Will Drones and Planes be Treated as Equals by FAA?

By Tom Nardi

Soon, perhaps even by the time you read this, the rules for flying remote-controlled aircraft in the United States will be very different. The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) is pushing hard to repeal Section 336, which states that small remote-controlled aircraft as used for hobby and educational purposes aren’t under FAA jurisdiction. Despite assurances that the FAA will work towards implementing waivers for hobbyists, critics worry that in the worst case the repeal of Section 336 might mean that remote control pilots and their craft may be held to the same standards as their human-carrying counterparts.

Section 336 has already been used to shoot down the FAA’s ill-conceived attempt to get RC pilots to register themselves and their craft, so it’s little surprise they’re eager to get rid of it. But they aren’t alone. The Commercial Drone Alliance, a non-profit association dedicated to supporting enterprise use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), expressed their support for repealing Section 336 in a June press release:

Basic ‘rules of the road’ are needed to manage all this new air traffic. That is why the Commercial Drone Alliance is today calling on Congress to repeal Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, and include new language in the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act to enable the FAA to regulate UAS and the National Airspace in a common sense way.

With both the industry and the FAA both pushing lawmakers to revamp the rules governing small remote-controlled aircraft, things aren’t looking good for the hobbyists who operate them. It seems likely those among us with a penchant for airborne hacking will be forced to fall in line. But what happens then?

Play Time is Over

The 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act does not simply repeal Section 336, it also details the new rules the agency would impose on unmanned aircraft and their operators. Under these proposed rules, all unmanned aircraft would be limited to an altitude of 400 feet unless they have specific authorization to exceed that ceiling. They must also be operated within line of sight at all times, effectively ending long-range First Person View (FPV) flying. There’s also language in the Reauthorization Act about studying the effects of flying unmanned aircraft at night, or over groups of people.

It also states that drones, just like traditional aircraft, must be registered and marked. It even authorizes the FAA to investigate methods of remote identification for drones and their operators, meaning it’s not unreasonable to conclude that RC aircraft may be required to carry transponders at some point in the future. To many in the hobby this seems like an unreasonable burden, especially in the absence of clear limits on what type of small aircraft would be excluded (if any).

In a video posted to their YouTube channel, Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) Interim Executive Director Chad Budreau wonders if even rubber band powered balsa planes will someday need their own registration and identification devices:

To be fair, not everything in the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act is negative. It also talks about the need for better manufacturer safety standards and certifications for unmanned aircraft sold in the United States, including a mechanism by which the FAA could revoke a safety certification should standards not be met. Though critics could argue this language is simply a mechanism by which the FAA will force compliance with future remote identification standards.

You Must be this Tall to Fly

While there’s no shortage of new rules and regulations for the drones themselves, the humans operating them will also be under greater scrutiny. Under the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act, anyone flying a remote-controlled aircraft will not only have to pass an “aeronautical knowledge and safety test”, but show proof of their passing to any law enforcement if questioned. It isn’t clear what the consequences of not having your “Drone License” on you if police ask for it will be, but fines or even confiscation of your equipment doesn’t seem unlikely.

Perhaps most troubling of all is that with the repeal of Section 336, young people might actually be excluded from flying remote-controlled aircraft. While many RC planes and quadcopters are marketed as children’s toys, in the absence of Section 336, it’s not clear that a child could legally operate one. The FAA requires a person to be 16 years of age to obtain a pilot’s license, and if unmanned aircraft are truly expected to obey the same “rules of the road”, it’s not unreasonable to assume that age requirement will remain in effect.

“The bill will have a chilling effect on youth involvement in the hobby and stifle the benefits of employing model aviation in STEM education,” says Budreau, “ultimately hindering the efforts to attract youth into the aviation industry.”

End of an Era

Holding small unmanned aircraft to a higher standard than they are currently is not inherently a bad thing, as even the most fanatical RC fliers certainly don’t want to endanger human life while pursuing their hobby. So few would be against reasonable changes to how the FAA handles unmanned aircraft if it meant they could more safely operate in the same airspace. It’s hard to argue that drone pilots shouldn’t have some basic knowledge on how to safely navigate the increasingly congested skies. But ultimately the reaction of the RC community will depend on how these new changes are implemented and what the consequences for not being in compliance are.

At the time of this writing the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Bill has passed both the House and Senate, and now needs only the President’s signature to become official. For better or for worse, anyone looking to explore the skies in the US is going to have to do so under much closer scrutiny than ever before. How well, or how poorly, the community responds to this increased oversight is likely going to determine the trajectory of the hobby for decades.

Update: On October 5th, 2018 President Trump signed the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act. Section 336, the “Special Rule for Model Aircraft”, is officially no more.