deputy responded to the call and retrieved the drone, which did have a properly displayed FAA registration number. No damage was caused to the homeowner's property, so the deputy's only intent was to return the drone and make sure that the owner was flying safely.

When the deputy contacted the FAA with the registration number, he was handed off to numerous departments. He was finally told that they were not yet able to trace registration numbers to the owner's contact information. Providing this traceability to law enforcement was precisely the FAA's justification for forcing pilots to register. I can understand working out bugs for the first few days, but the website has been operational since December 21st.

I think it's too early to tell with any certainty, but registration may be having a negative impact to hobby shop owners.

I don't know if the traceability hole has been closed by now. But if the example cited above is factual, I think it's reasonable to deduce that the FAA was being less than genuine with their supposed need to rush this plan into action. I stated previously that I would support registration if the FAA actually used it as a tool to combat rogue pilots. I'm still looking for evidence that the entire registration scheme is anything more than a thinly-veiled bogeyman meant to scare newcomers and dabblers away from the hobby.

I think it's too early to tell with any certainty, but registration may be having a negative impact to hobby shop owners. In a recent conversation with Cliff Whitney, owner of Atlanta Hobby, he indicated that he is seeing a definite downward trend. He is part of an association of small hobby shop owners. According to Whitney, the group has recorded a 70% reduction in RC aircraft sales since the FAA announced their registration policy last October. Sales of RC cars and boats, which are not affected by the registration plan, have remained steady.

Interestingly, other RC business have seen continued growth during the same period. Flite Test's Austin Furey told me that he has not seen any dip in sales of the company's DIY airplane kits. Perhaps this is because they offer several designs that can be built below the FAA's weight threshold. It would be interesting to see what dynamics are driving the conflicting sales trends.

2016 FAA Reauthorization Bill

This flowchart from the AMA illustrates the path that the 2016 FAA Reauthorization Bill must take before it becomes law (AMA image)

Every few years, Congress keeps the FAA intact by passing a reauthorization bill that provides funding and asserts priorities for the agency. During negotiations for the currently active reauthorization bill (2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act) there were numerous indicators that the FAA was poised to implement new policies for model aircraft flyers. The AMA was instrumental in getting section 336 implemented into the bill. Among other things, this "Special Rule for Model Aircraft" specifically forbade the FAA from introducing new rules for aeromodelers.

The very clear wording and intent of section 336 did not stop the FAA from doing precisely what they were supposed to avoid. An analysis by drone attorney Jonathan Rupprecht outlines the FAA's recent legal acrobatics. The point, however, is moot since Congress thus far seems uninterested in calling the FAA's insubordinate bluff.

A new FAA reauthorization bill is now being hashed out in Congress. The approval process makes it tough to predict what the final bill might contain (where is Schoolhouse Rock! when you need it?). The House of Representatives and the Senate each have their own versions of the bill. Once both versions have been passed in their respective chambers, a committee will be convened to iron out the differences and create a new singular bill. Both chambers will then vote on this bill before the president signs it into law.

As far as modelers are concerned, the current House bill is business as usual. It contains the same special rule as the 2012 bill. That said, the AMA is trying to have the wording beefed up to close any loopholes that could be exploited by the FAA. The current Senate version of the 2016 bill is a different beast. While it contains the special rule for model aircraft, it also has additional provisions that could be problematic.

All About Altitude Limits

The first contentious aspect of the Senate bill is a proposed altitude ceiling of 400 feet for all modelers, everywhere, all the time. You may be thinking that there is already a 400-foot ceiling, since that figure is often thrown around. But that isn't necessarily the case. The AMA's Chad Budreau had this to say about the existing altitude guidelines:

"We promote 400 feet as a ceiling to the general public. Hobbyists who fly in compliance with Section 336, are permitted to fly above 400 feet as long as they abide by the safety code of an organization like the AMA. Sailplanes naturally will exceed 400 feet and may continue to fly above 400 feet as long as the pilot abides by the AMA policies and does not interfere with full-scale aircraft."

For most hobbyists, a hard 400-foot ceiling is of no consequence. As Flite Test's Furey put it, "You're really having the most fun below 100 feet." I tend to fly most of my models low and close, so I don't disagree. At the same time, we have to recognize that there are aspects of the hobby where staying below 400 feet would be a deal-breaker. Large gliders and turbine-powered models immediately come to mind.

While most RC models have no problems operating below 400 feet, sailplanes and jets need a little extra altitude.

