In a somewhat ambiguous announcement, Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), Michael Huerta, announced a “new” safety philosophy for the FAA.  Articulated in a speech last week to the Flight Safety Foundation in Washington, D.C., that “new” philosophy purportedly “challenges the status quo” by focusing on prevention, i.e., “finding problems in the national airspace system before they result in an incident or accident.”  Where problems do occur, the FAA foresees “using tools like training or documented improvements to procedures to ensure compliance.”  

Those would be noble goals if the public were not under the current impression that the FAA’s primary mandate of promoting safety of air transportation were not already being carried out with a primary emphasis on prevention.  What is, perhaps, more surprising is that the “new” philosophy is meant not merely to prevent accidents, but also to “prevent” operators (read “airlines”) from “hiding inadvertent mistakes because they are afraid of punishment.”  
 


Continue Reading FAA Administrator Announces New “Compliance Philosophy” for the Agency

Apparently impatient with the Federal Aviation Administration’s (“FAA”) slow progress in developing rules governing the commercial operation of unmanned aerial vehicles (“UAV” or “drones”), Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and John Hoeven (R-ND) introduced in Congress legislation to expedite implementation of rules governing the commercial operation of drones.  

Supported by a host of interest groups, ranging from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International to the National Association of Broadcasters and Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, the stated purpose of the “Commercial UAS Modernization Act,” S.1314 (“Act”) is to amend the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (Pub. L. 112-95), to create an interim rule providing basic guidelines for commercial use and testing of small UAS during the period within which FAA finalizes rules governing the operation of commercial UAS.  The Bill allows any person to “operate a small unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes without an airworthiness certificate within the United States, subject to the requirements under subsection (b) and the operating restrictions under subsection (c) during the period beginning on the date of the enactment of this Act and ending on the effective date of a final rule based on the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (80 Fed. Reg. 9544, February 23, 2015).” The Bill’s general requirements include: (1) liability insurance; (2) registration/certification under section 3(a) of the Act; and (3) the operator’s passing of an “aeronautical knowledge test,” Act, subsection (b)(3)(A), as prescribed by FAA in its February 2015 notice.  
 
The permission granted under the proposed legislation is not without limits, however.  
 


Continue Reading Congress Seeks to End Run Federal Aviation Administration on Drone Rules

The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) reports that close calls between conventional aircraft and unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS” or “drones”) have increased during 2014 to more than 40 per month over earlier reports of 10 such incidents in the months of March and April.  Some of these incidents have occurred in the busy airspace surrounding Los Angeles, California, Washington, D.C., and John F. Kennedy Airport in New York.  Some of these conflicts have arisen because untrained operators of recreational drones are unaware of FAA’s guidelines governing such use.  Those guidelines ask, among other things, that “hobby” drones stay away from civil aviation, below 400 feet AGL, and at least 5 miles from airports.  However, as FAA prepares to release its highly anticipated Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for small unmanned aircraft systems, the focus is not on hobbyists, but on commercial operators.


Continue Reading FAA Reports Increasing Conflict Between Drones and Civil Aviation

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:


Continue Reading Commercial vs. Recreational Drones: Are Existing Regulations Backwards?

While many members of the growing community of developers, manufacturers and operators of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (“UAS”) have expressed enthusiasm at the National Transportation Safety Board Administrative Decision in the Pirker case, Administrator v. Pirker, NTSB Docket CP-217, July 18, 2013, their reaction should be tempered by the law of unintended consequences.  The outcome of the administrative action, which the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has since appealed, acknowledges not only the FAA regulation that is certain to arise as a result of the Congressional mandate contained in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Pub. L. 112-95, § 334 (“FMRA”), but also opens the door to unrestricted local regulation. 

Specifically, Pirker’s argument is based on the assumption that the UAS at issue is a “five-pound radio-controlled model airplane constructed of styrofoam [sic],” Motion to Dismiss, p. 1.  He does not cite, or even refer to, any operant statutory or regulatory definition of “model aircraft.”  On that basis, Pirker alleges that his operation of the “model airplane” cannot be regulated because FAA has “fallen far behind its own schedule, as well the scheduled mandated by Congress,” Motion to Dismiss, p. 1, for enacting regulations.  Pirker again fails to refer the Court to the full extent of the Congressional mandate in FMRA which effectively disposes of his fundamental argument. 
 


Continue Reading Decision in Pirker Case Invokes Specter of Local Regulation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems

The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has appealed a recent National Transportation Safety Board administrative decision, Administrator v. Pirker, NTSB Docket CP-217, July 18, 2013, in which Administrative Law Judge Patrick Geraghty ruled that FAA had no regulatory authority when it fined the operator of an Unmanned Aircraft System (“UAS”) (otherwise known as “drone”) used for commercial photography, for operating a UAS at an altitude below that approved for commercial manned aircraft.  It would do well for developers, manufacturers and operators of UAS to listen carefully to FAA’s views because the decision, while preliminary, and subject to appeal through many levels of the Federal Court system, has opened the proverbial Pandora’s Box in the relationship of manned and unmanned aircraft and their joint, or separate regulatory frameworks. 

First, it is important for the UAS community to recognize that, while Administrative Law Judge Geraghty found an absence of regulatory authority in the FAA, the Opinion did not acknowledge the seminal issue of “the federal government’s pervasive regulation of aircraft, airspace and aviation safety,” see, Montalvo v. Spirit Airlines, 508 F.3d 464, 472-74 (9th Cir. 2007).  That pervasive control arises under the Federal Aviation Act, 49 U.S.C. § 40101 in which Congress expressly granted to the Secretary of Transportation, through his/her designee, the FAA, the tasks of, among other things, “controlling the use of the navigable airspace and regulating civil and military operations in that airspace in the interest of the safety and efficiency of both . . .,” 49 U.S.C. § 40101(d)(4), as well as “encouraging and developing civil aeronautics, including new aviation technology.”  49 U.S.C. § 40101(d)(3).  That express assignment of responsibility alone gives FAA “skin in the game.” 

FAA’s response more specifically addresses what it believes to be misapprehensions about the extent of its power and authority. 
 


Continue Reading FAA Pushes Back Against Advocates of Unregulated Drone Operations

The City of Los Angeles (“Los Angeles”) went on record yet again, rebuffing a cooperative effort between the City of Ontario (“Ontario”) and County of San Bernardino (“San Bernardino”) to promote growth at Ontario International Airport (“ONT”). The Los Angeles City Council formally voted to oppose SB466, introduced earlier this year by Senator Bob Dutton, which would allow for structured negotiations regarding the transfer of ONT to a newly formed joint powers agency comprised of Ontario and San Bernardino. The rationale for the legislation is that ONT has proportionally suffered the worst loss of passengers and airline operations of any airport in the Southern California region, and that a shift to local control is needed to restart what had previously been considered the economic engine for the Inland Empire.


Continue Reading City of Los Angeles Opposes Legislative Efforts to Encourage Growth at Ontario