While we were away….

The FAA nefariously decided to release its NPRM on sUAS while I am in a remote area of Colorado with a useless wifi connection (writing this post via iPhone).

My initial reaction is one of relief. The proposed rules seem much more liberal and business-friendly than many expected. At least we can say that the FAA is not taking an adversarial view of things. That is very encouraging.

A question on the minds of many will be whether, given these proposed rules, it makes sense to pursue a 333 exemption? There is no one-size-fits-all answer to that (i.e., it’s what lawyers call a “fact-sensitive” question).

I will have more on this, once I’m comfortably esconced in my office in Miami.

NPRM to be released this week?

All Is Not Lost

We’ve heard from a credible (non-government) source that the FAA’s Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) for small drones (sUAS) should be released this Friday, February 13th (yes, Friday the 13th).  Unfortunately, I will be in the air on my way to a long weekend of skiing in Colorado, so (assuming the NPRM is released this week) I probably won’t get around to publishing my initial comments until sometime next week.

Note that the NPRM will be just one step in the process.  There will be a comment period of several months before any rules can have the force of law.  Then there may be challenges in the courts, which could take years to resolve.  And, of course, Congress could step in at any point along the way to pass legislation that might effectively repeal FAA regulations, in whole or in part, and replace them with a different or modified framework.  We still don’t really know how all of this is going to play out.

Until some enforceable rules are in place, the only option for commercial operators to comply with FAA requirements will continue to be to apply for exemptions under Section 333.

BREAKING: PIRKER CASE SETTLES

The Raphael Pirker case has settled.  Not terribly surprising, given the appellate ruling.  Pirker had little incentive to continue defending the case.  He agreed to a reduced fine of $1,100, with no admission of wrongdoing.

The FAA might be feeling like the more fortunate party in this transaction:

In a letter Pirker shared with me, a judge with the National Transportation Safety Board asked the agency why, essentially, it was putting a foreign national through the ringer for a relatively minor (and legally unclear) infraction. The FAA is allowed to take legal enforcement action against foreign nationals in three circumstances: The person has an FAA airman’s certificate; the person commits a violation as a passenger; or the person runs a “foreign repair station.” Otherwise, the FAA is supposed to refer the case to the person’s home country, in this case, Switzerland. The FAA didn’t do that.

Pirker “does not fall within the three circumstances that provide for taking of legal enforcement action … it is determined that this issue is best addressed, and appropriately resolved, prior to commencing a hearing,” the judge wrote.

[Pirker’s attorney Brendan] Schulman said that’s another reason why the FAA should be happy to put this behind them.

The allegedly offending video can be viewed, here:

Thus ends a very interesting regulatory dispute.  It won’t be the last.

FAA Grants 2 More Section 333 Exemptions

The FAA tweeted news this morning that it has granted 2 more Section 333 exemptions for the use of drones in agriculture and real estate.  One exemption was granted to a realtor in Arizona, the second to Advanced Aviation Solutions in Spokane, Washington, to conduct “precision agriculture” through photogrammetry and crop scouting. The former exemption – the Arizona realtor – might be of broader interest because the proposal was to operate a popular DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ quad-copter

to conduct aerial videography and cinematography to enhance academic community awareness for those individuals and companies unfamiliar with the geographical layout of the metro Tucson area and augment real estate listing videos.

From there, the document consists of 26 pages of mind-numbing bureaucrat-speak and absurdities that would have given Vaclav Havel a chuckle.  For example, the petitioner asked for relief from the requirement of having a private or commercial pilot’s license.  The FAA’s response:

Regarding the petitioner’s requested relief from 14 CFR 61.113(a) and (b), Private pilot privileges and limitations, the petitioner requested regulatory relief to operate his UAS without an FAA-certificated pilot. In support of his request, the petitioner states that “while helpful, a pilot license will not ensure remote control piloting skills.” However, the FAA does not possess the authority to exempt the petitioner from the statutory requirement to hold an airman certificate, as prescribed in 49 USC § 44711 [Ed. – prohibiting a person from serving “in any capacity as an airman . . . without an airman certificate authorizing the airman to serve in the capacity for which the certificate was issued….”].  Although Section 333 provides limited statutory flexibility relative to 49 USC § 44704 for the purposes of airworthiness certification, it does not provide similar flexibility relative to other sections of Title 49.

