The FAA can and should fix this before someone gets seriously hurt.
Beginning Monday the 29th of August, four different sets of regulations will be in force to govern one thing – drone flying. They are Section 333, Part 107, Recreational Flyer and Part 101. If you’re flying a sUAS, then you have to operate under one of these four sets of rules.
I am not a lawyer and this is not intended to be an exhaustive review of the rules. I am a safety expert. The purpose of this article is to draw attention to the safety issues associated with the current licensing scheme.
Right up front, I want to mention that there’s new information coming out every day on the sUAS rule. Especially fluid are the details of how the FAA will implement specific requirements. For example, just this week the FAA posted the specifics of how UAS airport notifications will be handled going forward which threw a bunch of us for a loop.
For instance on the card that you get with your $5 registration, it adds an additional requirement: Never fly within 5 miles of an airport without first contacting air traffic control and airport authorities. Which as of Monday you are no longer supposed to do. You see the problem…
The FAA is data driven, so it is reasonable to expect that the specifics will continue to evolve over the next few months as we all learn what works, and what doesn’t work. That said, keep checking here at db.c for updates as we have them.
When Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA), also known as Public Law 112-95, it included a provision for the FAA to determine whether air worthiness certificates were required for UAS operations. This provision is contained in “Section 333.”
The FAA used this “to grant case-by-case authorization for certain unmanned aircraft to perform commercial operations prior to the finalization of the Small UAS Rule.” To operate under this exception, the operator must prepare an extensive application, forward it to the FAA, and receive approval.
The application process is both time consuming and expensive. 333 exemptions are the most tightly controlled type of drone operations. The exemption requires that the pilot hold a manned pilots license and that there be an observer. Deviation from the approved operational envelope is a violation.
- Rules are VLOS/ 55lbs / 400’AGL / 100mph.
Flights will begin taking place under the sUAS rule, Title 14 Combined Federal Regulations Part 107 (14 CFR 107) on Monday 29 August. These rules are much less restrictive than Section 333 exemptions. For people who want to charge for their flying services, Part 107 is the way to go. Unlike 333 it does not require a specific and detailed submission, nor does it require a manned pilots license or an observer, nor does it require any demonstration of ones ability to fly.
What it does require is that the pilot pass a test to demonstrate that they have some airspace, air regulations, and general airman knowledge. It also requires preflight checks, attention to maintenance, and a national security screening by TSA.
- Rules are VLOS / 55lbs / 400’AGL / 100mph.
- Flying over 400’AGL is allowed to inspect taller structures.
- Flying FPV is allowed with an observer.
- Operators can apply for waivers to operate at night, beyond line of sight, above 400 feet and other specific types of operation.
This is the vanilla, $5 registration that anyone who owns one or more drones over .55 pounds needs to do.
- Rules are VLOS / 55lbs / 400’AGL / 100mph
You are not allowed to do exceed those limits unless you are a member of a community based organization (CBO) – namely the AMA. (See this article for some important updates on CBOs.)
This set of rules is contained in 14 CFR 101. They are the result of a special interest carve out for hobby (model) fliers obtained by the Academy of Model Aeronautics as part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA). The rule is contained in Section 336, and you’ll sometimes hear people refer to these rules by that name.
Part 101 is the LEAST restrictive of all four sets of rules for flying drones.
Hobby pilots who are members of the AMA can fly at night, can fly above 400 feet on their own authority, can fly drones heavier than 55lbs and can fly up to 200 MPH.
AND unlike Section 333 or Part 107 pilots, hobby pilots don’t have to take a single test.
- There are no airworthiness or maintenance requirements other than what the individual operator decides they “need.”
- There’s not even a skills evaluation to ensure that someone with more money than sense can safely fly one of these 55lb 200 MPH missiles at altitudes of 1,000 feet or higher.
This Wild West is not directly governed by the FAA.
Instead, pilots must follow a set of “safety guidelines” developed by the same special interest group that obtained the carve-out, the AMA. Though the FAA has now stated that flying FPV can only be done under Part 107.
One doesn’t have to look far in the RC forums to find:
- Members openly declaring they won’t comply with the FAA’s registration requirement.
- Statements by the AMA they will not check for registration at their events or flying fields.
- Members boasting that routinely fly above 400 feet, or sarcastically saying they never fly faster than “199.99 MPH” (AMA’s self imposed limit in their “guidelines”).
So while they will say that their members must comply, it sure looks like there’s little if any enforcement by AMA.
Why You Should Care
Make no mistake, these are not your Dad’s “model airplanes.” Some are half scale, weighing up to 140 pounds, and can be powered by everything from 200 cc gasoline engines to gas turbines.
- The AMA allows models weighing up to 77lbs to travel at 200 MPH (if they even enforce that limit).
- Even worse, their rules allow the engines to continue to run for up to two seconds after loss of the radio link.
- A 77lb 200 MPH “model” crashing into a crowd has about the same amount of energy as a Honda Civic at over 20 MPH.
What’s The Solution?
The FAA needs to harmonize the operational limits of sUAS with the demonstrated level of knowledge and skill of the operators.
The current operational limits for drones is upside down – those with the least demonstrated knowledge (part 101) are permitted the widest operational flying limits! Not only is this counter-intuitive, it’s downright dangerous.
We recommend that the FAA follow it’s own time honored graduated pilot licensing scheme: recreational, private, commercial, and ATP. So that operational privileges are commensurate with demonstrated knowledge and skill.
The author, Frank Mellott is a retired US Navy Commander. He is a graduate of the US Navy’s Aviation Safety and Test Pilot Schools and has almost 3,000 hours in over 30 types of aircraft, mostly in carrier-based tactical jets. His final tour was as the deputy commander of a US Navy master jet base.
Frank is a regular contributor at the DroneBusiness.center. He is a member of our consulting team and is available to work with companies evaluating, planning or managing an internal drone operation.
He is an expert on applying the High Reliability and Safety principles from carrier Naval Aviation to industrial situations, and has extensive experience with safety program management, training, operations, aviation policy making and implementation, and standard operating procedure development.