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New FAA Reauthorization Act Has Big Implications for Hobbyist Drone Pilots

BY Zacc Dukowitz
10 October 2018

The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 was signed into law less than one week ago, on Friday, October 5th.

The Act secures funding for the FAA for another five years, through 2023, and covers an array of items drone-related and otherwise. It’s worth noting that the length of time for the reauthorization is itself a big deal—as reported recently in the Washington Post, a five-year bill has not been passed since the 1980s.


Big Changes Coming for Hobbyists

Hobbyist drone pilots will be among those most impacted by the drone-related changes in the new Act.

One of the biggest changes in the Act is the repeal of Section 336, also known as the Special Rule for Model Aircraft. With the repeal, hobbyist drone pilots will be subject to FAA regulations similar to the regulations commercial drone pilots are required to operate under.

Up to this point, hobbyists have been treated as an entirely separate group of drone pilots from those flying commercially. But it looks like that will no longer be the case, and all drones will now be viewed similarly by the FAA, at least from a regulatory perspective.

In addition to now being subject to regulations about not flying near airports or above 400 feet—restrictions commercial pilots have under the FAA’s Part 107 rules—the Act also allows the FAA to require hobbyist drone pilots to pass a knowledge test before flying. (Commercial pilots have to pass the Part 107 test and receive a Part 107 certificate to fly.)

Image source

Here is a summary of Section 349 of the new Act, which covers new hobbyist drone rules, taken from the website of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation:

This section creates a framework for the operation of recreational [i.e., hobbyist] aircraft including operating requirements, aeronautical knowledge testing, and the qualifications for community-based organizations that support recreational aircraft activities. This section also includes a process for FAA to periodically update operational parameters for recreational aircraft.

[Note: The bold is ours in the above quote.]

Right now it’s unclear when testing and other requirements might actually be implemented for hobbyist drone pilots.

In a recent statement about the 336 repeal the FAA states that “the Reauthorization Act cannot be fully implemented immediately, please continue to follow all current policies and guidance with respect to recreational use of drones.”

Here is everything the FAA lists as new requirements for hobbyist drone pilots:

  • Fly for hobby or recreation only
  • Register your model aircraft
  • Fly within visual line-of-sight
  • Follow community-based safety guidelines and fly within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization
  • Fly a drone under 55 lbs. unless certified by a community-based organization
  • Never fly near other aircraft
  • Never fly near emergency response efforts

One thing to call out in this list is the second bullet regarding registering model aircraft.

Up to this point hobbyists only had to register themselves as pilots. Requiring each drone to be registered, as commercial pilots must do, allows for the implementation of remote ID tracking and the possibility of creating a system, such as a UTM, for tracking who’s flying exactly what where.

Another interesting thing about this list is that a new knowledge test is not mentioned.

It could be that the FAA is exploring alternate certification options for hobbyist pilots, such as joining or abiding by the requirements of an approved community organization, which could oversee hobbyist certification and bypass the need for the FAA to create and administer a brand new knowledge test for hobbyists.

Amid all of this uncertainty, only one thing does seem likely—none of these changes are going to happen over night.

Hobbyist Advocates Speak Out Against 336 Repeal

Some in the drone industry have been advocating for a repeal of Section 336 for a while now to bring hobbyist operations under a tighter regulatory umbrella.

Those on the repeal side want to place restrictions on hobbyists in order to avoid the type of rogue drone-related accident that could turn the tide of public opinion and derail advances in commercial regulation, such as the growth of FAA-approved BVLOS operations for inspections, deliveries, and other commercial applications.

Image source

But others have been vocally opposed to the repeal.

The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) has been one of the main organizations leading the anti-repeal effort. In a blog post about the new Act the AMA lists these concerns about the Act, and specifically the portions pertaining to the repeal of Section 336:

  • The bill does not stop irresponsible drone operators – it only harms our safe and long-standing model aviation community, which has posed no new risk.
  • The [new] 400-foot altitude cap also excludes AMA and the USA from participating or hosting many world aeromodeling events sanctioned by the FAI through the AMA and NAA.
  • This bill curtails events and harms charities, stifling youth involvement in STEM education.

While we support commercial drone endeavors, Congress should not allow for-profit companies to dictate legislation abolishing a segment of the hobby with a strong, eighty-plus year safety record.

– From a statement issued by the AMA

Other Drone-Related Changes in the New Reauthorization Act

In addition to the changes for hobbyists, the new Act contains some other noteworthy drone-related changes and updates.
Here’s a summary:

Drone Deliveries

In SEC. 348 of the bill, the FAA is given one year to update existing regulations to authorize the carriage of property by operators of small UAS for compensation or hire. They will have to create a certification process for UAS operators who want to carry/deliver property for compensation or hire.

Counter-UAS Systems

In SEC. 364 of the bill, the FAA is asked to review agencies currently authorized to operate Counter-Unmanned Aircraft Systems (C-UAS). The review should include the process of interagency coordination of C-UAS activity and standards for operation of C-UAS. Congress has asked to examine progress on this review within four months of the passage of the bill.

Unmanned Traffic Management and Remote ID

SEC. 376 of the bill requests the FAA to compose a plan for full operational capability of UAS traffic management with NASA and UAS industry stakeholders. They shall develop a plan to allow the implementation of UTM services that expand operations beyond visual line of sight while maintaining the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016. This section also outlines requirements for the completion of the UTM System Pilot Program.

What do you think of the changes in the new Reauthorization Act? Do you think the 336 repeal is a good thing or a bad thing? Chime in on this thread in the UAV Coach community forum to share your thoughts.

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