So, apparently the FAA has discretion to disregard section 44711 if you’re a hobbyist, but not if you’re a commercial operator.  Yes, we know about the hobbyist exception under FMRA, but this takes statutory construction to an absurd level. The FAA doesn’t stop there:

Unlike operations pursuant to public COAs, the FAA is also requiring a pilot certificate for UAS operations for two reasons, the first of which is to satisfy the statutory requirements as stated above. The second is because pilots holding an FAA issued private or commercial pilot certificate are subject to the security screening by the Department of Homeland Security that certificated airmen undergo. As previously determined by the Secretary of Transportation, the requirement to have an airman certificate ameliorates security concerns over civil UAS operations conducted in accordance with Section 333.

Um, why not simply require a background check?  Not that we think it should be necessary, but we trust non-pilots with Global Entry cards.  The background check requirements are at least as rigorous. The FAA then considers the objections of the Airline Pilots Association [We didn’t see that coming! – Ed.], but finds that a commercial pilot’s license should not be necessary. Various commenters have pointed to numerous other absurdities, and we do not have time to explore them all in detail.  But most absurd of all is the amount of resources that has gone into drafting, submitting, and reviewing one petition from an individual who wishes to operate his Phantom 2 for commercial purposes.  This is not only an absurd way to go about things; it is horribly wasteful and raises impossible barriers to entry for many thousands of potential entrepreneurs. There has got to be a better way.

Results of Transportation Oversight Committee Hearing

We live-tweeted House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing on the status of UAS integration, oversight and competitiveness.  You will links to the prepared testimony of the witnesses at the link.  Our real time comments can be found on twitter at @dronelawdotcom.

Some interesting themes emerged from this hearing.  Everyone seemed to recognize that the U.S. is falling behind on R&D and investment due to the lack of a comprehensive regulatory framework.

Several of the committee members raised questions over whether the FAA should, like other developed countries, pursue a more risk-based approach to UAS regulations.  The FAA’s Peggy Gilligan claimed that her agency is doing just that, at least when evaluating section 333 exemption applications.  This was telling.  Most of her remarks smacked of happy talk and filibustering.

Rep. Todd Rokita asked, if we are taking a risk-based approach, whether any actuarial studies have been conducted.  The answer was yes, but only as to large, high-altitude UAS.  There were too many unknowns to be able to evaluate risk profiles for smaller drones.

Another interesting theme was the general frustration with the fact that the much-heralded test sites are not getting much support from the FAA.  Some spoke of opening up more test sites.  Jesse Kallman of Airware suggested that developers be permitted to operate their own test sites.  This made sense to us.

Capt. Lee Moak of the Airline Pilots Association began his testimony by putting a brand new DJI Phantom on the table.  He compared the risk of collision with small drones to the risk of bird strikes.  His testimony made it clear that the airline pilots are lobbying for a go-slow approach.  In other words, the FAA might not be aggressive enough in trying to shut this madness down.

The overall impression was that Congress understands the problem and is losing patience with the FAA.  We might see more legislative involvement if things don’t start picking up speed.

A full video of the hearing can be viewed, below:

FAA Grants 5 More 333 Exemptions

Progress?

The four companies that received exemptions want to fly UAS to perform operations for aerial surveying, construction site monitoring and oil rig flare stack inspections.

 

“Unmanned aircraft offer a tremendous opportunity to spur innovation and economic activity by enabling many businesses to develop better products and services for their customers and the American public,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “We want to foster commercial uses of this exciting technology while taking a responsible approach to the safety of America’s airspace.”

 

The commercial entities that received exemptions today are Trimble Navigation Limited, VDOS Global, LLC, Clayco, Inc. and Woolpert, Inc. (two exemptions). The FAA earlier granted exemptions to seven film and video production companies.

We’re heartened by Secretary Foxx’s comments.  But really, if the FAA continues this piecemeal approach – granting the occasional tranche of section 333 exemptions while patting itself on the back – the only “economic activity” we will see is more investment money diverted abroad.

A Risk-Based Approach to FAA Jurisdiction?

Apache

A danger to the national airspace.

As our readers know, the NTSB has confirmed the FAA’s assertion of jurisdiction in the Pirker case to cite hobbyists for the reckless operation of model aircraft.  Last week, we pondered how to define the boundaries of that jurisdiction, using the Commerce Clause as a point of reference.

Regardless of what one may think of the NTSB’s logic, based on the broad, post-New Deal interpretation of the Commerce Clause it is at least conceivable that the FAA’s jurisdiction extends that far.  But we think that Congress has already signaled a different approach.

