FAA Issues Interpretation On Model Aircraft

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The FAA has published its interpretation of the special rule for model aircraft (PDF) established by Congress and set a public comment period on what the FAA considers to be a model aircraft and thus exempt from future rulemaking action by the FAA. It also confirmed that it has the authority to take enforcement action against model aircraft operators that endanger the National Airspace System. It is consistent with the FAA's actions over the last few years and is a step toward further formalizing its general ban on commercial drone activity while allowing model aircraft operations. The interpretation notes that Congress has confirmed that model aircraft are “aircraft” and that model aircraft are unmanned, cannot weight more than 55 pounds when airborne, must be flown within sight (natural vision of the operator, him or herself), and are flown for hobby or recreational purposes. The FAA used a dictionary definition of “hobby” as a “pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation.” Accordingly, the FAA’s interpretation subjects unmanned aircraft used for other than hobby or recreational purposes to future rulemaking by the FAA—confirming its oft-repeated position that commercial unmanned aircraft or “drone” operations are prohibited unless specifically approved by the FAA.

The FAA’s interpretation gives specific examples of unmanned aircraft use that do not fall under the hobby or recreation exemption from future rulemaking, including receiving money for demonstrating aerobatics with a model aircraft, a realtor using model aircraft to take photographs of property she or he is trying to sell and using the photos in a listing, delivering packages to people for a fee and photographing property or an event and selling the photographs. The FAA’s interpretation also notes that model aircraft must give way to manned aircraft and may not be operated within five statue miles of any airport (it does not discriminate between public and private airports) without permission of the tower (if it is a towered airport) or the airport operator (if a nontowered airport). The interpretation document also confirms the FAA’s obligation to protect persons in the National Airspace System as well as on the ground.