Hobbyist LAANC Access Is Just Around the Corner: An Interview with Tyler Dobbs, Government Affairs Director at the Academy of Model Aeronautics
BY Zacc Dukowitz17 July 2019
Tyler Dobbs is the Government Affairs Director at the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), one of the largest model aviation associations in the world. The AMA is a self-supporting non-profit, whose primary aim is to promote the development of model aviation as a recognized sport and worthwhile recreation activity. They currently boast a membership of over 195,000.
In his role, Tyler works closely with the FAA and U.S. legislators to represent the interests of recreational drone pilots in the creation of policy and legislation, and to help promote safe flying practices.
We wanted to sit down with Tyler to learn more about what the AMA does for hobbyist drone pilots, when hobbyists might get access to LAANC for instant airspace authorizations to fly in controlled airspace, and to hear his opinion on how hobbyists are represented in policy-making.
What is the AMA and what does it do?
The AMA is a membership organization for those who fly recreational UAS or model aircraft.
The majority of our members fly more traditional-style aircraft, like fixed-wing planes and helicopters, but drones are a fast-growing segment of our community.
The AMA has about 2,400 flying sites across the country. We work with parks departments, the FAA, and all levels of the government to be a facilitator for our members to work and to get flying sites. We also work to keep our members up-to-date on regulations, and to promote the hobby to government agencies, parks departments, and other places like that.
Education is a strong focus for the AMA. We have a number of STEM curricula and STEM programs that start at the elementary school level and go all the way up to the collegiate level. We work to educate youth and newcomers to hobbyist flying, with a big emphasis on providing safety guidance to all those who fly model and unmanned aircraft.
How much does AMA membership cost and what do you get with membership?
With their memberships, all AMA members get:
- A subscription to Model Aviation or Model Aviation Digital, which comes out monthly
- Liability insurance coverage up $2.5 million
- Access to 2,400+ AMA chartered club sites
- Competition and voting privileges
Memberships are annual and they come in a few different options.
For youth up to the age of 19 membership is free, which makes it a no-brainer for the insurance coverage if nothing else.
Traditional adult membership is $75 a year. We also offer a limited membership called the Park Pilot for people who fly small aircraft, which costs $38 a year.
The Park Pilot membership gets you up to $500,000 in liability insurance for aircraft weighing up to two pounds flown at 60 miles an hour and slower.
One of the FAA’s rules for recreational drone pilots is to “follow the safety guidelines of a community-based organization.” What is a community-based organization (CBO), how can hobbyists find them, and how can hobbyists make sure they’re in compliance?
We get a lot of questions about the CBO stipulation.
One thing to note is that this requirement was reworded in the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act. Where previously the requirement was that hobbyist drone pilots operate within the programming of a CBO, now the requirements says hobbyists must either operate within the programming of the CBO or in accordance with the safety guidelines of a CBO.
This distinction might seem small but it’s significant for us. Historically we’ve established a requirement in the AMA that those who want to operate within the programming of the AMA must be members of the AMA. We don’t do this to drive membership, but because we need to ensure direct communication with those who operate within our programming. We communicate regularly with our members, sending out emails and safety alerts whenever there’s a potential issue, when a TFR (Temporary Flight Restriction) is in place, or when there’s a change to regulations.
Now with the language changed to “or in accordance with the safety guidelines of a CBO” it appears that hobbyists can just follow our rules or the rules of another CBO and be in compliance. But if you want to operate within AMA programming, you do need to be a member.
How does an organization become a CBO?
So that is actually an interesting question. Right now the FAA does not officially recognize any existing organizations, including the AMA, as a CBO.
This is the result of a change made in the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act, which included a mandate from congress that the FAA had to create a process for recognizing community-based organizations.
No surprise, the AMA does meet the initial requirements that have been proposed for being recognized. I’m confident we’ll be recognized as a CBO once the process begins, but for now there are no officially recognized CBOs.
Why doesn’t the FAA just list official rules for recreational drone pilots instead of referring to guidelines created by a CBO?
The AMA’s perspective for why CBOs should be the source for recreational model and unmanned aircraft rule-making is that we’ve been around longer than the FAA.
We’ve learned from our experience, and our safety guidelines are proven and field tested. On the other hand, the FAA’s primary focus for many years has been on full-scale manned aircraft.
What are the AMA’s safety guidelines?
We have a lot of different standard guidelines depending on the type of aircraft and discipline in question, which can all be found on the AMA’s website.
