The latest FAA rules on UAVs are so broad that they class adorable toy quadcopters as drones and require special permits to operate them. Meanwhile, hot air balloons and unpiloted model aircraft are fair game for unlicensed play. The drone hobbyists are pissed:
Up to now, the FAA has been distinguishing model aircraft from small drones (or small unmanned aerial systems, to use the FAA's preferred terminology) according to whether they are flown for recreation or for commercial purposes. If you want to fly a 20-kilogram, turbine-powered radio-controlled model airplane, go right ahead, so long as you only do it as a hobby. Fly a 2-kilogram electric foamy for compensation, and you're breaking the rules against commercial drone use, though. That was the basic argument the FAA had made against Raphael Pirker, who was issued with a $10,000 fine for flying a model airplane for hire in 2011.
Pirker contested the fine and prevailed in court this past March. Administrative Law Judge Patrick G. Geraghty held in Pirker's favor, pointing out that the logical extension of the FAA's arguments about what defines a regulated aircraft would extend to something as small as a paper airplane or balsa-wood glider. The FAA has appealed that decision, which has yet to be taken up by the full National Transportation Safety Board.
In the meantime, the FAA's small-drone-policing empire is striking back. This week's FAA notice not only reiterates the FAA's position that the definition of "model aircraft" requires that the flying be only for recreation, the agency now asserts that the operator must be looking directly at the model in flight, not piloting it with video goggles or other other high-tech vision aids. By logical extension, that must mean that flying a video-camera-equipped model airplane or 'copter using, say, an iPad screen or a video monitor of any type makes it no longer fit the FAA's definition of a model aircraft.
That Toy Is Now a Drone, Says the FAA [David Schneider/IEEE Spectrum]
(Image: Drone, Flying Eye, CC-BY-SA)