Whether it is for enjoyment, artistic expression or commercial enterprise, drones have become an ever-present fixture in American culture with more and more models ranging from beginner to prosumer coming to market every year. Due to how quickly drones have gone from gimmick RC vehicle to multi purpose tool, the legality of where and how you can fly them has always been a grey area. That was until the FAA, with equal haste, slapped together a set of guidelines coupled with a mandatory registration as of Dec, 21st 2015.
Now remote control pilots have been around for decades, without official regulation from the FAA, but rather a self supporting, non-profit organization known as the AMA or Academy of Model Aeronautics. The AMA has worked for years in conjunction with the FAA to ensure that RC Hobbyists interests were protected while following a loose set of rules to ensure the FAA was also appeased. So what changed?
Drones. More accurately multi rotor copters, how many were being flown and where these flights would take place. Typical hobbyists tend to fly their RC planes and helicopters at open fields in sparsely populated areas. Multi rotors like Quadcopters by design have a maneuverability to them that RC planes and helicopters do not and this characteristic, coupled with the ability to attach an action camera such as a GoPro to most Quadcopters, gave birth to a whole new set of hobbyists and filmmakers alike.
Now there have been instances where RC plane enthusiasts have mounted a camera on their craft for some stunning results like these...
Shout out to Team Blacksheep
however these impressive visuals pale in comparison to what drones can accomplish and while some truly stunning videos were captured using drones giving us a perspective rarely afforded such as these videos below
Amazing whale watching courtesy of Eric Sterman
Footage of an erupting volcano courtesy of Shaun O'Callaghan
Viewing a Firework show from within the Fireworks courtesy of Drone Hub
other videos such as when "Speciesism: The Movie" Director Mark Devries captured footage of what typically goes on unseen at pig farms...
Courtesy of Mark Devries
showed another way this innovation could impact the public.
Factoring in the highly publicized incidents of drone crashes, near commercial aircraft strikes and one even crashing near the white house, the FAA might not have been too brash in rushing regulations, but they may need to rethink how to regulate. Previously multi rotor RC aircraft were custom built rigs perfected and piloted by experienced operators, but with the emergence of a bevy of consumer targeted entry level quadcopters, the newly minted drone operators have less flight experience and lack the same adherence to the guidelines hobbyists tend to follow.
Companies such as DJI have pioneered the market introducing more advanced drones that take some of the guess work out of the operators hands and even have taken measures utilizing GPS to prevent fly aways. While many AMA members and hobbyists think FAA regulations that could potentially result in heavy handed fines and prison time for failure to register an RC aircraft weighing in over 250 grams or .55 lbs. are excessive there is also a consensus that modern drones with GPS capabilities can have software that keep the drone flying in the appropriate areas and at appropriate heights.
To summarize how potentially ridiculous these regulations and penalties are let me illustrate a potential outcome. Under these guidelines it is possible for someone who got an Air Hogs Star Wars Millennium Falcon Quadcopter (pictured below)
Photo courtesy of Airhogs.com
as a gift or simply because they are a fan, take it outside for a spin, not have it registered because it's just a toy, but technically it falls under mandatory FAA registration regulations. An enforcer of the law doesn't give any leeway because it is at this point a fineable offense and now someone playing with a toy is fined $250,000 and goes to prison for 3 years. Sounds wild doesn't it? Yet it was equally wild when a Minnesota mother was fined 1.9M for downloading 24 songs illegally (eventually it was reduced to $220,000). The point is, by trying to address a grey area in recreational RC aviation, they created a potential legal grey area that could be even more damaging in the long run. If AMA members advocating to not register any RC air craft is any indication of how this will play out remains to be seen, but it can be said that this initial solution to the attack of the drones may not be the solution the FAA is looking for.
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