US FAA outlines restrictions for model aircraft in wake of reckless use

The rules apply to small drones used for non-commercial purposes

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration on Monday interpreted existing rules to prohibit hobbyists' model aircraft from flying within 5 miles (8 kilometers) of an airport without clearance from the airport or ground control.

The guidance follows incidents involving the reckless use of unmanned model aircraft near airports and involving large crowds of people, FAA said. The U.S. National Park Service last week banned the operation of drones amidst concerns about the safety of people and harassment of animals.

Model aircraft hobbyists have to ensure that the aircraft is visible to the operator at all times without viewing aids like binoculars, and is not used for commercial purposes, the FAA said. The aircraft should not weigh more than 55 pounds (25 kilograms), including the weight of the payload and fuel, unless it's certified by an aeromodeling community-based organization

The FAA also defended its right to set rules in a notice that went into effect on Monday and is open for public comment for 30 days.

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 established in section 336 a special rule for model aircraft, which prohibited the agency from making any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft, or an aircraft being developed as a model aircraft, if the aircraft meets statutory requirements such as the maximum weight and its use exclusively for hobby or recreational purposes.

The FAA holds the rulemaking prohibition does not apply in the case of general rules that it may issue or modify that apply to all aircraft, such as rules addressing the use of airspace for safety or security reasons. "The statute does not require FAA to exempt model aircraft from those rules because those rules are not specifically regarding model aircraft," it said in the notice.

If a model aircraft operator endangers the safety of the National Airspace System, the FAA has the authority to take enforcement action against the operators for the safety violations, FAA said.

Rules addressing operation of the aircraft may, for example, include prohibitions on careless or reckless operation and dropping objects so as to create a hazard to persons or property.

The agency also interpreted existing statutes to rule out the use of hobbyist and recreational model aircraft for purposes such as photographing a property or event to sell the photos to someone else, or delivering packages to people for a fee.

The FAA said earlier this month it is considering exemptions that will allow the use of commercial drones for filming movies, after seven aerial photo and video production companies asked for regulatory exemptions to use unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for the film and television industry. Amazon.com and other companies have said that they plan to use drones for commercial purposes such as delivery of packages.

An administrative law judge of the National Transportation Safety Board ruled that the classification of UAS does not appear in the Federal Aviation Regulations, raising questions whether the FAA has the authority to set rules for them.

Ruling in the case of a photographer Raphael Pirker, who was fined US$10,000 by the FAA in October 2011 for allegedly flying recklessly a powered glider aircraft, Judge Patrick G. Geraghty ruled in March that existing policy regarding the commercial use of drones, "cannot be considered as establishing a rule or enforceable regulation." The FAA has appealed the ruling before the full National Transportation Safety Board, which has the effect of staying the decision until the board rules.

The FAA is required by U.S. Congress to frame a "safe integration" plan for the commercial use of UAS by Sept. 30, 2015. The agency said in February that it expected to publish a proposed rule for small UAS of under about 55 pounds this year. "That proposed rule will likely include provisions for commercial operations," it said. Model aircraft are included under UAS in the 2012 Act.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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