In a landmark decision for the UAS (aka drone) industry and for the aviation industry as a whole, the Federal Aviation Administration announced today that it has granted 6 petitions for regulatory exemptions to operate unmanned aircraft systems for commercial filming operations.  The exemptions will allow the 6 petitioners to operate unmanned aircraft systems for

Two environmental organizations have again taken the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) to task for failing in its mandatory duty to determine whether greenhouse gases from aircraft engines cause or contribute to air pollution that may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare (“Endangerment Finding”), and, if so, to propose and adopt standards to limit those emissions.  See Clean Air Act (“CAA”), 42 U.S.C. § 7571(a)(2)(A) (also referred to as “Section 231”).  

Earth Justice and Friends of the Earth originally petitioned EPA in 2007, pursuant to CAA Section 231, which directs EPA to study air pollutants from aircraft “to determine (A) the extent to which such emissions affect air quality in air quality control regions throughout the United States, and (B) the technological feasibility of controlling such emissions.”  Section 231(a)(1).  Under subsections (a)(2) and (3), if EPA finds that emissions from aircraft and aircraft engines cause or contribute to “air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare,” it “shall” propose and issue standards to control such emissions.  In 2010, EPA had still not responded to their 2007 Petition.  
 


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Two significant pieces of legislation proposing to limit and/or control the use of unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS” or “drone”) were passed by the California Legislature last week and now await the signature of Governor Jerry Brown.  

The first of the two bills, AB 1327 by Jeff Gorell, places certain limits on the use of drones, both by the government and private parties. For example, it bans any weaponization of drones unless specifically authorized by federal law. It also extends existing privacy and wiretapping/electronic eavesdropping protections to the private use of drones but does not prohibit their use in situations where privacy concerns are not likely to be significant, such as those circumstances consistent with the “core mission” of non-law enforcement public agencies like fire or oil spill detection. One can expect the inevitable round of litigation to flesh out the limits of such circumstances and situations where privacy concerns are not likely to be significant. 
 


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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. 
 


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A problem with the regulatory philosophy towards unmanned aircraft systems is quickly coming into view.  While foreign and domestic governments are investing time and money developing strict standards for commercial drone use, the more pressing threat of recreational use has largely escaped the regulatory spotlight.

 
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) finalized two reports last week that shed some light on the perils of recreational drone use.  The first report describes a near collision of a passenger plane with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) near Perth Airport in Western Australia.  While approaching the airport for landing, the crew “sighted a bright strobe light directly in front of the aircraft,” reports the ATSB.  The UAV tracked towards the aircraft and the pilot was forced to take evasive action, dodging the UAV by about 20 meters.  The ATSB has been unable to locate or identify the operator of the UAV, which was flying in restricted airspace at the time of the incident.
 
The second report describes another near collision with a recreational drone just three days later in the airspace over Newcastle, the second most populated city in the Australian state of New South Wales.  In that incident, the crew of a rescue helicopter spotted a UAV hovering over Hunter Stadium during an Australian football match.  The UAV tracked towards the helicopter as the helicopter began its descent.  The ATSB’s report was supplemented with a comment by Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), which explained that the UAV appeared to be a “first person view” vehicle that was transmitting a live video feed back to its operator.  In other words, the operator was watching the game.  Neither the venue nor the official broadcaster took or authorized any aerial footage of the game.  CASA noted that over 90% of complaints received about UAVs relate to incidents caused by first person view drones.
 
Though these reports come from halfway around the world, they highlight a flaw in the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) approach to the use of drones in American airspace.  The FAA subjects commercial drone users to strict regulations arising from traditional “aircraft used in commerce” standards while applying the more liberal “model aircraft” standards to recreational drone users.  (See 14 C.F.R. § 91.119 [requiring aircraft used in commerce to stay at 500 feet or more in altitude above rural areas and 1,000 feet above urban areas].)  The FAA staunchly defended this system in its appeal of the Pirker case, in which the FAA seeks to overturn the decision of an administrative law judge who ruled the FAA had no regulatory authority when it fined the operator of a drone used for commercial photography.  So does it make sense for the FAA to take a hard stance towards commercial drones and a more liberal stance towards recreational drone users?
 
Probably not.  Here’s why:


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The Santa Monica Airport Commission has recently made a proposal to limit access of certain aircraft to Santa Monica Airport by limiting emissions allowable from those aircraft.  The proposal may be public spirited in its intent, but shocking in its naiveté with respect to the preemptive authority of federal law and specifically the federal authority over emissions from aircraft engines. 

The Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) is granted by Congress exclusive jurisdiction over the creation and enforcement of regulations governing emissions from aircraft engines.  “The Administrator shall, from time to time, issue proposed emission standards applicable to the emission of any air pollutant from any class or classes of aircraft engines which in his judgment causes, or contributes to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health and welfare.”  42 U.S.C. § 7571(a)(2)(A) and (a)(3).  There are, however, some limits on EPA’s authority.
 


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