Citing concerns about overreach, drone journalists comment on FAA model aircraft rule interpretation
During the monthly meeting in July, the board of directors of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists decided to take action and formally comment on the Federal Aviation Administration (of the United States) interpreting rules for model aircraft.
Our full comment, contained below, explains our reasons for commenting on behalf of our membership. Essentially, many of our members currently operate as hobbyists, and many journalists have been introduced to drone journalism by way of RC hobby aircraft. Additionally, we realize the importance of this organization as a voice to stand up for all journalists who wish to use small unmanned aircraft systems as part of their profession, and as such, must take a stand against any regulation that could affect our membership.
This comment was submitted on July 24, which was one day before the original comment period ended. Since this was submitted, the Academy of Model Aeronautics has lobbied successfully to have the comment period extended. If you wish to comment, you now have until September 23 to submit your individual comment. We reccomend consulting this document created by attorney Brendan Schulman (FAA v Pirker) for details on how to write an effective, useful comment.
A Comment on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Rule: Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on a final rule for “Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft.” Open, constructive dialogue between the Federal Aviation Administration and the public is absolutely crucial to establishing effective regulations, and the Professional Society of Drone Journalists appreciate any chance to contribute to the FAA’s effort to safely integrate unmanned aircraft systems into the nation’s airspace.
The Professional Society of Drone Journalists is a young, not-for-profit organization of journalists, reporters, sUAS developers, engineers, educators, and researchers. As per our bylaws, our purpose is to 1) Foster the development and safe operation of unmanned vehicles for journalistic purposes, 2) Further the adoption of unmanned vehicles by the press through education, outreach, and promotion, and 3) Advocate freedom of responsible and ethical use of unmanned vehicles by journalists. As of July 22, 2014, our roster includes 291 members from more than 30 countries. Most of our members live in the United States, including three of the five members on the board of directors.
We comment on these proposed interpretations because while our purpose involves using sUAS professionally as journalists (or assisting professional journalists in doing so), rules on flying model aircraft for recreation will impact our membership in the US. Many journalists consider deploying sUAS professionally after successfully mastering the basics of unmanned flight as hobbyists. Overly burdensome regulations for hobbyists will negatively affect our members who would seek to become responsible members of the UAS community. As such, we object to these proposed interpretations on two basic principles.
1) The FAA interprets an overly-narrow view of hobby and recreational UAS activity.
In the proposed interpretation of hobbyist rules, the FAA looks to a dictionary to define “hobby” and “recreation.” Such a narrow interpretation of those words ignores the breadth of the hobby community, which has operated safely in the US for decades. For example, what happens to a business that develops and manufactures sUAS for recreational use? Can a journalist be fined for publishing aerial footage gathered during a recreational activity, or for earning a living off of the equipment and skills she or he acquired recreationally? Is a flight still “recreational” if someone receives an educational benefit, and don’t all recreational flights inherently have an educational benefit? And what of nonprofit “community-based organizations” that are neither businesses nor entirely recreational in nature? This interpretation creates needlessly broad “gray areas,” outlaws hobby-based businesses in the US, and has a chilling effect over a safe, rewarding, and legal pastime.
2) The FAA is exceeding its authority by making model aircraft rules.
Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 explicitly forbids the FAA from promulgating any rule or regulation regarding model aircraft. The Act also clearly defined what constitutes a model aircraft, such that the FAA should need no additional interpretation on what it can and cannot regulate. Yet by narrowly defining “hobby” and “recreation,” and outlawing specific types of UAS control technology (specifically, flight aided by first person view), the FAA is making de-facto regulations under the banner of “interpretation.” Congress gave the FAA authority to “pursue enforcement action against persons operating model aircraft who endanger the safety of the national airspace system,” but the FAA gives no evidence that FPV flight, in and of itself, endangers the safety of the NAS. In a footnote, the FAA acknowledges that FPV flight is an accepted practice in at least one community-based organization, thus begging the question why the FAA had not taken action against this group, if it was indeed posing a threat to the NAS. Upon further investigation, the FAA might find that individuals of this organization adopted the practice of FPV flight after concluding the perspective offered several safety advantages over traditional, unaided/corrected vision, or at least did not add an unnecessary element of risk. Additionally, the FAA misinterprets the meaning of “within” in section 336, subsection c, “flown within visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft” as meaning “the operator must use his or her own natural vision.” Congress clearly intended to limit recreational flights to the distance at which the operator could see the aircraft with unaided or corrected vision, and not place a wide-scale ban on FPV-enhanced flights.
We, the undersigned board members of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists, believe this interpretation of model aircraft rules is detrimental to recreational UAS use in the United States, and would hurt the aviation community at large. Regulations can be enforced, but guidance cannot, and no attempt at rule interpretation brings the FAA any closer to its congressionally-mandated responsibility of promulgating rules for small unmanned aircraft systems and UAS integration into the national airspace system. In lieu of this extraordinarily confusing guidance, we need clear, just, codified rules for all manner of UAS operations, recreational and otherwise, to become responsible operators and journalists.
Trenton, New Jersey