Drones come in a vast assortment of sizes and shapes.
Like most things, we have developed a Drone variation for just about everything. From delivering packages to walking the dog and even saving people’s lives. It comes and no surprise that FAA rules have lagged behind technology’s steady race forward. For anything resembling an issued FAA rule on Drones you have to start at this Advisory Circular issued on June 9th 1981.
It basically lays down the rules for “model aircraft operators”. Most of them are common sense things responsible fliers would do anyway.
For example: “Do not operate model aircraft in the presence of spectators until the aircraft is successfully flight tested and proven airworthy.”
Then there is the 400 ft AGL flight restriction. “Do not fly model aircraft higher than 400 feet above the surface. When flying aircraft within 3 miles of an airport, notify the airport operator, or when an air traffic facility is located at the airport, notify the control tower, or flight service station.”
Next we have the FAA’s Fact Sheet – Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)
This claims that AC 97-51 “only applies to modelers”
Recreational use of airspace by model aircraft is covered by FAA Advisory Circular 91-57, which generally limits operations to below 400 feet above ground level and away from airports and air traffic. In 2007, the FAA clarified that AC 91-57 only applies to modelers, and specifically excludes individuals or companies flying model aircraft for business purposes.
FAA, it would have been nice of you to actually link to the notice in your new article. But I found it anyhow. So now we take a look at the FAA’s “Notice of policy” that it issued by posting it in the federal register on February 6th, 2007.
“The current FAA policy for UAS (Drones) operations is that no person may operate a UAS (Drones) in the National Airspace System without specific authority. For UAS (Drones) operating as public aircraft the authority is the COA, for UAS (Drones) operating as civil aircraft the authority is special airworthiness certificates, and for model aircraft the authority is AC 91-57. The FAA recognizes that people and companies other than modelers might be flying UAS (Drones) with the mistaken understanding that they are legally operating under the authority of AC 91-57. AC 91-57 only applies to modelers, and thus specifically excludes its use by persons or companies for business purposes.”
What is the National Airspace System? Good question!
Here is what Wikipedia says it is:
The National Airspace System (NAS) of the United States is one of the most complex aviation systems in the world—consisting of thousands of people, procedures, facilities, and pieces of equipment—that enables safe and expeditious air travel in the United States and over large portions of the world’s oceans.
The NAS requires approximately 14,500 air traffic controllers, 4,500 aviation safety inspectors, and 5,800 technicians to operate and maintain services. It has more than 19,000 airports and 600 air traffic control facilities. In all, there are 41,000 NAS operational facilities. In addition, there are over 71,000 pieces of equipment, ranging from radar systems to communication relay stations. On average, about 50,000 flights use NAS services each day.
A flight through the NAS typically begins and ends at an airport which may be controlled (by a tower) or uncontrolled. On departure, the aircraft is in one of the six classes of airspace administered by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and different flight rules apply to each class. Depending on the class of airspace and flight conditions, communication with controllers may or may not be required.
Ok so what are these airspace classes? Glad you asked.
from the same Wikipedia page:
In the United States, airspace consists of classes A, B, C, D, E, and G. The NAS includes both controlled and uncontrolled airspace.
Class A begins and includes 18,000 ft. MSL and continues up to 60,000 ft. MSL. It is the most controlled airspace and requires a pilot to carry an Instrument Flight Rating and proper clearance no matter what type of aircraft is being flown. Pilots are also required to change their altimeter settings to 29.92 in. to ensure all pilots within the airspace have the same readings in order to ensure proper altitude separation.
Class B airspace extends from the surface up to 10,000 ft. AGL and is the area above and around the busiest airports (e.g., LAX, MIA, CVG) and is also heavily controlled. A side view of Class B airspace resembles an upside-down wedding cake with three layers becoming bigger toward the top. Class B’s are designed individually to meet the needs of the airport they overlay. Pilots must also receive clearance to enter the Class B airspace but Visual Flight Reference may be used. Class B airspace corresponds to the area formerly known as a Terminal Control Area or TCA.
Class C airspace reaches from the surface to 4,000 ft. AGL above the airport which it surrounds. Class C airspace only exists over airports which have an operational control tower, are serviced by a radar approach control, and have a certain number of instrument flight operations. Class C is also individually designed for airports but usually covers a surface area of about 5 nautical miles around the airport up to 1,200 ft AGL. At 1,200 ft. the airspace extends to 10 nautical miles in diameter which continues to 4,000 ft. Pilots are required to establish two-way radio communications with the ATC facility providing air traffic control service to the area before entering the airspace. Within Class C, Visual and Instrument pilots are separated.
