Aviation regulators trying to control the flood of inexpensive drones buzzing U.S. skies are drawing fire.
Hobbyists who’ve been flying unmanned airplanes and helicopters for decades asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit yesterday to block what they see as new restrictions imposed in June on the recreational flights.
Separate appeals were filed in the court by a drone investment group, Washington-based UAS America Fund LLC, and universities seeking broader access to unmanned aircraft for research.
“It seeks to newly impose a ban on beneficial research and development by commercial companies and also imposes new restrictions on the hobbyists that they’ve never had before,” Brendan Schulman, the lawyer who filed the suits, said of the Federal Aviation Administration’s rule.
The FAA is seeking to regulate the increased use of drones. As the aircraft become more prolific, among hobbyists and commercial operators, including real estate agents and movie-production companies, there’s an increased urgency to set national standards.
The FAA doesn’t comment on pending litigation, Laura Brown, a spokeswoman, said in an interview. The FAA says the June rule was a clarification of existing law.
Feedback the FAA has received on its drone-use parameters for hobbyists has been largely negative. A Bloomberg News review of about 200 of 30,000 submissions found more than 90 percent opposed the FAA.
“As an active aeromodeler I OBJECT TO THE ENTIRE DOCUMENT,” John Billinger wrote in a comment posted on the government website Regulations.gov.
The FAA rule also harms companies trying to develop products, according to Matthew Bieschke, president of UAS America Fund, which is seeking to raise billions of dollars for investment in the growing unmanned aircraft market.
“With the FAA’s interpretation, there’s no way for commercialization to happen,” Bieschke said in an interview.
The public has another month to register comments, and those already filed accuse the FAA of government overreach, broken promises and misinterpretation of the law. The hostile response indicates trouble ahead for the FAA’s plans to issue broader commercial drone rules, said Rebecca MacPherson, who until last year was the agency’s chief counsel for regulations.
Hobbyists were assured protection by Congress in a 2012 law that directed the FAA to begin crafting regulations to safely merge drones into traditional airways by August 2015. The FAA said it’s following the language set by Congress.
“They seem to be sending a pretty strong message that they are ceding no ground,” MacPherson, now a lawyer at the law firm Jones Day, said of FAA.
The agency so far has sought to create regulations in phases. It started with the clarification of hobbyists’ flights, and it plans to issue rules later this year for commercial operators of small drones weighing less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms).
So long as the models are “flown strictly for hobby or recreational use” and are operated under a handful of safety guidelines, FAA is prohibited from regulating them, according to the 2012 law passed by Congress.
At the same time, lawmakers gave the FAA authority to seek penalties against model aircraft pilots who operate outside those guidelines and endanger safety.
On June 23, the FAA published how it intended to follow the law. Even though the law was drafted with input from the Muncie, Indiana-based Academy of Model Aeronautics, the results stunned the hobby community, the group’s spokesman Richard Hanson said.
“They have acted contrary to the law,” Hanson said. The AMA, representing hobbyists, was one of the plaintiffs filing petitions yesterday.
The agency faces similar pitfalls in developing rules for commercial drones, as potential pilot licensing and safety certification promise to rankle the drone community.
Currently, the FAA has only granted permission for commercial drone use in the Arctic. It’s considering waiver requests to allow flights for filmmakers and others, including Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN), which wants to deliver orders via drone.
Drone activity is forecast to create 100,000 new jobs and $82 billion in economic impact in the first 10 years after the FAA allows flights among traditional aircraft, according to a forecast by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an Arlington, Virginia-based trade group.
The FAA said in its June interpretation on hobbyist use that it was following what Congress wrote. The statute’s language obligated the agency to prohibit commercial flights by hobbyists, it said.
The interpretation flies in the face of FAA policies allowing some businesses to fly traditional aircraft without being subject to stricter commercial flight regulations, Hanson said. It means the FAA would bar hobbyists hired to fly at air shows or sponsored by manufacturers, he said.
The agency also said it would ban hobby pilots from using streaming video to guide drones instead of more traditional line-of-sight flying. Such first-person view, or FPV, goggles generate a virtual view from the plane and are a popular way to fly the latest generation of drones, Hanson said. AMA allows its members to fly using FPV as long as they are accompanied by a spotter.
The AMA, founded in 1936, has developed safety rules and its 2,500 local chapters have established parks across the U.S. where people can fly without risk of hitting traditional aircraft.
Keith Gates, who identified himself as a “lowly janitor” at a McDonald’s Corp. (MCD) restaurant, filed a comment on FAA’s hobby policy saying remote-controlled aircraft allowed him fulfill his dream of being an aviator.
“Attaching a small camera to the nose of this craft and flying it with FPV goggles will be the closest I’ll ever get to experiencing real flight,” he wrote in his Aug. 12 comment.
The FAA’s hobby policy was needed to ensure safety, said John McGraw, a former FAA deputy safety director who operates a consulting firm in Stafford, Virginia.
“There are thousands of people buying these things that aren’t associated with the AMA and that is a concern,” said McGraw, who represents filmmakers seeking permission to use drones as flying cameras.
The lack of firm regulations governing drone flights has hurt FAA enforcement. On March 6, an administrative judge dismissed FAA’s proposed $10,000 fine against Raphael Pirker, a drone pilot who shot a promotional video at the University of Virginia campus. The judge found there was “no enforceable FAA rule” in an appeal also brought by New York-based lawyer Schulman. The FAA is appealing the decision.
The AMA’s Hanson said the FAA’s hobby interpretation was driven by the agency’s fear that it was losing control over unmanned aircraft.
“The Pirker case changed the environment and the lawyers took over,” he said.
The agency’s interpretation is in effect now and public comments will be accepted until Sept. 23.
The cases are UAS America Fund LLC v. Federal Aviation Administration, 14-1156; Council on Government Relations v. Federal Aviation Administration; 14-1157; and Academy of Model Aeronautics v. Federal Aviation Administration, 14-1158, all U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (Washington).
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