FAA and Regulations

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are inherently different from manned aircraft. Introducing UAS into the nation’s airspace is challenging for both the FAA and aviation community, because the U.S. has the busiest, most complex airspace in the world. The FAA is taking an incremental approach to safe UAS integration.

UAS come in a variety of shapes and sizes and serve diverse purposes. Regardless of size, the responsibility to fly safely applies equally to manned and unmanned aircraft operations. The FAA is partnering with several industry associations to promote safe and responsible use of unmanned aircraft. Airmap has developed a low-altitude airspace management tool that shows the no fly zones around the country, as shown below. Be sure to check the map before you fly to make sure you’re flying within FAA regulations.

No Fly Zones

While thorough legislation concerning the operation of unmanned aerial systems (“UAS”) by the United States Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) is pending review and slated for release early 2016, the FAA has already released a set guidelines which they request the operators of model aircraft follow in the interim. This article will examine both the existing law surrounding the operation of aircraft such as the DJI Phantom and Inspire, as well as guidelines set by the FAA concerning the matter.

The statutory parameters of “model aircraft,” as well as existing regulations concerning their operation, are outlined in Section 336 of Public Law 112-95, or the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. An excerpt of this statue, which includes all relevant sections, may be found here.

A UAV may qualify as a model aircraft if it is capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere, is flown visually within line of sight of the person operating the aircraft, and is flown for hobby or recreational purposes. The operation of model aircraft is protected so long as the aircraft in question complies with all statements found in Section 336 paragraph (a). In summary, the model aircraft must be flown strictly for hobby or recreational use, must be operated in compliance with community safety guidelines, must not exceed 55 pounds, and must not be flown within five miles of an airport without prior approval from the appropriate bodies. So long as a UAV complies with all the statements listed in Section 336 (a), it may not be subject to further regulation by Public Law 112-95, and may be operated in any manner that the user chooses. (112-95 Sec. 336 (a))

However, a November 2014 NTSB ruling in the case Administrator v. Pirker (2014), declared that the regulation given by 112-95 concerning “model aircraft” does not exempt model aircraft from the general category of “aircraft,” in the sense that “an ‘aircraft’ is any device used for flight in the air” (Administrator v. Pirker, 2014). The FAA and other bodies therefore may have the ability to enforce their regulations surrounding the use of aircraft, which are far more expansive and complex than those listed in 112-95 Sec. 336, to all operators of model aircraft. The full text of this ruling can be found here, while a summary of the ruling by Forbes here.

Consequences of the NTSB’s ruling in Pirker (2014) include the fact that operators of model aircraft and drones may no longer be exempt from the regulation concerning the operation of aircraft in general, should they find themselves receiving a complaint from the NTSB or any other governing body. Because of this risk, the FAA has issued further guidelines to the operators of model aircraft, including UAVs, to protect them from being fined or charged. These guidelines may be found here. In summary, operators of model aircraft are strongly encouraged to fly their aircraft below 400 feet, maintain a visual line of sight with the aircraft, remain away from airports, people, and stadiums, and not fly their aircraft carelessly or recklessly.

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