Build complex toys and simple tools
by Tony Karp
It probably started with the best of intentions. There were these new airborne things and the FAA, who has dominion over the US airspace, had to find a way to regulate them. Unlike the radio-controlled aircraft that the FAA had dealt with in the past, drones were a whole new breed. They had built-in FPV cameras, GPS, visual navigation sensors, and a powerful onboard computer to control things. No more need for visual line-of-sight or maximum altitude requirements that had worked in the past. And, to top it off, they were nasty, noisy, menacing-looking things.Since they go up in the air, the FAA has declared that drones, including my hobbyist drone, are to be classified as real, honest to goodness aircraft. The FAA doesn't normally get involved with hobbyist models, some of which have five foot wingspans and can reach dizzying altitudes. To get around this, they created a new category, just for drones, referring to them as "Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems" (sUAS).So let's get started.First, let's register them. ("You will be subject to civil and criminal penalties if you meet the criteria to register an unmanned aircraft and do not register.") Any drone that weighs more than 250 grams (8.8 ounces) has to be registered. Doing this based on weight was a mistake -- it includes toy drones with a range of less than 500 feet. Hardly a menace.Then you have to know everywhere you can't fly and, by the way, you may have to notify the local airport before you send your drone a few hundred feet into the air.And you can't use your hobby drone to earn a few extra dollars without taking a qualifying FAA exam for a commercial license and getting vetted by the TSA. All you wanted to do was to take a few photos of a house for a local real estate agent. Why does the FAA care about this?As a new drone owner, I went along with this, registering my drone. Actually, I was registering me. The FAA only gives you one number and you put it on all your drones. But I will admit that an FAA number on your aircraft gives it a look of authenticity.When you stop to think, it seems sort of ridiculous. I own something that weighs about a pound and a half that is regulated by the FAA. And it even has a tail number like a 747.Perhaps the real problem is that the FAA is focused on drones as a threat to aircraft, which have a better chance of colliding with a deer than with a drone. Most hobby drones stay airborne for less than 20 minutes. The very real danger with drones lies in hitting things attached to the ground: people, buildings, powerlines, cars, cell towers, etc. The FAA doesn't seem to care about these dangers, but worries if you take pictures of a house for profit.To put it bluntly, the FAA has put a real chill, and a little bit of fear into what should have been a pleasurable hobby. Having the FAA regulating hobbyist drones is like having the Department of Transportation regulating skateboards. In any case, I believe that this is about to change. Here are some recent developments.
Washington Post, March 16, 2017:
Drone360 Magazine, March 10, 2017:
TechCrunch Magazine, May 19, 2017:
The court argued that the drone registration database violates 2012’s FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which states that the body, “may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft.”
Wait a minute. My Mavic Pro is a model aircraft.
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