FMRA section 336 specifically excludes model aircraft from regulatory oversight, except as to those operators “who endanger the safety of the national airspace system.”  This seems like a clear statement that the FAA’s authority to regulate model aircraft is risk-based.  In other words, the FAA should look not at whether a particular device is capable of flight, but at the nature of the activity in question, and the risk that a particular device is likely to pose to the national airspace.

This of course requires a fact-based analysis, which will vary, case by case.  But it doesn’t mean that the FAA can’t draw reasonable, bright lines on what it should regulate, and what it should leave alone.  In fact, it’s already been done, quite close to home.

Transports Canada has recently published a very simple explanation of its own, risk-based jurisdictional approach for sUAS.  This graphic lays it out in a single page:

Infographic_Permission_to_fly_a_UAV_Web_English_Page_1

This is remarkably sensible.  If you’re a hobbyist, and your drone weighs 35 kg or less, then use common sense and happy flying.  The rules for exempt professionals are also clear.

We would urge the FAA to take a close look at it.

So, if you’re getting paid, the FAA says to get a pilot’s license

That seems to be the gist of this story, which has taken the internet by storm, today:

Highly anticipated federal rules on commercial drones are expected to require operators to have a license and limit flights to daylight hours, below 400 feet and within sight of the person at the controls, according to people familiar with the rule-making process.

The drone industry has awaited commercial rules for about six years, hoping the rules would pave the way for widespread drone use in industries such as farming, filmmaking and construction. Current FAA policy allows recreational drone flights in the U.S. but essentially bars drones from commercial use.

In addition, pilot certifications likely to be proposed by the FAA would typically require dozens of hours flying manned aircraft, according to people familiar with the rule-making discussions. Drone proponents have resisted requiring traditional pilot training for drone operators.

There’s a lot to unpack, here. But the upshot is that, assuming the report is accurate, hidebound thinking has prevailed over common sense: Two operators, side by side, operating the same model, under the same conditions will be subject to different requirements, based on the mere fact that one is getting paid and the other is flying for pleasure.

Leaving that aside, requiring anyone to go to traditional flight school to become licensed to operate a small, remote-controlled model-type aircraft makes about as much sense as requiring someone to be trained in an M1 Abrams tank as a condition for being allowed to fire a pistol on a shooting range.

We will obviously have much more to say about this as the news unfolds.

The FAA Should Pull Back

Responding to this week’s NTSB ruling, the author of this op-ed in today’s L.A. Times suggests that the FAA should pull back from its regulation over “hundreds of types of flying devices that are not even capable of reaching the minimal safe altitude of manned airplanes.”

Small drones are not built for lengthy interstate flights at altitudes where conventional airplanes fly, so why should a federal agency be the chief regulator of these devices? Rather than seeking to expand its regulatory jurisdiction all the way down to the ground, the FAA should advocate for itself a more limited role in a collaborative federal, state and local regulatory scheme tailored to the unique attributes of drone technologies.

The author suggests that the FAA limit itself to “aspects of drone regulation that are most appropriately implemented at the federal government level.” For example, FAA safety standards could require the incorporation of geo-fence technology “to prevent operators from flying their drones into the airspace surrounding hundreds of airports around the world.”

This calls to mind two points we have made on this blog. As we noted yesterday, Congress appears to have expressed an intent to limit the FAA’s jurisdiction to risks to the National Airspace. We think that any risk posed by small drones can be adequately addressed by regulating them as consumer products rather than as traditional aircraft. Geo-fencing and built-in height and radius limitations are among the features that could be required to be incorporated in over-the-counter drone technology.

The Meaning of Yesterday’s NTSB Ruling

All Is Not Lost

Yesterday’s ruling from the NTSB, overturning Judge Geraghty’s order in the Pirker case, caused quite the twitter storm, and practically crashed our Google news feed. So, a lot of virtual ink has already been spilled on this. But much of it has been either poorly written or flat-out wrong.

We stand by our initial take, which is that the scope of this ruling is ultimately quite narrow. We also think it stands on shaky ground, and could be vulnerable on review by an Article III court.* Here’s why.

