Two Ways the FAA Can Immediately Help Promote Drone Safety in the National Airspace System


Since the House Subcommittee on Aviation is having a hearing on October 7th on “Ensuring Aviation Safety in the Era of Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” I was inspired to write about two things that the FAA can do to immediately promote drone safety.

The FAA can (1) put all the recreational aircraft guidance down in one place and (2)  get FAA certificated pilots involved in the industry.


(1) Put Everything Down in One Place.

The FAA has issued advisory circulars and guidance on small unmanned recreational aircraft since 1981.  Over the years the message has not been consistent and at times even contradictory. To illustrate the inconsistency and contradiction, I have compiled this chart on recreational aircraft guidelines. The FAA published their (1) Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft, published (2) Law Enforcement Guidance for Suspected Unauthorized UAS Operations, partnered with (3) the Know Before You Fly campaign, published (4) the “What Can I Do With My Model Aircraft?” webpage on the FAA’s website, published (5) Advisory Circular 91-57,  and published (6) an Updated Advisory Circular 91-57 (“91-57A”).


Compilation of Recreational Aircraft Guidelines

The aircraft is flown strictly for hobby or recreational use. You can’t make money off the flying incidentally or directly. Sources:  (1),(2),(4),(6).
The aircraft is operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization. Sources: (1),(2),(3),(6).
The aircraft is limited to not more than 55 pounds [Take Off Weight] unless otherwise certified through a design, construction, inspection, flight test, and operational safety program administered by a community-based organization. Sources: (1),(2),(4),(6).
The aircraft is operated in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to any manned aircraft. See also § 91.113. Sources: (1),(2),(3),(4),(5),(6).
When flown within 5 miles of an airport, the operator of the aircraft provides the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower (when an air traffic facility is located at the airport) with prior notice of the operation (model aircraft operators flying from a permanent location within 5 miles of an airport should establish a mutually-agreed upon operating procedure with the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower (when an air traffic facility is located at the airport)). AC 91-57 said 3 miles. Sources: (1),(2),(3),(4),(6).
Do not fly your model in a “careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.” Sources: (2); Section 336(c) of the FMRA; 14 C.F.R. § 91.13, (6).
Do not fly the aircraft beyond visual line-of-sight. Sources: (1),(3),(4),(6) FRMA § 336(c)(2).
“The aircraft must be visible at all times to the operator[.]”Source: (1).
“[T]he operator must use his or her own natural vision (which includes vision corrected by standard eyeglasses or contact lenses) to observe the aircraft.” You cannot use “vision-enhancing devices, such as binoculars, night vision goggles, powered vision magnifying devices, and goggles designed to provide a ‘first-person view’ from the model.” Source: (1).
“[P]eople other than the operator may not be used in lieu of the operator for maintaining visual line of sight.” No daisy chain. Source: (1).
The FAA mentioned in their Model Rule Interpretation § 91.119(c) which says do not operate the aircraft in a non-congested area “closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure.” Model aircraft “may still pose a risk to persons and property on the ground warranting enforcement action when conducted unsafely.” However, in the Know Before You Fly campaign which the FAA partnered with, it says, “Do not intentionally fly over unprotected persons or moving vehicles, and remain at least 25 feet away from individuals and vulnerable property.” This distance requirement is unclear. Sources: (1) and/or? (3).
Fly no higher than 400 feet above ground level and remain below any surrounding obstacles when possible. Sources: (3),(5),(6).
The “operating site that is of sufficient distance from populated areas. The selected site should be away from noise sensitive areas such as parks, schools, hospitals, churches, etc.” Source: (5).
“Do not operate model aircraft in the presence of spectators until the aircraft is successfully flight tested and proven airworthy.” Source: (5).
“Do not fly in adverse weather conditions such as in high winds or reduced visibility.” Source: (3).
“Do not fly under the influence of alcohol or drugs.” Source: (3).
“Do not fly near or over sensitive infrastructure or property such as power stations, water treatment facilities, correctional facilities, heavily traveled roadways, government facilities, etc.” Source: (3).
“Check and follow all local laws and ordinances before flying over private property.” Source: (3).
“Do not conduct surveillance or photograph persons in areas where there is an expectation of privacy without the individual’s permission.” Source: (3).
“[M]ust comply with any Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR).”(1),(6)
“Model aircraft must not operate in Prohibited Areas, Special Flight Rule Areas or, the Washington National Capital Region Flight Restricted Zone, without specific authorization.” (1),(6).


As you can see, the FAA has a patchwork of guidance on this area. We need to have all the information in one place and be done with it. The FAA needs to take the pieces and sew them all together so recreational flyers know what is exactly required of them as opposed to them having to piece together the hodgepodge guidance.

Furthermore, it would be helpful to include all the regulations that the FAA believes recreational operators are required to comply with in one place; otherwise, a guy who bought a Phantom off Amazon is going to have no clue about the regulations or even where to start!


(2) We Need to Get FAA Certificated Pilots Involved in the Industry

We can do this two ways: (A) take the pilot license suspension/revocation possibility off the table, for the time being, for individuals who have pilot licenses and (B) allow commercial flight operations for flight instructing.

(A) Removing the Possibility of a FAA Pilot License Suspension/Revocation

Pilots stand to lose a lot if they get in trouble with the FAA. Not only can they be fined, they can also get their pilot license suspended or revoked. This creates not a safer environment but actually decreases safety, because the most highly experienced and knowledgeable group of people who can operate safely in the national airspace are on the sidelines in fear of losing their licenses or in the worst case, their livelihood. This creates a “vacuum” of knowledge and also a vacuum in the culture of drone operators. You can still keep the licensed pilots in check with large civil penalties.

(B) Allow Commercial Flight Instruction Under the Section 333 Exemptions

Update: Kansas State University received an exemption to conduct flight instruction with drones.

One of my clients received this statement in their exemption from the FAA, “The petitioner also requested authority to conduct UAS training. At this time, the FAA is unable to authorize UAS operations for training until a further assessment is completed. When the FAA completes its review, we will proceed accordingly and no further action will be required by the petitioner. However, the petitioner is permitted to train its own pilot in commands and visual observers in accordance with condition no. 14 and the other conditions and limitations in this exemption.”  The FAA is not exempting individuals or businesses to do commercial flight instruction.

Furthermore, the FAA clarified in an opinion that public universities are prohibited from obtaining public COA’s for education because education is not considered a “core function” of government.

Since FAA certificated pilots are currently prohibited from commercially doing flight instruction of drones,  how do individuals or businesses get practical flight instruction? Are they expected to just go out and fly at some uninhabited baseball field and learn by trial and error (crash)? There is only one FAA approved flight school for drones in the US and the rest are just all illegally operating.

Jonathan Rupprecht

Mr. Rupprecht is an aviation attorney who focuses on drones. Read more about his background as a commercial pilot, flight instructor, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University grad, and legal author. He has had media appearances on Forbes, Newsweek, Politico, NPR, Marketwatch, The Independent, Motherboard, and other sources. Feel free to send Jonathan a message here.