Major commercial drone operators, some represented by the Commercial Drone Alliance, are lobbying hard to repeal a law that protects certain hobby flyers from burdensome regulations that would do little to enhance aviation safety or security but would make recreational flying more difficult and expensive. The law they are trying to repeal, known as Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, prohibits the FAA from issuing regulations regarding model aircraft that meet certain stringent criteria, including that the model aircraft has to be “operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization [CBO].” The limitation on FAA regulation of certain model aircraft was put into law based on the more than eighty-year record of safe model aircraft operations by members of the Academy of Model Aeronautics. The AMA’s safety record has not changed since the introduction of drones or in the six years since the law was passed.
For sure, there have been reckless drone flights and some may have been flown by hobby flyers but I am confident that none of these reckless flights could be said to have been flown in compliance with the AMA’s safety guidelines and protected by 336. In any event, the FAA retains the authority to prosecute model aircraft operators who “endanger the safety of the national airspace system.” In addition, hobby flyers who can’t or don’t want to meet the detailed requirements of Section 336 are required to hold an FAA drone pilot certificate and fly under Federal Aviation Regulations in Part 107, the same rules as commercial drone pilots. I am aware of at least two hobby flyers who were charged by the FAA with violations of Part 107 when they did not comply with Section 336.
The push to repeal 336, at least by the Commercial Drone Alliance, is driven by the desire to see all drones – regardless of who is operating them – subject to remote identification. Remote identification, in my opinion, makes sense for delivery drones and other commercial operators who want to operate beyond visual line of sight but makes little sense for those who are required to operate within visual line of sight, such as 336 operators. I also believe that requiring government identification and tracking of hobby drones raises significant privacy concerns for individuals.
While more regulation of hobby flyers who are protected by Section 336 is not needed, clarification of the existing law and more education of hobby flyers is. For example, the FAA needs to clarify who is covered by Section 336 and who is not. For starters, the FAA should issue a clarification of which organizations qualify as CBOs (other than the AMA which the FAA has already determined qualifies) and whether Section 336 requires membership in a nationwide community-based organization, not just compliance with its safety guidelines. There has been much debate on many drone forums on what “within the programming” of a CBO means under Section 336, with many believing that if they follow the AMA guidelines or the guidelines of another CBO, such as the Drone User Group Network, they don’t have to become actual members of a CBO. While no one wants to be forced to become a member of any organization, I don’t see how you can operate in accordance with a CBO’s guidelines if you’re not a member. If you’re not a member, how do you know which guidelines are the latest guidelines? Or whether the guidelines have changed? How can the CBO alert you to changes? Or its interpretation of the guidelines? How can it educate its community if the community consists of members and non-members? How can it enforce its guidelines if operators don’t have to be members? The FAA would go a long way in supporting CBOs and safe recreational flying if it interpreted Section 336 to require membership in a CBO. This would also make it easier to determine whether someone was eligible to operate under Section 336 or required an FAA drone license and compliance with Part 107.
Most importantly though, more education of hobby flyers is needed, especially new flyers. Leaders of commercial drone companies would do well to focus on how to ensure new flyers are aware of existing drone rules and safe flying practices, not only to protect the safety of the aviation system but to encourage young people into the aviation industry. Hobby flying for students remains a gateway to careers in aviation. Surely it will be a gateway to the commercial drone industry. Those of us who care about the future of aviation, need to make sure that model aircraft flying – whether in traditional model aircraft or drones – remains an attractive pursuit.
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