I'm not aware that these types of models have ever caused an incident with full scale air traffic, so why should they be needlessly shut down? The pilots of these types of models are typically among the most skilled and experienced from our ranks. Their safety record is not a fluke. These guys and gals know what they're doing.

Remember, we're all in this together. If we allow sailplanes and jets to be squashed with no justifiable cause, it would set an irreversible precedent. Your favorite part of the hobby could be next on the chopping block. Giving up one sacrificial lamb is just the first step to losing the whole flock.

Bring Your #2 Pencil

FAA-based testing could be yet another daunting government hurdle that potentially scares away people interested in the hobby.

Another controversial aspect of the Senate's current FAA bill is a requirement for modelers to take and show proof of passing a knowledge test. Everyone agrees that imparting wisdom to newcomers is critical. As stated previously, educating rookies remains a core principal of most RC clubs. At the same time, the FAA's credibility with modelers continues to decline. There is considerable doubt that the FAA's approach to testing would be of much value. At a minimum, FAA-based testing would be yet another daunting government hurdle that potentially scares away people interested in the hobby.

So what is the best way to educate the flying masses? I don't know. I think that I could get behind a policy similar to that used for amateur radio. The Federal Communications Commission requires aspiring amateur radio license holders to pass a test, but the agency delegates the testing to local ham radio clubs. This makes the test a low-key, unintimidating event and it introduces new folks to their local experts. In fact, many clubs offer test prep sessions. You don't have to join the club before or after taking the test, but you get some insight into what they do and how they operate.

Cash or Credit?

The Senate bill offers some guidance regarding commercial use of drones. While the rules are separate than those for hobbyists, I think that it is important for all of us to keep tabs on the commercial side as well. Many RC pilots and companies in the RC industry are involved with both the hobby and commercial aspects of drones. Policies that directly impact one side could have effects that bleed over to the other side as well.

One proposed rule would require FAA airworthiness certification for any model used for commercial purposes. If the Senate's goal is to put a chokehold on innovation in this blossoming field of aviation, I think they've nailed it. The certification process for full-scale aviation is a lengthy and costly endeavor that adds significantly to the end user's cost. Implementing the same level of rigor to unmanned aircraft would erase a good portion of their intrinsic benefits.

Many new and helpful commercial applications for drones are being hashed out by small companies. One proposed rule could cripple this grassroots innovation.

Many of the companies making positive headway on developing practical commercial applications for drones are small startups. By necessity, they are building or tweaking their aircraft to meet specific needs. These companies have every incentive to ensure that their aircraft are safe and reliable, even without the FAA mandating such.

When we talk about commercial use of drones, it goes far beyond any aerial package delivery concepts. There are many much more practical applications. Using drones for things such as crop management and traffic analysis would enhance existing efforts in those fields at a fraction of the cost of manned aerial assets.

Cliff Whitney talked at length about the municipal agencies that envision benefits from commercial drones. For example, firefighters could use drones equipped with infrared cameras to detect hot spots in fires and adjust their strategy accordingly. This could potentially improve fire-fighting efforts while reducing the risks to firefighters. The technology exists, but FAA rules for usage do not.

If the certification requirement holds, only the companies that can afford the certification process will produce commercial drones…think Boeing and Lockheed-Martin. Some people believe that the rule in the senate bill is a direct result of lobbying efforts by those companies. Then again, there are always conspiracy theories that try to demonize how Congress does what it does. Who knows what to believe? Whatever the source of the certification proposal, it's hard to imagine that it would have anything other than a disastrous effect to small, innovative drone businesses.

Be Proactive

I think I speak for most RC flyers when I say that we clearly recognize the threat posed by irresponsible and rogue drone pilots. We'd love nothing more than to have the egregious offenders dealt with quickly and decisively while we provide guidance to the rest. My personal gripe is not that the FAA and Congress are doing things meant to mitigate risks, but rather the imprecise way they are doing them.

2016 is going to be a pivotal year for RC hobbyists. Congressional voting on the 2016 FAA Reauthorization Bill has been postponed until at least this summer. The legislation could be reshaped significantly in that time. Be sure that you keep tabs on what is going on and weigh in at every opportunity. If you have not already called your elected representatives, do so now and tell them how you feel. Just don't be passive!

Terry spent 15 years as an engineer at the Johnson Space Center. He is now a freelance writer living in Lubbock, Texas. Visit his website at TerryDunn.org and follow Terry on Twitter: @weirdflight