For drone hobbyists in the U.S., the Wild West comes to an end

FAA begins to implement new rules, including registration and displaying identifying numbers

For years, drone hobbyists in the U.S. flew their aircraft pretty much like how the cowboys on the frontier rode their horses: wherever they wanted. When videotaping wildlife or weddings, these operators just had to keep their drones in their sight below 400 feet and voluntarily request permission from authorities to fly within 5 miles (8 kilometers) of an airport.

The FAA is in the process of drawing that era to a close and is doing so in cooperation with hobbyist groups that provide safety guidelines for recreational flyers, the largest of which is the Academy of Model Aeronautics, or AMA. So far, the FAA has issued one new rule with others on the way.

The general theme is that hobbyists and commercial operators should be treated the same way when it comes to safety.

For some hobbyists, this transition has been difficult.

“There is some frustration and the hassle” of implementing rules for a never-before regulated industry, says Mason Hutchison, a drone hobbyist flyer from California and AMA member. Recreational flyers were previously exempt from FAA regulations under a 2012 law that Congress repealed in 2018.

The FAA is leaning on groups like AMA to help flyers get used to the new regulations as they’re implemented.

Here are the major changes:

Authorization for controlled airspace

As of late July, hobbyists must receive authorization from the FAA to fly in controlled airspace, meaning that governed by air traffic controllers, and do so via the same online portal that commercial operators’ access. The FAA did this by opening up its online Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability, or LAANC, portal to recreational flyers. They can reach LAANC via mobile apps such as AirMap and receive authorization in seconds.

Previously, hobbyists had to request permission from both the airport operator and air traffic control tower, usually via phone call, before flying within 5 miles of the airport.

Hutchison says the shift to a digital process is an improvement for hobbyists in one sense. The requirement to notify authorities was daunting to some hobbyists. “In my experience that [notification] is a barrier to entry, a hassle for flyers,” he says.

Most chose to limit their flying to FAA pre-approved airspaces. Others flew illegally.

The key issue for FAA going forward will be getting those flyers to follow the new rule, says Tyler Dobbs, head of government affairs at AMA.

“The industry and FAA need to do a better job in getting the information out to the masses because right now it’s only available to those who are looking for it,” Dobbs says.

To that end, the FAA continues to host webinars to show recreational flyers how to apply to fly in controlled airspace. By opening an app on their smartphone, they can select their flight path, desired altitude and time of flight, and see where their drones are allowed to be.

This process also makes matters easier on air traffic controllers because information on all authorized flights is now in one place, explained Mark DeNicuolo, deputy vice president of FAA program management, during an Aug. 7 webinar. Once flyers get approval for their flights, LAANC gives airports “immediate notification that you’ll be flying near their facility.”

Flyers can still operate in uncontrolled airspace below 400 feet altitude without authorization.

Safety and knowledge test

Hobbyists are no longer supposed to simply buy a drone, unpackage it and fly it. The FAA rolled out new requirements in May that include directions for registering and displaying numbers on them just as is done with cars and boats.

Since May, the FAA has been drafting a test that operators would need to pass before registering and flying their drones. Groups including AMA have suggested questions and topics that they feel the test should include.

The FAA declined to provide an update when I inquired about the status of the test, but Dobbs of AMA follows the matter closely and says the agency is “nearing the end” of the process for creating it.

“I do think we can expect something relatively soon, and I would venture a guess that we have the test up and running by the end of this year,” he says.

Dobbs declined to discuss specifics but said there would be “overlap” with an existing test that commercial operators take. Those flyers must pass this 60-question multiple choice test on topics that include preflight inspection procedures and operating requirements for the different airspace classifications.

The test for hobbyists will be “more basic,” Dobbs says. “I think that’s good because we don’t want the threshold to be held so high that it discourages users from joining the hobby.”

Hutchison says he’s reserving judgment on how effective the test will be until he sees its contents.

“I think it’s going to be a turn off for some drone flyers,” he says.

Designated community-based organizations

AMA and its fellow member organizations will help their flyers transition to the new rules, Dobbs says, and soon those groups will take on new responsibilities. A newly created community-based organization, or CBO, designation from the FAA will authorize those groups to administer the knowledge test to flyers and give input on future policy changes.

DeNicuolo said during the webinar that the CBO designation will occur in the “near future,” but Dobbs doesn’t expect it to happen until after the agency releases the knowledge test.

In the meantime, he says, AMA is also working on bringing new flyers into the fold because the regulations will only be effective if there’s widespread acceptance.

“These new regulations that are being put in place are really only affecting those [flyers] who are already following the rules,” he says. “If they’re not getting the message that there are new regulations, they don’t mean very much.”

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Public Policy

“The industry and FAA need to do a better job in getting the information out to the masses because right now it’s only available to those who are looking for it.”

Tyler Dobbs, head of government affairs at the Academy of Model Aeronautics

For drone hobbyists in the U.S., the Wild West comes to an end