FAA Weighs in on the Regulation of "Model Aircraft"

On June 25, 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) published in the Federal Register, 79 Fed.Reg. 36172, its “Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft” (“Interpretation”) established by Congress in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Pub.L. 112-95, § 336 (“FMRA”).  Despite its name, FAA’s interpretation goes far beyond mere definitional clarification.  It is, instead, the first step in establishing FAA’s preemptive authority over Unmanned Aircraft Systems (“UAS”) as “aircraft” utilizing the National Airspace System (“NAS”), even where the operator of an UAS chooses to denominate it a “model aircraft.” 

As a first step in asserting its regulatory authority, FAA takes the position that Congress’ rule in the FMRA is nothing new, but, instead, relies heavily on the long standing statutory and regulatory definition of model aircraft as “aircraft,” i.e., mechanisms that are “invented, used or designed to navigate or fly in the air,” 49 U.S.C. § 40102; 14 C.F.R. § 1.1.  FAA also applies its own 2007 guidelines regarding UAS operating in the NAS, which recognizes that UAS fall within the statutory and regulatory definition of “aircraft” as “devices that are used or intended to be used for flight in the air with no onboard pilot.”  72 Fed.Reg. 6689 (February 13, 2007). 

FAA’s Interpretation, however, goes far beyond the simple inclusion of “model aircraft” in the category of “aircraft.”  The Interpretation expands even further upon FMRA’s three part test defining a “model aircraft” as an “unmanned aircraft” that is: “(1) capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere; (2) flown within the visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft; and (3) flown for hobby or recreational purposes.”  FMRA, § 336(d). 
 
With regard to FMRA’s second factor, the requirement that the model aircraft stay within the “visual line of sight” of the user, FAA interprets that requirement consistent with FMRA, § 336(c)(2) to mean that: (1) the aircraft must be visible at all times to the operator; (2) that the operator must use his or her own natural vision (including corrective lenses) and not goggles or other vision enhancing devices; and (3) people other than the operator may not be used to maintain the line of sight.  In other words, to maintain the identity as a “model aircraft,” the aircraft cannot be “remotely controlled” from a location other than that at which it is being flown.

The third factor, the definition of what constitutes “hobby or recreational use” is perhaps the thornier. 
 

FAA has defined the terms in accordance with the ordinary meaning reflected in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of “hobby” [“pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation”], and “recreation” [“refreshment of strength or spirit after work”] [emphasis added].  On that basis, FAA unequivocally asserts that neither “commercial operations” [an aircraft operated by a “person who for compensation or hire engages in the carriage by aircraft in air commerce of persons or property,” 14 C.F.R. § 1.1], nor flights that are in furtherance or are incidental to a business, are for hobby or recreational purposes, and, thus, fall outside the definition of “model aircraft.”  FAA asserts its authority under 14 C.F.R. Part 91 to govern those flights that are for business purposes but do not involve common carriage.  Obviously, the FAA’s interpretation would foreclose from the definition of “model aircraft” any aircraft used in return for compensation or the prospect of compensation.

Even if a model aircraft meets the definition in FMRA § 336(d), it will not automatically be exempt from FAA regulation.  In addition, it must meet the following five factors set forth in FMRA § 336(a)(1)-(5): (1) the aircraft is flown strictly for hobby or recreational use (the same factor as contained in the underlying definition); (2) the aircraft is operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization; (3) the aircraft is limited to not more than 55 lbs. unless otherwise certified through a design, construction, inspection, flight test and operational safety program administered by a community-based organization; (4) the aircraft is operated in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to any manned aircraft; and (5) when flown within five miles of an airport, the operator of the aircraft provides the airport operator and airport traffic control tower with prior notice of the operation. 

FAA interprets the “community-based” set of standards requirement, consistently with the Congressional history of FMRA, to include a “comprehensive set of safety guidelines” established by a “membership based association that represents the aeromodeling community within the United States; [and] provides its members a comprehensive set of safety guidelines that underscores safe aeromodeling operations within the National Airspace System and the protection and safety of the general public on the ground.”  U.S. House of Representatives, FAA Modernization and Reform Act, Conference Report (to Accompany H.R. 658), 112 H. Rpt. 381 (Feb. 1, 2012). 

The requirement that the model aircraft weigh 55 lbs. or less refers to the weight of the aircraft at the time of the operation, not the weight of the aircraft alone.  This limitation is for the purpose of avoiding the situation in which an aircraft could be weighted down with equipment and still meet the 55 lbs. standard.  79 Fed.Reg. 36174 (although the 55 lbs. standard may be exceeded if it meets certain requirements set forth in § 336(a)(3)). 

Finally, FAA is not merely a paper tiger with respect to enforcement of these rules, even where model aircraft meet all the requirements for an exemption, and even where an exemption is applicable.  FAA interprets FMRA to require compliance by model aircraft of rules applicable to all aircraft in general, incorporating: (1) how the aircraft is operated (including the dropping of objects so as to create a hazard to persons or property, 14 C.F.R. § 91.13-15); (2) operating rules for designated airspace (to minimize risk of collisions, 14 C.F.R. § 91.126-35); and (3) special restrictions such as temporary flight restrictions and notices to airmen (NOTAMs) (to accommodate unique and unexpected obstacles to operation, 14 C.F.R. § 91.137). 

FAA interprets its enforcement power to derive not only from FMRA § 336 itself [“Nothing in this section shall be construed to limit the authority of the Administrator to pursue enforcement action against persons operating model aircraft who endanger the safety of the national airspace system,” § 336(b)], but also from its existing statutory authority “to prescribe regulations to protect people and property on the ground,” 49 U.S.C. § 40103(b)(2); see also 14 C.F.R. § 91.119 governing the altitude of aircraft over populated areas.

In short, there can be no mistake that both the Congress and the FAA regard “model aircraft” as “aircraft,” potentially exempt from specific operating rules under specified circumstances, but not exempt from the safety rules governing all “aircraft” using the NAS.  UAS operators seeking to take refuge behind the denomination of “model aircraft” will do well to seek an exemption under FMRA § 336(a)(1)-(5), and to operate in a manner consistent with FAA general rules governing aircraft safety and the protection of the airspace system and people and property on the ground, or expose themselves to lengthy and expensive enforcement actions that can be avoided with careful scrutiny and understanding of operant law and regulation. 

The public may submit comments identified by Docket No. FAA-2014-0396 on or before July 25, 2014 as set forth in 79 Fed.Reg. 36172.

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