That being said, we do have a general list of guidelines—here are the ones that pertain to sUAS, to which we ask all of our members to adhere:
- I will not fly a model aircraft in a careless or reckless manner.
- I will not interfere with and will yield the right of way to all human-carrying aircraft using AMA’s See and Avoid Guidance and a spotter when appropriate.
- I will not operate any model aircraft while I am under the influence of alcohol or any drug that could adversely affect my ability to safely control the model.
- I will avoid flying directly over unprotected people, moving vehicles, and occupied structures.
- I will maintain visual contact of an RC model aircraft without enhancement other than corrective lenses prescribed to me. When using an advanced flight system, such as an autopilot, or flying FirstPerson View (FPV), I will comply with AMA’s Advanced Flight System programming.
- I will only fly models weighing more than 55 pounds, including fuel, if certified through AMA’s Large Model Airplane Program.
- I will not fly a powered model outdoors closer than 25 feet to any individual, except for myself or my helper(s) located at the flightline, unless I am taking off and landing, or as otherwise provided in AMA’s Competition Regulation.
- I will use an established safety line to separate all model aircraft operations from spectators and bystanders.
When will hobbyists have access to instant airspace authorizations via LAANC?
Right now the FAA is saying that instant airspace authorizations will be available to recreational pilots via LAANC on July 23rd.
We are thrilled for hobbyists to get access to LAANC, and based on what we’ve heard from people at the FAA and elsewhere we do think the July 23rd release date will be kept.
Do you feel like recreational drone pilots are underrepresented in policy-making?
I do think they are underrepresented.
I think hobbyists make up a majority of the users in the airspace when it comes to model and unmanned aircraft—in the AMA alone we have almost 200,000 members, and the recreational numbers from the FAA are over a million. But their representation is nowhere near proportional with their presence.
It’s important to recognize that recreational flying has been a stepping stone for a long time, and an important one, for astronauts, commercial pilots, aeronautical engineers. The kid who first gets excited to fly by starting with a model aircraft is the future pilot, the future astronaut.
Commercial drone applications are amazing, and we certainly don’t want to stop commercial progress in any way. But we feel like it’s important for commercial operations to grow in a way that doesn’t sideline recreational users, or restrict recreational flying to the point where the hobby just isn’t fun any more.
There’s no doubt that new drone regulations are having an effect on the hobby numbers in terms of sales—all signs indicate that new recreational regulations are having a negative impact on the hobby.
How can readers get more involved in supporting hobbyist drone flying?
There’s a lot that you can do.
One thing you can do is consider working to create a flying site in your community. You can also take this a step further and host flying events, which could be used to raise money for charities, including for the county to make improvements to the park where you’re flying.
These kinds of activities help create a sense of community involvement for hobbyists and other community members, and let you go out and represent model aviation in a positive light.
Just showing people that flying is fun, safe, and legal can help combat the negative press we see so much with drones. I would encourage anybody, AMA member or otherwise, to get out there, band together with other groups of like-minded people and do something positive—create a flying site, host an event, do whatever you can to get the community involved.
What do you do on a daily basis in your role as government affairs director for the AMA?
Ultimately I’m a liaison between our members, the FAA, Congress, and airports around the country to help mitigate any issues there are in the airspace, update everyone who’s involved on how things are running, and work out any issues that we come to along the way.
Right now, as we work on the implementation process for the new regulations from the 2018 Reauthorization Act I’ve been working closely with the FAA on the letter of agreement process so that our clubs in controlled airspace can continue flying.
I also work with airports around the country on specific issues, bringing them to our safety coordinators or our club directors to mitigate any issues we find in a specific area.
What are your predictions for the drone industry?
There’s a lot of fear and uncertainty right now for hobbyists. Are we going to be able to fly the same way we flew a decade ago? Will my kids or grandkids be able to fly like I did when I was a kid?
And I just want to reassure people who are worried, and say that I do believe we will find solutions to these problems. You will still be able to fly the way you used to fly.
So that’s my main prediction—that these things will work themselves out, and you’ll still be able to fly.
But just like with any new technology, there will be a period when things are in flux. It can be a bumpy road, and it can seem like things will never be worked out. And this can especially feel true with the hobby industry.
We know the commercial industry has a long way to go before it can really live up to its full potential, and we want to make sure that along the way the recreational user doesn’t get lost. And that’s the work we’re doing every day at the AMA—to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Do you think hobbyists are underrepresented in policy decision-making? Join this conversation in the UAV Coach community forum to share your thoughts.