Drone-Rule Uproar Shows Hurdles to U.S. Commercial Rules

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 asked a U.S. appeals court today to block what they see as restrictions imposed in June on the recreational flights, the group’s lawyer, Brendan Schulman, said in an interview.

Separate appeals were filed by a drone investment group, Washington-based UAS America Fund LLC, and universities seeking broader access to unmanned aircraft for research, according to Schulman. The filings couldn’t immediately be confirmed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

“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,” Schulman said of the Federal Aviation Administration’s rule.

The FAA doesn’t comment on pending litigation, Laura Brown, a spokeswoman, said in an interview.

A review by Bloomberg News of the feedback the U.S. has gotten on its plan to set drone-use parameters for hobbyists shows at least 90 percent of the more than 30,000 oppose the proposal.

“As an active aeromodeler I OBJECT TO THE ENTIRE DOCUMENT,” John Billinger wrote in a comment posted on the government website Regulations.gov.

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.

Congress’ Protection

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. While the FAA said it’s following the exact language set by Congress, hobby drone operators say the agency is taking too rigid a stance.

“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’s stance.

The FAA is trying adapt its regulations to address the increased use of drones. The urgency to set a nationwide standards has increased as the aircraft become more prolific, not only among hobbyists but also among commercial operators, including real estate agents and movie-production companies.

‘Recreational Use’

The FAA 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 in an interview.

Growing Activity

“We believe that they have acted contrary to the law,” Hanson said. The AMA, representing hobbyists, was one of the plaintiffs filing petitions today.

The agency faces similar pitfalls in developing rules for commercial use of drones, as potential pilot licensing and safety certification promise to rankle the drone community.

Currently, FAA has only granted permission for commercial drone use in the Arctic. It’s considering waiver requests to allow flights for filmmakers and other industries, including Amazon.com Inc., 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 interpretation on hobbyist use that it was merely following what Congress wrote. The statute’s language obligated the agency to prohibit commercial flights, it said.

Commercial Flight

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 so-called 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. restaurant, filed a comment on FAA’s hobby policy saying remote-controlled aircraft allowed him fulfill his dream of being an aviator.

‘Experiencing Flight’

“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.

While AMA has a good reputation for responsible flying, the FAA’s hobby policy was needed to ensure safety, John McGraw, a former FAA deputy safety director who now operates a consulting firm in Stafford, Virginia.

“Now 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 efforts. 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.

Losing Control

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.

“I think that the Pirker case changed the environment and the lawyers took over,” he said.

Unlike proposed new regulations, in which an agency like FAA is required to respond to public comments, the agency has no obligation to alter its interpretation on hobby drone flights.

The agency’s interpretation is in effect now and public comments -- running more than 90 percent against the FAA, according to a review of more 200 submissions -- will be accepted until Sept. 23.

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