Published On: Fri, Aug 8th, 2014

‘What can I do with my model aircraft?’

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A trending fad in wedding planning has couples choosing to get a birds-eye view of their wedding with a remote-controlled device or UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle). A powerful driver of the new fad for flying drones is the high-definition video camera that can be attached to the UAVs. Many of the new enthusiasts pouring into the hobby are not coming for the thrills and challenges of aviation, but for the photography.

We used to call them model airplanes and they used to be marketed as toys for kids, only now they’re called drones and the technology is “exploding.” But with the increase in popularity have come privacy and safety issues. As hobbyists rush to purchase the increasingly affordable remote control devices, the regulations around drones remain murky.

This past June, New York Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney drew criticism after it was disclosed his wedding photographer employed drones. The congressman sits on a committee that oversees the FAA. The FAA guidelines say that drones need to fly below 400 feet, avoid flying over populated areas, and not be flown for business purposes. Without permission from the FAA to fly a wedding drone, they’re technically illegal.

In the real estate world, realtors are champing at the bit to incorporate drone photography into their marketing, as news reports make clear. But the commercial use of drones is currently permissible only on a case-by-case basis. So unless you have a certificate of airworthiness from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), you should keep your drone on the ground, reports the National Association of Realtors (NAR).

In a closely watched case, a photographer for the University of Virginia in Charlottesville was fined $10,000 late last year by the FAA for flying his drone for commercial purposes. The court has since thrown that case out, raising questions about whether the FAA has the authority to take enforcement actions. But caution remains the prudent course.

The FAA makes it clear that unless you’re flying for recreational purposes or as a hobby, you need FAA approval. They even provide “dos” and “don’ts.” One of the restrictions being: “Don’t fly model aircraft for payment or commercial purposes.”

NBC reports, “The FAA has been dragging their feet on this, and the longer they wait, the more and more folks are going out there and flying without any rules.”

The FAA is slated to issue rules on the commercial use of drones next year. To that end, the agency has authorized tests around the country to help it determine what restrictions are needed to ensure safe operation and to protect national security and people’s privacy.

As Parker Gyokeres, an Air Force photojournalist since 2006, tells it in an interview with The New York Times, “There’s an explosion of this technology, and it’s not going to go away if they just tell us we can’t use it. We want the FAA to tell us how to operate as safely as possible, and not flying is not the answer.” He understands the safety hazards of flying near people and uses a thirty point safety checklist to make sure things don’t end poorly.

Other operators are less careful and have lost control of their drones – but managed to recover video of the ensuing crash – while others have lost them entirely. Drones have been known to fly off and not come back, no matter how hard their owners worked the controls.

The FAA continues to emphasize safety as their main priority.

“The FAA is taking a deliberate, measured approach to integrating UAV technology into the country’s airspace. Our challenge is to integrate unmanned aircraft into the same airspace used by commercial aviation, general aviation and other new users, including commercial space vehicles,” an FAA spokesman said.

The problem is that while America waits for the FAA to produce these new regulations – the latest expected date is the end of next year – confusion appears to be setting in. The legal environment is not keeping pace with the mushrooming use of the planes.

As a holding mechanism, the agency has introduced a set of guidelines that restrict civilian hobbyists to flying under 400 feet and with drones that weigh no more than 55 lbs, as well as forbidding the commercial use of the devices for profit.

But that in itself has spread confusion. In a series of recent court rulings, judges have rejected the FAA’s attempt to police drone use, saying that its current rules are merely guidelines that do not carry the weight of the law.

In a recent case in Texas, as noted at TheGuardian.com, an appeals court this week overturned an FAA ban on the use of drones by a local group, Texas EquuSearch, that uses the planes to search for missing people in the great outdoors. The federal agency had served the nonprofit group with a cease and desist order, claiming that its activities were a violation of the prohibition on commercial use, but the court disagreed.

According to the FAA, having fun means flying safely. By all means, avoid doing anything hazardous to other airplanes or people and property on the ground. Hobby or recreational flying doesn’t require FAA approval but you must follow safety guidelines listed below:

“Dos”

Do fly a model aircraft/UAS at the local model aircraft club.

Do take lessons and learn to fly safely.

Do contact the airport or control tower when flying within 5 miles of the airport.

Do fly a model aircraft for personal enjoyment.

“Don’ts”

Don’t fly near manned aircraft.

Don’t fly beyond line of sight of the operator.

Don’t fly an aircraft weighing more than 55 lbs. unless it’s certified by an aeromodeling community-based organization.

Don’t fly contrary to your aeromodeling community-based safety guidelines.

Don’t fly model aircraft for payment or commercial purposes.