U.S. DOT to Regulate Hobby Drones

Just in case you thought U.S. based hobbyists were safe from regulation by the FAA, the U.S government found a way to weasel out of the 2012 law passed by Congress. Here’s how that went down…

The brief back story is this – in 2012, Congress passed Public Law 112-95 which specifically carved out an exemption from regulation for hobbyist by stating, “the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft” (sec 336). Three years later, the FAA has missed the deadline for creating any regulation at all, only publishing the proposed regulations last spring. In the meantime, there have been dozens of news stories about problems with drones, from near misses with manned aircraft, to a couple drones striking people on the ground, as well as simple nuisance issues. However controversial, there have been no confirmed manned aircraft drone strikes, perhaps a handful of minor injuries to people and zero deaths due to drone issues. Some of the forrest fire incidents are difficult to say what the result is of having the drone present because details on any of those are few and far between.

Wherever you stand on drones, privacy, aviation safety, the fact is the perception is that drones are a exploding problem that must be dealt with immediately. And so, based on this perception, our government has reacted.

Today, the U.S. Department of Transportation has announced that they intend to create a requirement to register Unmanned Aircraft Systems, which goes down to and including hobby based drones. They have also said that they intend for the requirement to be retro-active, so existing drones will have to be registered. How small of a drone that requires registration is yet to be announced.

Can they do this legally?

With the usual “I am not a lawyer” disclaimer, I am saying, ‘I think they can’. The PL 112-95 law says the administrator of the FAA cannot make regulation for hobbyist, but that doesn’t seem to preclude other agencies, including the FAA’s parent agency, the D.O.T, from making regulations. Seems like a loophole to me, but still legal.

Will toys be included?

At this point it is unknown. However the toy industry in the past has lobbied to be exempt from regulation, and it’s not at all reasonable to do.  I am currently working in the toy industry on drones, and by my best estimate, there will be several million toy drones sold through Christmas, all less than a pound and having less than a few hundred foot RF range. However when you get into the 1-5 pound range (think DJI Phantoms as well as the kit/ built up class for hobbyists), they might go after this group. For the larger that 5 pound group, things that carry payloads, large cameras, they will almost certainly go after this group. But we’re all just guessing at this point.

Will fixed wing aircraft be included?

Again, we don’t know yet. However my guess is yes, fixed wing aircraft will be included. Several of the alleged Cal-fire incidents involved reports of fixed-wing UAS, however it was unlikely that it was a hobbyist. So if that is the case, there is very little distinction between a long range FPV (First Person View) wing that might be able to interfere with a firefighting aircraft, and a model aircraft performing aerobatics. The addition of the camera and video downlink is not something that can be identified from the perspective of the manned aircraft, nor from the ground by law enforcement. So we are all in the same boat here.

When will this happen?

November 20th is the date the D.O.T. put out to hammer out some form of a plan. They have also said they expect to have it in place by Christmas. This is where all of this gets sort of ridiculous. First, they are going to gather 15-20 agency and industry experts and reps to agree on something in 30 days. The only way this can happen is if there really isn’t any discussion or consensus, and it’s more or less dictated what the rules will be.


Beyond that, the government will have to put together a IT system with a web portal to all several million users to register 10s of millions of drones, over the next 30 days before December 25th. Given their experience rolling out the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), I would guess it to take 18 months to deploy a basic site, and another 6-12 months to work out all the bugs.

And how exactly will they compel *anyone* to do this? Does the D.O.T. plan to enforce registration checks at every park in the country? Or will local police be used to enforce a federal government registration program? What about minors? Will they be even allowed to register, or will the device be registered to an adult?

So many questions, so little answers, and so little time for them to get this done. I personally am not against the concept of registering dangerous things that can harm other people, such as guns or motor vehicles. However the reasons we have been told that we need this have largely been false and misleading. Yes there have been clear lack of judgment by a few clowns, but the results of these acts of stupidity do not justify the reactions and the need for regulation and registration.

Over the next week I would expect to hear from the American Model Association and other groups with facts and opinions, so I’ll do my best to follow the story and make comment.


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