By By Ernie Stephens, Editor-at-Large | October 8, 2014
As the last quarter of 2014 begins, those who work and play with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – often referred to by the less technical term “drones” – continue watching for more FAA guidance regarding their remotely operated vehicles. To date, the agency has been moving slowly and uncharacteristically quietly towards establishing regulations that will allow UAVs to safely share the National Airspace System, particularly those finding popularity as commercial camera platforms.
A ruling handed down by a federal judge in March of 2014 in the case of Pirker v. Huerta dismissed a $10,000 fine imposed upon a UAV pilot because, the judge said, a policy that prohibited Pirker from flying a photo shoot without the expressed permission of the FAA did not carry the weight of law. Since then, operators have been using their rotorcraft for everything from personal entertainment to making money as airborne video platforms with a greatly reduced fear of being fined.
Currently, the FAA’s ability to regulate an operation that could interfere with air traffic, or create a hazard on the ground from the air, is clear. But how the FAA will define hazardous operations and regulate the who, when, where and why a person can operate a UAV is still a source of great concern to those inside and outside of the government. But as the wait for specific regulations continues towards a Congressionally imposed deadline of September 2015, reports of UAVs interfering with manned aircraft and the general peace of citizens continues.
On July 25, firefighting aircraft working a wildfire 35 miles northeast of Sacramento, Calif. nearly had to be grounded when UAV’s entered the area to gather images for its operator. It eventually left the scene before causing any harm.
Two similar incidents occurred above a 391-sq. mi. wildfire near Twisp, Wash. in July, as well.
Both the fire scene in Sacramento and the one in Twisp were protected by the customary, temporary FAA-imposed no-fly zones, which are common in such cases, though more and more UAV operators will disregard the zone – if they know about it – or feel that the type of UAV they are operating is not subject to FAA regulations.
On the other end of the country, police detained a man for operating a UAV over Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., on Aug. 19 during a professional football game. There have also been numerous reports of UAVs being flown through and around public fireworks displays, drawing complaints from spectators and police officers, alike.
Meanwhile, recreational UAV enthusiasts, who have been flying their model helicopters for decades without creating serious problems for the FAA, are lobbying hard to keep regulations from going beyond FAA Advisory Circular AC 91-57 dated June 9, 1981. In short, that document requires “model aircraft” to stay away from noise-sensitive areas, populated places, airports and aircraft, plus remain 400 feet above ground level.
It is believed, however, that forthcoming regulations will be far more restrictive, and will include language that requires all UAVs to be conspicuously marked with a registration number, and be flown within a certain height and distance of the operator’s line of sight.
The FAA has not responded to requests to comment on this subject.