Last week, details began leaking out from an FAA memo regarding their new position on recreational drone flights. Some voiced concerns that this latest move would not only kill hobbyist drone flying but could also spell changes for Part 107 operations as well. However, the reality might be much less concerning than initially suspected.
The Special Rule for Model Aircraft
For decades, hobbyist groups have been building and flying RC aircraft. The most prominent of hobbyist groups, the AMA, was founded in 1936 and has since developed a strong culture of safety and professionalism. Prior to the Ready To Fly (RTF) revolution spearheaded by companies like DJI, prospective pilots spent considerable time, energy, and money learning how to build and then fly aircraft with little (if any) autopilot capabilities. This extra effort created a barrier to entry that helped ensure only those serious about the hobby would be flying.
However, with flying a drone as simple as a trip to Best Buy and a few hundred dollars, the National Airspace has been flooded with millions of easy to fly drones. With only ~130,000 Part 107 Certificates issued, it’s safe to say that an overwhelming majority of those flying are doing so under Section 336, also known as the Special Rule for Model Aircraft. Because previous law restricted the FAA’s ability to govern the use of model aircraft, hobbyists had an exemption from the requirements of Part 107. This allowed traditional RC enthusiasts and hobbyist drone pilots to fly as long as they were flying under the programming of a Community Based Organization (of which the aforementioned AMA is the most well known.)
So, while the FAA believed that most would follow AMA rules and fly within AMA fields, there was one problem. The law did not outline, credential, or define a CBO, leaving a huge gap in the law. Now, anyone could claim ‘Section 336’ and operate with impunity with (in many cases) less restriction than those who bothered to get a Part 107 certification.
For example, while Part 107 pilots must first get approval (via LAANC or a WAA) to operate in controlled airspace, hobbyists simply had to notify any airport within 5 miles of their operating area. Some also used the Section 336 ‘Shield’ to justify flying at night without a waiver or exceeding the generally accepted 400ft. AGL limit on drone flights.
Almost daily, reports came in of drone operators flying across extended centerline or dangerously near tourist helicopters. While some of these might have been legitimate commercial operators, it is a safe bet that they were not. (It should also be noted that these bad actors were probably not traditional RC enthusiasts either.) Still, if the unmanned industry was to be saved from the onslaught of reckless operators and the ensuing public safety panic, something had to be done to reign in the ‘Best Buy’ hobbyists.
The New Memo
Late last year, Congress passed the FAA Modernization Act of 2018 which repealed the Special Rule for Model Aircraft, providing the FAA opportunity to restrict/regulate hobbyists. Until now, the FAA admitted it did not have the ability to regulate it and suggested hobbyists continue to fly under the old rules. Now, it appears as though they are ready to make some changes and have released a memo entitled, Exception for Limited Recreational Operations of Unmanned Aircraft. This new memo is meant to tighten the reigns on hobbyist drone pilots through four primary methods:
- Clarification of flight restrictions for hobbyist pilots (to include a 400ft. altitude limit.)
- Clarification on the requirements and criteria for CBOs.
- A requirement of an aeronautical safety exam.
- Restriction of hobbyist flights in controlled airspace. (Without Approval)
It’s this last one that has hobbyists so concerned for the future of their hobby because as of today, there is no method for hobbyists to get approval to fly in controlled airspace. Luckily, the FAA does provide an exception for flights that occur within the boundaries of recognized fixed flying fields which are marked as blue dots in the FAA’s UAS Facility Maps.
So, there will be a temporary moratorium on hobbyist flights in controlled airspace while the FAA updates LAANC and the Drone Zone to provide hobbyists the ability to obtain approval. In the meantime, they can continue to fly up to 400ft. AGL in Class G airspace.
Interestingly enough, the memo does state that it is, “not legally binding in its own right.” This could mean that it simply represents the stance of the FAA and provides guidance and direction for further lawmaking in the future. Eventually, the FAA will update LAANC and hobbyists (once they complete the aeronautical safety exam) will be able to request approval for controlled airspace and continue to enjoy their hobby.
Once the FAA defines (and begins certifying) CBOs, pilots must be able to specify exactly which CBO they are flying under. This means that the days of flying under a nebulous CBO with no real rules are coming to an end. Some may say this is the death of a hobby, I say it is the birth of accountability.
If you want to fly in controlled airspace, why not skip the hassle of flying as a hobbyist and get your Part 107 Certificate? Drone Academy can help you get certificated and show you how to use LAANC to get immediate approval at countless airports all across the country.