How did we go from being exempted to banned as both a vocation and a hobby?
Why did commercial drones get banned in February of 2007? Well, the AOPA
demanding an equivalent level of safety for drones with GA. So the FAA grounded
the commercial drones and the justification employed was that we were carrying
property for compensation or hire.
The charging of one dollar or receiving in-kind services like football tickets made
drones inherently deadly. Albeit, the “property” in question in the commercial drone
case was primarily 1’s and 0’s. This digital information was enough in their always
safety conscious eyes to justify the swift sanction of any potential foam menace from
raining death and destruction on those poor innocent and unfortunate souls in the
air and on the ground. I guess they wanted to safeguard the American public from
instances like those that just transpired in San Diego or Chandler? A noble goal, but
not well thought out, and the execution was even worse.
Your humble author asked the FAA about the ASTM F37 LSA gold standard during
the sUAS ARC, which was supposedly not commercial even though money was
changing hands. Are the instructors charging money, or is it just altruism that is the
new principle in saving GA? Well, it would appear that the justification for a 9-year
ban in the name of “safety” and “Do No Harm” is just a bur under the LSA/GA saddle.
The fatality numbers might suggest a few safety issues within the ranks of GA
community? Does anyone happen to know the drone fatality numbers for 2019 or
“The bipartisan amendment put forward by Reps. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) and Kai Kahele
(D-Hawaii) clarifies that a flight instructor providing student instruction, flight
instruction, or flight training shall not be deemed to be operating an aircraft carrying
persons or property for compensation or hire.”
What happened to the equivalent level of safety concerns?
Is this World-class aviation advocacy, or just whistling past the graveyard?
Any fair-minded person would think the world’s largest unmanned advocacy group
or policy experts would have spotted some of these inconsistencies and been all
over this like consensus stink on a monkey? I seem to remember a law passed by
Congress mandating full airspace integration by September of 2015. Does anyone
else remember that, or was the FAA just yanking my chain about safety for the last
20 years, and I fell for it? I guess we will have to wait and see what the Aviation
insurance industry says?
The rest is history –
The following is a historical perspective on how commercial drones got banned for
almost a decade in the United States. This calamity eventually harmonized itself into
the international commercial drone community.
Before February 13, 2007, we were exempted from the FARs (Federal Aviation
Regulations) by a document designated as AC 91-57. The AC stood for Advisory
Circular, and thus, was advisory only. That made RC and drones unregulated, and
that was not what people thought; it was policy in writing from ATO-1. We had the
freedom to fly, build, and innovate on our own and without restrictions.
At that time we could fly in all classes of air space, beyond visual line of sight, at
night, over people, and over 400′ AGL without so much as a by your leave. Most of us
did act with safety in mind, calling the tower and carrying third-party liability
insurance. Even still, I’m sure Chicken Little is running around screaming the sky
must have been falling, and mayhem ensued both on the ground and in the air. No!
There was no mayhem, and it was not because RC was less sophisticated as some
VC-funded hipster’s implied regulations that would produce a need for their
products and services. If it was at the expense of your freedoms, so be it.
First Trans Atlantic crossing 1998
Most of you probably were unaware that drones were things before just a few years
ago, so please let me explain.
In the days before the ban, many “hobbyists” were innovating in their garages and shops. The electric revolution, as I like to call it, lithium chemistries and brushless motors allowed the hobbyist (non-AMA members) the opportunity to enter the hobby. We would regularly read discussions on the boards like RC Groups, RunRyder, etc., about folks flying FPV out 40 plus kilometers, altitudes in the tens of thousands of feet AGL, etc., and that had been going on with gliders for many years. Nuts and idiots were mentioned to the authorities, as well as shunned by the community.
You could go fly in the park instead of waiting all day to fly at the AMA field. Not only
did you not have to be subject to the pecking order, but you could also use your
autopilot ($300 +/- in 2005) and legally do most of the stuff everyone reads on the
drones selfie blogs as some entirely new application with a bogus waiver.
I think the AMA (Academy of Model Aeronautics) felt threatened as their lock on the
pork chop was in danger. Even in 2008, the AMA told the FAA there were probably
only 5000 non-AMA hobbyists in all United States. I called BS on that number, as did
manufacturers and distributors of RC parts and supplies.
Industry put the numbers at more like 400k to 500k and stated that AMA fields and members could not support all of the products sold. FAA took the AMA number as something etched in granite.
Well, why the outright commercial ban? That is a good question, and one that I will
give some personal insight into; I was there, man! This was back in the ADS-B fight
days, and the AOPA (Airplane Owners and Pilots Association) was looking for a
safety whipping boy, and you can guess who they conveniently found. The AOPA,
known for being all about safety, had heartburn about the ADS-B as it would be the
death of the old Sky King VFR burger days of aviation.
There was a congressional hearing in Congress back in 2005. I remember being part
of one of the FAA “standards” group meetings that day representing the RCAPA
(Remote Control Aerial Photography Association) membership. Still, no one
mentioned the hearing until it was over. Much to my chagrin, the RCAPA was
named by the AOPA as advocating for RC aircraft’s commercial use (1’s and 0’s), but
no invite was extended to testify. They demanded that FAA hold the droners to an
equivalent level of aviation safety. You want to talk about proving a negative. There
was no data, and the conjecture thrown around got so deep waders would not have
We need data?
Nick “Do No Harm” Sabatini knew there was no data, and there would be no data for
so many years to come. About that time, the FAA was called by the endearing
nickname of ” The Tombstone Agency,” which wasn’t because it was all about safety.
They had to gin up some new ways to collect safety data, which they did, and I
believe why some of the data for 2011 is missing. All of this was part of the more extensive GA registration and GAATA survey data collection debacle and a long
story for another time.
Deputy Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety Peggy Gilligan figured they’d be
able to put a lid on drones until they went away. And they did, to China. The 737
MAX follies were in full swing from the filling for an Amended Type Certification in
2012 until Peggy Retired in January 2017, and safety fall guy Ali Bahrami took over.
Again, the revolving door also hit Dan “RID” Elwell in the butt on the way out. Heck,
this LSA and drone debacle goes back to the heady Administrator Blakey days, and
Dan’s first go-round at the FAA. I’d need a ball of red yarn and a flat of pushpins to
connect the dots to all of the players in this tragedy.
The FAA offered this squeaky wheel some grease. I got a call after the ban from an
FAA representative who said I could do whatever I wanted; I asked if that was for
everyone or just me? No, just me because they said they knew I was safe; I said no
thanks because it would be unfair if it weren’t for everyone. I also knew that if it
wasn’t in writing signed by FAA counsel it was worthless.
There was no legal justification for the policy clarification that the FAA could
produce. I asked FAA counsel with a Congressional liaison on the phone call to see
the Administrative procedures followed while crafting the policy. They didn’t have
any they could produce in writing or verbally besides vague references to Title 5 of
the U.S.C. So, did they just make it up? They didn’t have an administrative
procedures manual (mentioned in the Administrative Procedures Act) before or
even after the policy clarification. I’m no drone policy expert, but that sounds
arbitrary and capricious to me.
@TheDroneDealer on Twitter