On July 6, 2018, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (“D.C. Circuit”) conclusively rejected a comprehensive challenge to the authority of the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to promulgate regulations governing that subset of unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS”) defined in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Pub. L. 112-95 (codified at 49 U.S.C. § 40101, note) (“FMRA”), as “model” aircraft, i.e., those “flown for hobby or recreational purposes.”  FMRA, § 336(c)(3).

In Taylor v. FAA, D.C. Cir. No. 16-1302, the court upheld FAA regulations implementing FMRA § 336, Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, 81 Fed.Reg. 42064 (June 28, 2016), which effectively subjects small UAS (up to 55 pounds, FMRA, § 336(c)(3)), to similar, if not identical, safety standards to those applicable to commercial UAS.

Continue Reading Appellate Court Affirms FAA Control Over Recreational Drones

On or about November 16, 2017, the United States Senate acted speedily to pass the “National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018,” H.R. 2810 (“Defense Reauthorization Act”), originally introduced in January of 2017, and now awaiting signing by President Trump.  

The Senate’s motivation is not obscure, where it sets forth, among other things, guidelines for “Collaboration Between Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Defense on Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” or UAS, H.R. 2810, § 1092.  Most notably, that section re-imposes rules originally imposed on the operators of small, unmanned aircraft, weighing between .55 and 55 pounds, used for recreational purposes (“model” aircraft).  Those rules were set aside by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in May, 2017, in the published opinion Taylor v. Huerta, 856 F.3d 1089, 1093 (D.C. Cir. 2017), on the ground that the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Pub. L. No. 112-95 (“FMRA”) specifically prohibits FAA from promulgating “any rule or regulation regarding model aircraft.”  Id. at § 336(a).  
 
Congress has now enacted a revision to FMRA’s prohibition, and thrown model aircraft back into the regulatory arena.  

Continue Reading Operators of Small Unmanned Aircraft Uses for Recreational Purposes Will Soon Face Regulation

California legislators are taking advantage of the continuing absence of federal regulation of unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS” or “drones”), and the provisions of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Pub.L. 112-95 (“FMRA”), allowing state and local governments to regulate drone operation in the absence of federal regulation.  Between the start of the new California legislative session, through February 27, 2015, the last day for Bills to be submitted, legislators introduced five Bills.  The most comprehensive of these is AB37, introduced by Assemblymember Campos, and referred to the Assembly Committee of Public Safety, Civil Procedure and Privacy.

Continue Reading California State Lawmakers Move to Regulate Drones

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

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. 
 

Continue Reading FAA Weighs in on the Regulation of “Model Aircraft”

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

Inspired by Congressional intervention, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has begun the process of revising and reorganizing FAA Order 1050.1E, “Environmental Impact: Policies and Procedures” in a new Order, 1050.1F (by the same name).  78 Fed.Reg. 49596-49600 (August 14, 2013).  That in itself would not be particularly notable, except for the importance of the changes that are being made, and their significance for both airport operators and the communities around airports that are the direct recipients of both the disbenefit of the environmental impacts of airport projects, and the potential benefit of the adequate environmental review of those impacts.

The most important of the potential revisions to Order 1050.1E involves FAA’s relief from the burdens of environmental review granted by Congress in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, H.R. 658 (112th) (“FMRA”).  Specifically, two legislatively created categorical exclusions are added in 1050.1F, paragraphs 5-6.5q and 5-6.5r, Exemption from NEPA Review which basically give a free pass to changes to air traffic procedures throughout the country.
 

Continue Reading FAA Changes the Rules for National Environmental Policy Act Review

Spurred on by Congress, FAA has issued a proposed policy revising its current position “concerning through-the-fence access to a federally obligated airport from an adjacent or nearby property, when that property is used as a residence.”  77 Fed.Reg. 44515, Monday, July 30, 2012.  FAA’s current position, set forth in its previously published interim policy of March 18, 2011, 76 Fed.Reg. 15028, prohibited new residential “through-the-fence” access to Federally obligated airports. 

The change came in response to Congress’ passage of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (“FMRA”) on February 14, 2012.  Section 136 of FMRA permits general aviation (“GA”) airports, defined by the statute as “a public airport . . . that does not have commercial service or has scheduled service with less than 2,500 passenger boardings each year,” to extend or enter into residential through-the-fence agreements with property owners, or associations representing property owners, under specified conditions.  77 Fed.Reg. 44516.  Sponsors of commercial service airports, however, are treated quite differently. 

Continue Reading FAA Again Changes its Position on “Through-the-Fence” Agreements with Owners of Residential Property

While its zeal to protect its citizens from the noise and emissions of aircraft arriving and departing Santa Monica Airport is commendable and understandable, the Santa Monica Airport Commission’s method is questionable.  That is because its recently proposed proportional limitation on aircraft operations (i.e., a limit on future operations at some percent of current operations) appears to be contrary to Federal law.

More specifically, in a Memorandum of on or about August 2, 2012, the Airport Commission proposed a hypothetical restriction whereby “the number of daily operations would be limited to [approximately] 53% of the daily operations from prior years . . . For example, if there were 100 operations on June 6, 2012, then no more than 53 operations would be allowed on June 6, 2013.”  The Vice Chairman of the Airport Commission argues that, because the proposed restriction does not discriminate between aircraft types (as a prior proposed Santa Monica ordinance limiting operations by jet aircraft did), it would withstand judicial scrutiny.  The Commission has apparently forgotten about the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990, 49 U.S.C. § 47521, et seq., (“ANCA”), and its prohibition on the imposition of noise or access restrictions without approval by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”). 
 

Continue Reading Santa Monica Airport Commission Needs to Look Harder at Federal Law in Proposing Aircraft Access Restrictions

On April 13, 2012, as a result of the February 14, 2012 passage of the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (“FMRA”), the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) proposed modifications to the “grant assurances” incorporated into FAA’s contracts with airports that receive FAA funding for physical improvements and/or noise compatibility purposes.  These changes were made in order to ensure the consistency of the grant contracts with the changes arising out of FMRA.  The revisions primarily address three categories of actions: (1) permission for “through the fence” operations under specified conditions; (2) exceptions to current restrictions on use of airport revenues; and (3) revision to rules governing use of revenues gained from disposal of airport property subsidized by FAA. 

Continue Reading The FAA Proposes Changes to its Funding Contracts with Airports