First, the opinion was narrowly tailored to the question of whether a model aircraft falls within the FAA’s enforcement authority under 14 C.F.R. § 91.13(a), which provides that “[n]o person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.” The key finding was that a model aircraft is an “aircraft” under 49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(6) and 14 C.F.R. § 1.1. Section 40102(a)(6), the NTSB concluded:

defines “aircraft” as “any contrivance invented, used, or designed to navigate, or fly in, the air.” Similarly, 14 C.F.R. § 1.1 defines “aircraft” for purposes of the FARs, including § 91.13, as “a device that is used or intended to be used for flight in the air.” The definitions are clear on their face. Even if we were to accept the law judge’s characterization of respondent’s aircraft, allegedly used at altitudes up to 1,500 feet AGL for commercial purposes, as a “model aircraft,” the definitions on their face do not exclude even a “model aircraft” from the meaning of “aircraft.” Furthermore, the definitions draw no distinction between whether a device is manned or unmanned. An aircraft is “any” “device” that is “used for flight.” We acknowledge the definitions are as broad as they are clear, but they are clear nonetheless.

That sounds like a broad conclusion. It is, and it isn’t. The NTSB points out that, at the time of the original Federal Aviation Act:

so-called “drones” were largely the currency of science fiction. Congress demonstrated prescience, however, in the early definition of “aircraft”; it expressly defined the term as any airborne contrivance “now known or hereafter invented, used, or designed for navigation of or flight in the air.”

… [The FAA] may choose to exclude certain types of aircraft in a practical sense, by refraining from bringing a charge under the FARs against a model aircraft operator; Advisory Circular 91-57 implies such a practice, and the processes outlined in 14 C.F.R. §§ 11.81 – 11.103 provide a more formal means of seeking exemption. However, for the case sub judice, the plain language of § 91.13(a), as well as the definitions quoted above, does not exclude certain categories of aircraft.

Turning to whether the FAA correctly applied Section 91.13(a) to Pirker’s model aircraft, the NTSB points to the doctrine of judicial deference to agency interpretations of the statutes they are charged with enforcing. Agency interpretations will generally be accorded deference if the agency can point to a reasonable basis in the underlying statute. The NTSB concludes that, since nothing in the history of the statute or the FAA’s enforcement actions indicate a clear intent to categorically exclude model aircraft from the definition of “aircraft,” the FAA’s interpretation should be upheld as reasonable.

But the NTSB also hints that the scope of this conclusion will be constrained by practical limits on the FAA’s prosecutorial discretion. Simply put, the FAA cannot prosecute every operator of a model aircraft who does something dangerous or foolish. The decision also does not grant the FAA license to enact a wholesale prohibition on the operation of model aircraft, or even require licensing for hobbyists.

In summary, if you are an amateur hobbyist who operates a model aircraft within traditional parameters – less than 400 feet, within line of sight (precise definitions are being sorted out in the courts), and you refrain from doing anything stupid, the chances of getting a citation from the FAA are exceedingly remote.

Pirker might be able to argue that the NTSB’s ruling is inconsistent with the scope of the FMRA’s Special Rule for Model Aircraft, which we discussed here. The Special Rule contains a statutory construction provision:

Nothing in this section shall be construed to limit the authority of the Administrator to pursue enforcement action against persons operating model aircraft who endanger the safety of the national airspace system.

FMRA, Sec. 336(b) (emphasis added).

Although FMRA was enacted after Pirker’s “offending” flight, he could argue that this statutory provision shows that the FAA’s interpretation is directly at odds with Congressional intent, vis a vis model aircraft. A threat to individuals and their property, he might contend, is not a threat to the “safety of the national airspace system.” In other words, unless a model aircraft has somehow threatened the safety of the national airspace, as that has been traditionally defined, its unsafe operation should be a matter for local police authorities, not the FAA.

Such an argument would have sound Constitutional underpinnings. Congress derives its authority to regulate airspace from the Commerce Clause of Article I, which gives Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce. Granted, the courts have construed this power so broadly that it is by now practically meaningless as an enumerated limitation on the federal government. But it is generally recognized that the power extends to regulation of anything that has a material impact on interstate commerce.

What constitutes an effect on interstate commerce is typically a fact-sensitive question. Hypothetically, prosecuting a model aircraft operator who buzzes old ladies on a sidewalk is not something that even remotely affects interstate commerce, whereas an operator who flies his Phantom II into the air intake of a commercial jet does affect interstate commerce.

It will be interesting to see whether Mr. Pirker takes up these questions on appeal to an Article III court.

——
* An Article III court is a court established by Congress under Article III of the U.S. Constitution. The NTSB court is an administrative court and is therefor part of the Executive Branch under Article II. Article III courts have jurisdiction to hear appeals from the decisions of administrative courts.