Class D airspace exists from the surface to 2,500 ft. AGL above an airport. Class D airspace only surrounds airports with an operational control tower. Class D airspace is also tailored to meet the needs of the airport. Pilots are required to establish and maintain two-way radio communications with the ATC facility providing air traffic control services prior to entering the airspace. Pilots using Visual Flight Reference must be vigilant for traffic as there is no positive separation service in the airspace. This airspace roughly corresponds to the former Airport Traffic Area.
Class E airspace is the airspace that lies between Classes A, B, C, and D. Class E extends from either the surface or the roof of the underlying airspace and ends at the floor of the controlled airspace above. Class E exists for those planes transitioning from the terminal to enroute state. It also exists as an area for instrument pilots to remain under ATC control without flying in a controlled airspace. Under visual flight conditions, Class E can be considered uncontrolled airspace. Airports without operational control towers are uncontrolled airfields. Pilots in these areas are responsible for position and separation and may use a specified Common Traffic Advisory Frequency or UNICOM for that airport, although no-radio flight is also permitted.
Class G airspace is completely uncontrolled airspace which extends from the surface to either 700 or 1,200 ft. AGL depending on the floor of the overlying Class E. In the vicinity of an uncontrolled airport, the CTAF for that airport is used for radio communication among pilots. In remote areas other frequencies such as MULTICOM are used. No towers or in-flight control services are provided although communications may be established with flight service stations which are not part of the NAS.
When these airspace classes were introduced it caused a firestorm with the model and hobby aircraft groups, they demanded the FAA do something to allow them to fly legally. This is why we have AC 91-57. Fast forward 33 years and now we are repeating history all over again. The FAA has had fair warning this was coming. They were well aware of the rise in Drone popularity back in 2007 when they issued that policy notice.
On Thursday Jim Williams, head of the FAA’s unmanned aircraft office, told attendees of the Small Unmanned Systems Business Exposition conference that new rules for Drones under 55 lbs were not going to happen any time soon. “Although it seemed that this could be done faster than the 7-10 year horizon for rulemaking, it did not appear to offer any realistic opportunity for commercial operation in the near future.”
Many people have been frustrated with the FAA’s slower than snail process of new rulemaking. And either choose to ignore the FAA or don’t know about the FAA’s Policy on Drones.
Pedro Rivera a 29-year-old journalist who flew a drone 175ft over a car crash was recently suspended from his job at WFSB-TV in Hartford, Conn. after local Police complained to the station manager. Even though the video never aired, and he wasn’t on the clock. On February 18, Rivera filed a lawsuit against the Hartford Police Department and two of its officers, alleging violation of his First and Fourth Amendment rights.
Raphael Pirker who flew his Drone around University of Virginia campus on October 17th, 2011 was fined $10,000 by the FAA. Pirker and his attorney fought the FAA claiming, “There are no federal regulations that govern the operation of model planes due to the FAA’s failure to hold any notice-and-comment rulemaking period before issuing the ban.” In an unusual twist the NTSB agreed and overturned the FAA’s fine. The FAA appealed. However, on Tuesday a group of large media companies, including the Associated Press, New York Times, McClatchy, Hearst , Cox, National Press Photographers Association, National Press Club, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and others, filed a “Friend of the Court” brief in support of Pirker. Then on Wednesday Patrick Geraghty, the administrative law judge for the NTSB dropped a bombshell on the FAA stating “there was no enforceable FAA rule” on the type of aircraft Pirker flew.
So since the NTSB has ruled that there is no enforceable FAA rule, the FAA has fallen back to the 1981 AC 51-97. Meaning fying a model aircraft (Drones) “solely for hobby or recreational reasons” doesn’t require approval, but hobbyists must operate according to 1981 guidelines, such as staying away from populated areas, the FAA said.
It is interesting to note that the 1981 FAA guidelines make no mention regarding compensation for the flight of a model aircraft.
Can the FAA really regulate drones in the first place? Tim Adelman an Attorney and Leonard Ligon a Drone expert try to answer this question with a white paper they wrote together entitled, “The Law and Operating Unmanned Aircraft In the US National Airspace System”
There is not a defined and analyzed body of law applicable to UAS (Drones). While regulations currently exist on how aircraft shall operate in the NAS, the regulations do not intuitively apply to UAS (Drones). By working closely with the FAA, the government will be able to obtain guidance regarding approved methods of alternative means of compliance with “see and avoid” and other applicable regulations. And by working closely with local FAA Air Traffic offices such guidance will be invaluable in creating a safe government UAS (Drone) program.
While the FAA is certainly within its authority to comment on airworthiness and airman qualifications, the ultimate responsibility rests with the government user that will lease or own, and ultimately operate the UAS (Drones). Therefore, it is important for the government to develop its own comprehensive program that trains the users to fully understand the policies and procedures for operating UAS in any class of airspace within each user’s area of responsibility.
What can you do to keep you and your Drone out of trouble? How should the FAA handle Drones? To be continued…