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

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

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

Earlier today, in a landmark decision for the unmanned aircraft systems industry, the National Transportation Safety Board reversed the Administrative Law Judge Patrick Geraghty’s order in the Pirker case and held that unmanned aircraft systems fall squarely within the definition of “aircraft” under the Federal Aviation Regulations.  This is the most significant legal opinion issued to date on the issue of drones in the United States. 

In a twelve page opinion reversing the ALJ’s March 7, 2014 decisional order, the NTSB stated:
“This case calls upon us to ascertain a clear, reasonable definition of ‘aircraft’ for purposes of the prohibition on careless and reckless operation in 14 C.F.R. § 91.13(a). We must look no further than the clear, unambiguous plain language of 49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(6) and 14 C.F.R. § 1.1: an ‘aircraft’ is any ‘device’ ‘used for flight in the air.’ This definition includes any aircraft, manned or unmanned, large or small. The prohibition on careless and reckless operation in § 91.13(a) applies with respect to the operation of any ‘aircraft’ other than those subject to parts 101 and 103. We therefore remand to the law judge for a full factual hearing to determine whether respondent operated the aircraft ‘in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another,’ contrary to § 91.13(a).”
The Federal Aviation Administration’s success on appeal comes as no surprise to most members of the UAS industry, many of whom have already tacitly recognized the FAA’s jurisdiction over unmanned aircraft by specifically requesting regulatory exemptions to conduct commercial UAS operations under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.
 

Continue Reading Pirker Reversed: NTSB Confirms FAA Has Jurisdiction Over Drones

On August 19, 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) published a proposed rule regarding “Implementation of Legislative Categorical Exclusion for Environmental Review of Performance Based Navigation  Procedures,” 79 Fed.Reg. 49141 (“CATEX Rule”) to implement the Congressional mandate contained in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Pub.L. 112-95 (“FRMA”), § 213, directing FAA “to issue and file a categorical exclusion for any navigation performance or other performance based  navigation (PBN) procedure that would result in measureable reductions in fuel consumption, carbon  dioxide emissions, and noise on a per flight basis as compared to aircraft operations that follow existing instrument flight rule procedures in the same airspace.”  79 Fed.Reg. 41941.

FAA was motivated to request public review of the CATEX Rule by the exceptions in FMRA that limits the change in the environmental review requirements to: (1) PBN procedures (excluding conventional operational procedures and projects involving a mix of both), FMRA § 213(c)(2); and (2) those in which there are measurable reductions in fuel consumption, carbon dioxide emissions and noise on a per flight basis, Id., see also, 79 Fed.Reg. 49142, citing FMRA § 213(c)(1).  In addition, FAA feels it necessary to further explore the consequent recommendations of the industry group appointed to develop a metric to capture the new requirement, the NextGen Advisory Committee (“NAC”), made up of 28 members from the “airlines, airports, manufacturers, aviation associations, consultants, and community interests.”  Id.
 

Continue Reading FAA Seeks Comments on Exemption from Environmental Review for New Airspace Procedures

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