New Drone Law, Will the Law Affect You

The new house bill linked here, HR-302 Federal Aviation Authority Re-authorization Act of 2018 (See pages 247 to 348) has passed through the house and is now on its way to the Senate for a final vote. The bill is expected to pass without change to the provisions affecting drones and hobby aircraft. The biggest issue at hand is that the new bill will require everyone to pass an aeronautical knowledge and safety test to fly any hobby aircraft or drone. The new law does not, however, change the current regulations for altitude, speed, line of sight and time restrictions. Currently, drones must be flown within 400 feet of ground level. Speed cannot exceed 40 knots and you must fly within a visual line of sight. Operating a drone after dark or before sunrise is also not allowed without an approved waiver.

Industry Involvement with new Drone Law Proposals

Many large players within the drone industry have engaged with the process through lobbying, however, it appears this new law is being pushed through fairly hastily. We believe the industry as a whole appreciates that regulation is required. While there are needs for restrictions, there should also be a balance to ensure hobbyists, STEM or other educational activities are not prohibitively restricted. We need to realize that store-bought drones are much more capable than those available just a few years ago. Anyone can buy a drone and fly it 4 or 5 miles away with no problem. While this seems fun to think about, this is potentially extremely dangerous if you are not an experienced pilot with proper airspace and air traffic knowledge. This is why it is against the law to do, yet almost anyone can do it at any time.

What the Industry is Doing

The industry has done a lot to enact self-control and restrictions. For example, DJI has controls built into their controllers which require you to ensure you have proper clearance to fly before you can take off. We have personally experienced this and even had to add credit card information into the DJI application to prove who we were before we could take off. This was required even though we had LAANC Flight clearance from another service. It is welcome by most operators to see DJI now authorized to provide LAANC approval authorization integration from the FAA which will soon be incorporated in their app.

DJI Is Heavily Involved

DJI owns around 75% of the drone retail and commercial space and they have recently issued a statement. The press statement from DJI states, “DJI is pleased that the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 protects the rights of recreational drone pilots to fly safely and explore innovation in the skies, and welcomes the new electronic knowledge test requirement. DJI agrees that drone pilots should understand the rules for safe flight, and implemented its own mandatory knowledge test of FAA rules into its drone products a year ago. We look forward to working with the FAA on an official test that is user-friendly and focused on important safety principles.”

The Issues with Removing Section 336 From Current Law

The drone industry’s biggest issue with the FAA Re-authorization is the removal of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft. The FAA Re-authorization of 2012, section 336 allowed for greater flexibility to amateurs operating small model airplanes or aircraft.

Section 336 was used in 2017 to overturn an FAA decision that would have required drone flyers to register their aircraft or drone. The industry as a whole took pause with the use of 336 to force this case because the law seemed reasonable and not overly burdensome. Now, look where we are today, tighter restrictions forcing common hobby operators to take a test. There are many common operators which may find this test to be quite difficult. If the current Part 107 certification requirements and testing are any indications, many hobby operators will struggle to pass and may simply resign themselves to breaking the law or not flying at all.

New Line Of Sight Research and Funding

The new drone law in the bill provides for specific requirements to further investigate rules regarding drone operations beyond line of sight. This means the FAA is investigating how they can manage drone operations over longer distances where maintaining visual contact is not possible. We are not sure what this means for commercial drone operators wanting to fly longer missions beyond the line of sight in the long term. For now, nothing in the law allows for flights beyond the line of sight. However, this appears to be targeted primarily around unmanned delivery services. The law provides a $1 million per year budget, requirements for airspace territory and fairly unspecific research and experimentation goals.

There have been other new drone law bills submitted in the past, such as HR-2930 which have not moved forward. HR-2930 would have restricted flight ceilings to 200 feet and essentially criminalized flying over private property. This is a big issue when airplanes commonly fly over private property without restriction on photography or observation. While many in the industry struggle to see how this differs, thankfully the FAA has essentially rejected many new drone law restrictions regarding non-governmental airspace by other agencies.

New Laws That Thankfully Didn’t Pass

An example of legislative overreach is a previous bipartisan new drone law bill that thankfully failed to move forward. HR2930 would have directed the Department of Transportation (DOT) to publish a civil unmanned aircraft (drone) local operation policy framework in the Federal Register. The framework would have provided “guidelines to standardize restrictions on the operation of drones and create an environment that encourages innovation and fosters the rapid integration of drones into the national airspace system. DOT shall establish pilot programs to provide technical assistance to governmental entities for regulating the operation of drones. DOT shall not authorize the operation of drones in local airspace above property where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy without the property owner’s permission.”

