Droning On: Drone Aircraft Activists’ Arguments Unravel

On June 23, 2014, the FAA issued a Federal Register Notice for the operation of model aircraft (drone) aircraft. The Notice repeats the long-standing rules regarding operating model aircraft and addresses the new rules mandated by Congress—ironically, Rules necessitated by the risky actions of drone aircraft activists. The new rules include a prohibition on flight by video feed or immersive-headset flights (arguably, some of these issues might already be questionable under FCC radio  communications rules).

Drone Aircraft Activists Undermine the Model Aircraft Hobby

As I predicted, the drone aircraft activist camp, often with commercial objectives, has now undermined the long-standing, model aircraft hobby—ironically, something that the FAA artfully avoided for over 40 years.  Drone aircraft activist activities,at least in part in violation of the long-standing model aircraft guidance (posted in 1981), have now required both Congress and the FAA to act (and the FCC will need to act next) rather than take time to assess a complex issue. Now, few are happy—even the Academy of Model Aeronautics is unfortunately opposed to the new rules (again, that were necessitated by drone aircraft activists not following the voluntary guidelines and triggering Congressional action).

Drone Aircraft Issues Complex

The problems with drone aircraft are complex but are being driven by some simple issues:

  1. drone aircraft activists seem reluctant to respect the long-standing model aircraft rules and triggering more draconian action from the FAA and Congress (self-causing problems);
  2. drone aircraft companies, many not in the US, arguably mis-leading the public regarding the operation of these devices (implying that they are “legal” when the operation may not be legal);
  3. drone aircraft activists and apologists misconstruing the law and needlessly adding confusion; and
  4. failure to recognize that these devices are not-just-toys but pose real risks to the public without any real accountability on the part of drone aircraft operators (this was NOT the case with model aircraft hobbyists who unfortunately are now being dragged into the problem as I predicted).

For example, on June 27, 2014, the IEEE published an article entitled That Toy Is Now a Drone, Says the FAA. (see David Schneider, That Toy Is Now a Drone, Says the FAA, IEEE Spectrum (June 27, 2014). The author goes on to lament that a “toy” he purchased can no longer be operated and blames the FAA.

In his words, “huh?” This is exactly backwards.

First, Congress, not the FAA,  specifically defined model aircraft in the FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act of 2012 (Public Law 112-95) in response to activities of drone aircraft activists and long-standing model aircraft groups. Congress defined model aircraft in the new Section 336(c)(2) as an aircraft “flown within visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft.” Yes, this now means camera-based or fully-immersive control is not permitted because that is not line-of-sight—and fails  to even recognize whether flying a fairly heavy device at high speeds with short battery life with unknown resistance to radio interference and depending solely on a video feed was responsible or a good idea. Nevertheless, the line-of-site rule has been the law since 2012, so the real question is: why are vendors still selling these devices in the US?

The author goes on to cite Pirker as somehow relevant. In Pirker, a drone aircraft operator was cited and fined $10,000 for alleged reckless operation of an aircraft—such as for allegedly buzzing persons on the ground, operating a drone near a medical heliport, and other activities. First, Pirker is on appeal and is stayed and thus of no effect. Second, Pirker addressed operation of a drone aircraft in 2011 and thus before Congress’ 2012 revisions. Thus, even if Pirker would be upheld on appeal, which is highly doubtful, the application today is unclear because Congress changed the law after the alleged Pirker incidents. Third, the administrative law opinion in Pirker is unlikely, in my opinion, to be upheld on appeal—at least on grounds that such operation is not subject to general FAA regulations. Model aircraft have always been subject to FAA regulation and oversight, despite unfounded claims by some, because Congress’ definition of aircraft has always included model aircraft—and was even reaffirmed as recent as 2012 and was the reason for the original 1981 guidelines in the first place.

Some Drone Aircraft Activists Avoid Taking Responsibility

As I have written before, the drone aircraft issue is highly complex but often minimized by some drone aircraft activists. Issues of privacy, accountability (registration of drone aircraft, insurance), and reasonable safety (certification of components–which are now commonly just hobbyist-grade items, training of pilots, rules of operation, radio interference issues) remain elusive but necessary.  But, rather than taking the lead on these issues (as hobbyists did for decades), drone aircraft activists seem to want to ignore the issues and point fingers—and have now imperiled a well-respected hobby as well as jeopardized safety and privacy in communities. While it is easy to blame “the government” or “the FAA,” both vendors selling drone aircraft and drone aircraft activists themselves also bear direct responsibility for the problems. No one is saying drones should not be operated; but to do so with reckless disregard for safety and privacy and lack of accountability makes supporting drone aircraft activists a very hard sell.