FAA Cracking Down On UAS Use

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The Los Angeles Police Department last week warned L.A. realtors to stop renting remote-control aircraft to shoot aerial video and photos of their listings. “We are just trying to inform the public to ensure that before hiring these companies to operate these aircraft in federal airspace, that they are abiding by the federal regulations to ensure safety,” police Sgt. George Gonzalez told the L.A. Times.The LAPD, which operates its own camera-equipped drone, said the images were obtained by an aircraft flying at “several hundred feet” and might have violated FAA guidelines. The practice has become a common sales tool (Google “aerial real estate photography”) that occupies a gray area of airspace regulations in light of the low cost of increasingly capable and widely available remote-control aircraft. The latest measure may be an expansion of FAA action to shut down a California company’s use of large helicopter drones for film and television work.

MI6 Films used a substantial aircraft to carry full-sized motion picture camera gear and rented the drone and camera along with three crew for $2,500 a day. The company has a long list of well-known clients for the work. According to the MI6 website, the FAA wrote the company a letter last December saying there is an “existing prohibition” against using UASs for commercial purposes. That may be an interpretation of the current approach to UASs by the FAA. According to an FAA fact sheet, unmanned aerial systems are not approved for use in civilian airspace, except through a special airworthiness certificate, and the special airworthiness certificate precludes commercial use of UASs. To accommodate model aircraft hobbyists the FAA has voluntary guidelines (PDF), written in 1981, that advise owners to restrict RC aircraft operations to 400 feet in altitude and away from populated areas and full-sized aircraft. That guideline, however, does not specifically mention a prohibition of commercial use of remote-control aircraft. The FAA says it intends to clear up the ambiguity surrounding UAS operations with a comprehensive rule that will be issued in 2011. It told MI6 the new rule will include allowances for commercial use of UASs but in the meantime its fleet is grounded except for fun flights. MI6 is reportedly using only piloted helicopters for its film work now.