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 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.

Stop worrying, learn to love drones *

Writing for the Brookings Institution, drone policy expert Gregory McNeal has published a report urging Congress and state legislatures not to overreact when it comes to privacy concerns over drones. McNeal argues, and we agree, that a “technology-centric” approach to legislating privacy protections is misguided, and ends up missing the point:

[Various] legislative efforts have been aimed at restricting the government’s use of drone technology, while largely allowing the government to conduct identical surveillance when not using drone technology. This absurd anachronism is intentional, as privacy advocates have explicitly chosen to capitalize on the public interest and attention associated with the demonization of drone technology as a way to achieve legislative victories. These advocates are admittedly not focused on more sensible legislation that addresses harms irrespective of the technology used.

He notes that current unmanned systems are actually not as effective at surveillance as manned aircraft (which consistent with a point that we have previously made, here). He also points out that banning law enforcement from using drones, in the absence of a warrant, leads to absurd results. For example, using drones to monitor the Boston Marathon – a public event – might benefit public safety. But the law doesn’t allow the Boston PD to do so unless it obtains a warrant by demonstrating probable cause in an application:

That application would need to define with particularity the place to be searched or the persons to be surveilled. All of this would be required to observe people gathered in a public place, merely because the observation was taking place from a drone, rather than from an officer on a rooftop or in a helicopter. In a circumstance like a marathon, this probable cause showing will be difficult for the police to satisfy. After all, if the police knew who in the crowd was a potential bomber, they would arrest those individuals.

Even more absurd is that

in the states where drones have been banned (unless accompanied by a warrant), the police have not been prohibited from using any other type of surveillance equipment—just drones. This technology-centric approach has done little to protect privacy, but will certainly harm public safety, depriving law enforcement of a tool that they could use to protect people.

After reviewing a series of court opinions governing the current state of aerial surveillance, McNeal goes on to provide some recommendations for how legislatures should think about their approaches to drone surveillance regulations. Read the whole thing.

*In what seems like a reference to “Dr. Strangelove,” arstechnica distills the message to “stop worrying, learn to love drones.”

Connecticut Lawmakers Consider Drone Rules

Today we have links to a couple of local reports on a hearing before Connecticut lawmakers regarding the creation of possible drone rules.

Both reports feature a demonstration by Peter Sachs, who continues to do yeoman’s work on behalf of small drone operators.  An excerpt of Peter’s testimony can be viewed here.

As usual, the media emphasizes privacy concerns while saying next to nothing about the wide range of proven and potential benefits of this technology.  We have unfortunately come to expect this kind of willful ignorance from reporters.

Some legislators fare no better.  Consider the comment from State Rep. Mary Mushinsky, who said, “We had one incident in New Jersey where somebody shot down their neighbor’s drone because he was using the drone to harass the neighbor.”

With all due respect, ma’am, we have seen no report suggesting that the operator was harassing anybody.  Please, learn the facts before you cast your vote on anything pertaining to this issue (or any other issue, for that matter).

Stupidity aside, the Connecticut legislature appears ready to abstain from instituting a moratorium on drone use.

North Carolina House passes drone bill

It’s not clear from the report whether this measure is just intended to regulate line-of-sight, model-type aircraft, but that seems to be a reasonable supposition:

Under the legislation, drone operators would have to be 18, pass a knowledge and skills test (still to be developed) and require a license for commercial use. Once the FAA permits commercial use, it still wouldn’t be allowed in North Carolina until the Department of Transportation implements testing and licensing or until May 31, 2015, whichever comes first.

The reporter seems confused about the FAA’s “ban on commercial use.” I will post an update on this after getting clarification.

UPDATE: The bill is posted online, here.

This appears to cover every type of unmanned aircraft that is not a model aircraft. In a normal world in which the FAA had promulgated timely regulations, this might be regarded, at least in part, as an unconstitutional usurpation of federal regulatory authority. My guess is that the NC legislature has grown weary of waiting on the FAA.

Stay tuned.