Since the repeal of Section 336 of the federal code, which protected model aircraft from new regulation, recreational flyers have had to absorb a number of changes. Flying clubs who have operated safely for years find that new restrictions based upon their location limit their activities: new proposals include required testing and other new processes. Now, a new threat to recreational drone flight looms on the horizon – and it’s one that Tyler Dobbs, Government Affairs Director at the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) says could shut down many AMA clubs and established fixed flying sites.
Current Rules for Recreational Flyers and AMA Fixed Flying Sites
Throughout the process of new regulations since the repeal of Section 336, says Dobbs, “The FAA assured us that our operations would not be curtailed. The intent was to bring the bad actors into line.”
The AMA has been an active participant in the process of developing new regulations over the last year. “Congress recognized that AMA and our members were not the problem,” says Dobbs. “We’ve been working with them in good faith over the last year.” While most restrictions on recreational flight have been designed to limit problems from those pilots either unaware of the regulations or unwilling to follow them, the AMA has a long track record of safety and education, making their members aware of new laws and creating fixed flying sites designed to encourage safe recreational flight and educational activities.
Currently, while recreational flyers operating independently of a community-based flight organization (CBO) like AMA must apply for flight waivers through the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) as commercial pilots do, hobbyists who fly at AMA fixed flying sites can operate under a Letter of Agreement between the flying site and the FAA.
Each of the fixed sites – there are hundreds – must negotiate a separate Letter of Agreement, laying out the restrictions on flight at that site.
New Guidance from the FAA
Now, says Dobbs, new guidance from the FAA on those Letters of Agreement would limit any and all of the fixed sites that are within controlled airspace to a flight altitude of 400 feet – and in class G airspace, to only 700 or 1200 feet. There would be no exceptions, and no opportunity to apply for waivers.
While for traditional quadcopters, those altitudes may sound reasonable, they discount the wide variety of recreational flight activities that AMA clubs support. “While those altitudes sound pretty high, for some of things that we do – like thermal soaring, which requires an altitude of about 2000 feet – the limitation would make it impossible,” points out Dobbs.
Less Safe, Not More Safe
Dobbs says that the new guidance isn’t only damaging to AMA members, it could have the opposite effect of that intended. Limiting the altitude doesn’t always make sense in terms of safety. “Large model aircraft, like turbo jet aircraft, would be limited to 400 feet also: and they’re much safer at higher altitudes. Now you’ve taken a very safe operation and restricted them to lower altitudes that are unsafe – if the aircraft does have an issue, the operator won’t have time to recover.”
If club sites that focus on those applications are forced to shut down – and Dobbs says that’s very likely – members will be denied a safe designated flying site and the educational resources that the AMA provides. “By taking this approach and closing down a number of our clubs, you’ll be disbanding these members,” says Dobbs. “Now you have all of those members not looped in to the safety framework that we supply.”
Dobbs says that the guidance, while perhaps easier for the FAA to apply with a broad brush, isn’t working with the recreational community to make the airspace safer: and has an outsized impact on flyers already complying with safety rules. “What we can’t understand is that our fixed flying sites that have been operating for 30 or 40 years are being impacted… even though there has never been a safety issue,” he points out. The AMA isn’t asking for particularly special consideration, Dobbs says, but they should at least to be allowed to make the safety case for exceptions where appropriate.
“Recreational operators should be given at least the same opportunities to apply for waivers that commercial operators do. We have a number of educational programs and charities that do rely upon this – the impact of this is going to be much larger than just people flying recreationally.”
The Call to Action: Call Your Congressperson
“Congress assured us that AMA would be able to continue operations,” says Dobbs. “These new altitude restrictions mean that they are not following through with their promises.” The AMA is encouraging members to write to their members of Congress, in the hopes that Congress will step in to protect the hobby. “It’s time that they step in and let FAA know that they need to work with us,” says Dobbs.
Why Protect Hobby Flyers?
The commercial drone industry doesn’t always find their interests aligned with the recreational community. But that might be a mistake, says Dobbs. As the commercial drone industry begins to experience a shortage of skilled and qualified employees, they’ll need to look to the next generation: and flying clubs are critical for sparking an interest in aviation. Today’s recreational flyer may just turn out to be next year’s skilled commercial resource.
“We have a pilot shortage right now, we need more aeronautical engineers – and the platforms that the commercial industry is using came directly from the recreational community,” says Dobbs. “If you take us out of the loop, innovation is gone: and the pipeline for the next generation of aviation experts is gone.”