Pilots show off their pride at Rotor Riot Rampage, a freestyle flying event in South Carolina on October 6th. Courtesy: Chad Kapper

Facing New Regulation and Lots of Uncertainty, Hobby Groups and Pilots React

The following is a guest post from John Saginario: FPV flyer, writer and host of the Wild Flyers podcast.

A week ago, hobbyist pilots from around the world descended on Barnwell, South Carolina for a first-of-its-kind event. Hundreds of people packed the grounds of a former nuclear fueling plant for the 1st Annual Rotor Riot Rampage. While folks were excited to fly the amazing spot, meet YouTube celebrities and attempt some hair-raising tricks, the recent change to the rules which govern the hobby had a lot of people talking.

Congress pulled off an October surprise by passing the 2018 FAA Reauthorization, and with it eliminating Special Rule 336. Under those previous guidelines, the Federal Aviation Administration was barred from making any laws that regulate model aircraft. Now that’s changed, and Congress has opened the door for the FAA to take a much more direct role in controlling unmanned aircraft of any size, even paper airplanes.

New Restrictions

Immediately before the vote in the Senate earlier this month, the Academy of Model Aeronautics, which represents hundreds of thousands of RC enthusiasts, came out strongly against the proposal – and urged its members to take action. The AMA has said while the new rules include some changes they’ve championed, the law now enacted what it called “problematic provisions” that officials there believe could negatively affect the hobbyist community.

Among them:

  • A new, 400-foot ceiling on all recreational flying, which the AMA has said will eliminate their ability to hold some competitions and events, around 30% of their operations.
  • Lack of clear allowances for STEM and educational activities
  • New testing requirements which could prevent younger hobbyists from participating, if they prove to be too onerous
  • Possible future restrictions including limiting flying locations, and instituting remote ID and tracking capabilities

The AMA has said it’s working with regulators to better define these rules, and determine instances – such as competitions – when certain restrictions can be waived.

A False Sense of Security

Most critically, the AMA and hobbyist groups point out these new rules will do nothing to stop bad actors. Would-be terrorists, criminals and novice or negligent pilots unaware of (or who wilfully ignore) the rules will still be able to use drone technology for their own potentially dangerous or destructive ends.

AMA interim Executive Director Chad Budreau has said despite the challenges, he sees the new law as an opportunity to guide regulators and carve a path forward for all recreational flight.

“For the first time ever, AMA stands to gain official recognition as a community-based organization. Meanwhile, as a community, we now have an even larger role to play in lending our decades of expertise to the FAA, helping to educate the broader recreational community and working together with the FAA to promote and enhance safety.”

Hobbyists Unite

One critical distinction in the new law is what qualifies as a Community Based Organization. The rules state in the future, pilots will need to abide by the guidelines set forth under a CBO, and the FAA will determine which organizations qualify. As of right now, it has mandated hobbyists continue to operate under the regulations in the old rule, until a process is in place.

And the AMA is not the only group using this opportunity to better organize, with the hopes of representing the interests of hobbyists.

A group of pilots, led by some well known personalities in the hobby, are building what they call the FPV Freedom Coalition. They’ve begun talking to lawyers, and they’re prepared to follow the FAA’s path to be recognized as an official CBO, this time focused exclusively on FPV (First Person View) pilots.

“We will continue to evaluate and interpret the new regulations for the community.  Reactions from the community have been mixed so far as they gain the knowledge to understand just what is happening,” says Sean Wendland, who volunteers with the coalition. “Overall, we see no “show-stopping” issues but there is plenty of work ahead for us.  We view aspects of this bill as a well-thought-out invitation to groups just like the FPV Freedom Coalition, to get involved and lend our expertise in ensuring the safety of the national airspace. This is a goal we share with the FAA and, more importantly, we eagerly accept the challenge.”

John Saginario is the host of the Wild Flyers Podcast ( flyers-podcast/) and has been flying for 2 years. He enjoys building and flying, and engaging with the hobbyist community. All opinions are his own, and not representative of his employers or its affiliates.

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