Torqued: Drone Rules Could Stifle Student Interest

 - November 1, 2016, 6:45 AM

No, this isn’t an article about rogue drones or what we have to fear from drones in the hands of novice fliers. Far from it. This is about how the FAA’s new drone rules—a real boon for commercial operations—have quite the opposite potential effect on hobbyists (particularly students) and on teachers, whom the FAA has determined are “commercial” operators in all but the most limited circumstances. The FAA has underplayed this potential impact, including posting misleading information on its UAS websites. I strongly believe in the importance of educational and hobby flying with minimum unnecessary government bureaucracy, especially in school and after-school programs where students in elementary and high school should be able to learn to build, fly and even race model aircraft without the need to comply with FAA rules meant for commercial operators. So while FAA websites continue to tout the hobby/educational and non-hobby distinction [or fun vs. work as the FAA’s chart ( puts it], the new rules do not, in fact, make that neat distinction any more. But more about the rules in a moment.

First, why should aviation employers even care about the barriers to hobby and educational flying erected by the FAA’s new rules? Well, we all know of the looming shortages in aviation personnel. Boeing’s most recent forecast doesn’t mince words: “As global economies expand and airlines take delivery of tens of thousands of new jetliners over the next 20 years, there is extraordinary demand for people to fly and maintain these airplanes.” The 2016 report predicts that “between now and 2035, the aviation industry will need to supply more than two million new aviation personnel—617,000 airline pilots, 679,000 maintenance technicians and 814,000 cabin crew.” For North America, the numbers for this period are 112,000 new pilots, 118,000 new maintenance technicians and 169,000 new cabin crew. The report specifically acknowledges the importance of educational outreach to inspire the next generation of aviation workers. 

The personnel shortages really aren’t “looming” any longer. Aviation employers across the country are already experiencing difficulties. That will continue unless dramatic steps are taken to expand the pipeline of students interested in aviation careers. 

The challenge for all of us who care about the future of aviation is how to do that educational outreach, how to get young people excited about aviation careers. For me, as for many of you, model aircraft were our first personal experiences with flying. As a young boy growing up near Logan Airport—before any fences surrounded the field—I spent many hours watching airplanes take off and land. But watching airplanes fly was not as much fun as actually making them fly. And that was what led me to building and flying model airplanes—until I was old enough to fly a real airplane myself. These early experiences with flight, I’m certain, fed my life-long fascination with aviation and fueled my desire to make aviation my career. I’m not alone here; I know so many pilots and mechanics who trace their love of aviation to their early days building and flying models. 

Access Restrictions

Fast-forward to more recent times. For decades the FAA did not regulate hobby flying at all. Flying clubs—many under the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA)—had safety guidelines meant to ensure the safe operation of model aircraft and fueled many an aviation career. In 1981, the FAA put out an advisory circular suggesting some non-mandatory safety guidelines for flying model aircraft. Then, with the Pirker case, the FAA began its march to regulating model aircraft, culminating in the new federal aviation regulations applicable to anyone who flies a model aircraft regardless of its size or weight, location of flight and purpose (hobby or commercial). Yes, the new rules eliminate the long-standing hobby/non-hobby distinction and instead carve out from the “commercial” or Part 107 rules hobbyists who can comply with all of the Part 101 requirements. Sound easy? Well, it’s not. And the consequences for students and educators are significant.

For one thing, Part 101 requires that model aircraft remain in visual line of sight. The FAA has interpreted this to prohibit use of first-person-view (FPV) devices. This interpretation means that drone racers cannot fly FPV without a Part 107 certificate and meeting the requirements of Part 107 (which for FPV flying would include a visual observer). So while this erects a significant barrier to all drone racers—and from a safety perspective it should be noted that most racing drones are extremely small and light weight and flown at very low altitudes—it’s particularly burdensome to children under the age of 16. That’s because the age limit for a Part 107 certificate is 16.To fly FPV legally, children under the age of 16 would need both a certified pilot and a visual observer on hand each and every time they fly. Sounds like a lot of government red tape to race a tiny drone.

Drone racing might not sound like a big deal, but it is a huge deal when it comes to getting kids interested in aviation. I’ve seen the excitement kids of all ages have in building and flying these drones. And the competition really fuels their interest. It’s an educator’s dream: a sport that has real math and science skills behind it, that gets kids away from their video games into the outdoors and that fosters teamwork and competition. 

Other than the prohibition on FPV flying, the Part 101 rules apply only if you fly under the safety guidelines and programming of a community-based, national aeromodelling organization. No one really knows what that means. The FAA has said that the AMA meets this definition, but no one knows if that means you have to be a member. The FAA won’t say if any other organization meets this requirement. So people who don’t belong to the AMA might not be able to fly under Part 101.

The other section that is difficult to comply with is the notification to airports and ATC within five miles of an airport. I’ve talked to several drone attorneys who tell me this section causes a lot of concern among their clients. The FAA has interpreted this notification requirement to apply to private airports, heliports and seaports, regardless of how often they’re used. Notification is no easy feat at many of these small airports.  Even some quite busy airports have no one answering the phones. So if you try to notify but fail, does that constitute notification? Or if you operate after failing to get through to anyone, are you violating Part 107 and flying without a certificate?

The point of all this is that the FAA’s new rules put many hobby fliers and most teachers in the same regulatory group as commercial operators like Amazon and Google. The requirement for getting a certificate under Part 107 might not seem like much of a barrier to entry to most commercial operators but it could well be to most students (especially those who don’t meet the age requirement) and many teachers. 

The solution I see—and one that Congress considered at one time—is a so-called micro UAS rule that would remove all this senseless red tape from the smallest drones, which have the least likelihood of any safety impact. Another alternative is an exemption for teachers and students participating in a school course or club.