Monday, June 23, 2014

Federal Aviation Administration Targets Reckless Hobbyists in First Rules for Drones

To corral a surge in incidents of reckless, recreational drone use, the U.S. government barred flights of small unmanned aircraft near airports and crowds.

People who want to fly drones as hobbyists should take lessons on safe operation and keep the aircraft within their line of sight, according to a Federal Aviation Administration notice released today. The limits apply to recreational drones weighing less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms).

While the action doesn’t set rules for commercial drone flights, it marks the first attempt to codify restrictions for a burgeoning category of aircraft that the FAA has had difficulty policing. It was important to clarify what type of drone use the FAA considers dangerous, said Rebecca Byers MacPherson, the agency’s former assistant chief counsel for regulations.

“That is a big first step in terms of drawing clear jurisdictional lines for the use of the aircraft and the FAA’s ability to regulate,” MacPherson, who is now a lawyer in Washington at Jones Day LP, said in an interview.

The change is a result of “recent incidents involving the reckless use of unmanned model aircraft near airports and involving large crowds of people,” the agency said in a news release. The FAA is seizing on language in a 2012 law regarding hobbyists and unmanned aircraft.

The rules are set for publication in the U.S. Federal Register and take effect immediately, according to the agency.

Flying Safely 

As multiple-rotor copters and other drones have fallen in price, their use has grown rapidly. Websites such as contain scores of videos shot from drones flying over parks or urban areas that would violate the FAA’s rules.

“We want people who fly model aircraft for recreation to enjoy their hobby, but to enjoy it safely,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in the news release.

Recreational drones should weigh less than 55 pounds and shouldn’t be flown within five miles (8 kilometers) of an airport without notifying air-traffic controllers, the FAA said.

The FAA also plans to work with local law enforcement agencies and its own safety inspectors to better understand the rules and enforce them, the agency said in the release.

“We have a mandate to protect the American people in the air and on the ground, and the public expects us to carry out that mission,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in the release. 

Model Academy

 Unmanned aircraft larger than 55 pounds may be flown if they are certified as safe by a modeling club, the FAA said in a pamphlet on its new standards.

It also said model planes and helicopters should be flown at areas set aside by such clubs. These flying sites typically require members to have insurance and training.

The FAA’s standards closely follow those by the Academy of Model Aeronautics, the largest group representing such hobbyists in the U.S. The group’s safety code says pilots shouldn’t fly unmanned aircraft over “unprotected people, vessels, vehicles or structures.” 

The agency’s first attempt at enforcing rules against a drone operator was overturned March 6 by a judge who said the agency didn’t have legal authority over small unmanned aircraft. The FAA appealed the decision before the National Transportation Safety Board, which decides appeals of its enforcement actions.

The case against Swiss citizen Raphael Pirker may not be directly effected by the FAA’s latest rule. The agency charged he was being paid, which means it wasn’t a hobby flight. 


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