Legislators Need More Understanding

Congressman Jason Lewis offered this statement regarding the HR2930, “America continues to lead the world in technological advances. It’s clear to me that drones have a growing role to play in interstate commerce, and that’s vital to maintaining our economic strength at home and competitiveness on the world stage. The Drone Innovation Act will promote the spirit of invention by establishing a clear framework for the operation of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Importantly, my legislation also lays out clear protections for your right to privacy and gives local governments the primary responsibility in forming guidelines for how drones can be used in our communities. I look forward to working with the FAA to maintain an environment that works for all stakeholders, and thank my colleagues for their support.”

Congresswoman Julia Brownley also stated, “Congress needs to do more to spur innovation in this exciting new field of aviation, while at the same time promoting the safe integration of unmanned systems into the national airspace. As this process moves forward, it’s important that we explore the proper role of state and local governments in helping to foster innovation. The pilot program created by the bill would be one step that can help lead us forward. I look forward to working with the Drone Advisory Committee, and other industry stakeholders, as Congress considers these issues, and thank my colleague, Jason Lewis, for leading this effort.”

Why the Industry Needs A Strong Lobby

HR-2930 is a prime example of why the industry must ensure proper participation with legislation. Many people affected oppose the complete removal of Section 336 will negatively affect a hobby that encourages young and old alike to learn and participate in aviation. Currently, you can fly a model aircraft in the United States under an FAA regulation known as Part 107. Part 107 mandates that an operator must be older than 16. The other is part 336. 336 had a lot of open languages which made it easier for teenagers and children 15 and younger to fly for educational purposes.

Some Regulation Is Needed

There are some good points for the future of the industry in the new drone law bill. The bill provides specific requirements to further investigate rules regarding drone operations beyond line of sight. This means the FAA is investigating how they can manage drone operations over longer distances where maintaining line of sight control is not possible. We are not sure what this means for commercial drone operators wanting to fly longer missions in the long term. For now, nothing in the law allows for flying beyond line of sight. However, this appears to be a first step toward longer flights. However, the new drone law bill wording seems to be focused on unmanned delivery services. The law provides a $1 million per year budget, requirements for airspace territory and fairly unspecific research and experimentation goals.

Drones are Becoming Extremely Popular and Easy to Fly

As we move forward, drone popularity will continue to rise and drone-related incidents will inevitably occur forcing more drone law initiation. The technology is simply becoming more and more a part of everyday life. Industry experts expect around 4 million personal drones to be sold in 2018.

We think we all recognize there are many drones operating in the skies. They are sometimes operated recklessly becoming a risk for all of us. Drones have already collided with aircraft, fell into crowds and caused considerable personal and property damage. Drones were even recently used in a failed assignation attempt which opens the door for many nefarious uses. This being said, there has to be a proper balance with any new drone law between hobby drone use and industry players who operate commercially such as Jettdrone and Searchorb.

We reached out to Jettdrone operator Stacy Glasgow regarding the new law. Mr. Glasgow commented, “We have been following this law and have been in contact with our legislators regarding this bill. While there are some questions, from what we read into it, this bill has little effect on commercial drone operations.

Reading the Bill Is Like Reading The Bible, lengthy

The bill itself is expansive, with thousands of pages. It covers a wide swath of different subjects, not only UAS or drone operations. We definitely see this as having a big effect on personal drone operators. Many will likely not be able to pass a complex test. I think the key is making the test appropriate for the type of flying the individual intends to do and to ensure they understand that they can be prosecuted for flying in a dangerous manner. there is no excuse for careless disregard when flying.

Too many people treat drones as toys. Some are toys with very limited flight ranges. However, many drones today are very capable of long-range and even high altitude flight. If a 10-year-old can fly a drone 4 miles up, we are putting commercial and private commuter aircraft at risk. This is completely unacceptable to most people as should be. We are sorry to say, common sense is lacking with many people who own drones for personal, hobby use.”

The new drone law in the FAA re-authorization will not likely get much attention as it moves through Congress. The media is too preoccupied with all the drama in the world to pay attention to new drone law. However, the bill passed through the House on September 26 and is expected to be passed by the Senate shortly thereafter. We have a feeling there are going to be a lot of shocked hobby aircraft and drone owners. When they realize the effect of the new drone law, only then will we see how things play out with future lawsuits.