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FAA Moves Toward Treating Drones and Planes As Equals

Hackaday’s Tom Nardi writes about the Federal Aviation Administration’s push to repeal Section 336, which states that small remote-controlled aircraft as used for hobby and educational purposes aren’t under FAA jurisdiction. “Despite assurances that the FAA will work towards implementing waivers for hobbyists, critics worry that in the worst case the repeal of Section 336 might mean that remote control pilots and their craft may be held to the same standards as their human-carrying counterparts,” writes Nardi. From the report: Section 336 has already been used to shoot down the FAA’s ill-conceived attempt to get RC pilots to register themselves and their craft, so it’s little surprise they’re eager to get rid of it. But they aren’t alone. The Commercial Drone Alliance, a non-profit association dedicated to supporting enterprise use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), expressed their support for repealing Section 336 in a June press release: “Basic ‘rules of the road’ are needed to manage all this new air traffic. That is why the Commercial Drone Alliance is today calling on Congress to repeal Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, and include new language in the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act to enable the FAA to regulate UAS and the National Airspace in a common sense way.”

The 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act does not simply repeal Section 336, it also details the new rules the agency would impose on unmanned aircraft and their operators. Under these proposed rules, all unmanned aircraft would be limited to an altitude of 400 feet unless they have specific authorization to exceed that ceiling. They must also be operated within line of sight at all times, effectively ending long-range First Person View (FPV) flying. There’s also language in the Reauthorization Act about studying the effects of flying unmanned aircraft at night, or over groups of people. It also states that drones, just like traditional aircraft, must be registered and marked. It even authorizes the FAA to investigate methods of remote identification for drones and their operators, meaning it’s not unreasonable to conclude that RC aircraft may be required to carry transponders at some point in the future. To many in the hobby this seems like an unreasonable burden, especially in the absence of clear limits on what type of small aircraft would be excluded (if any). The report also notes that the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act will require drone operators to have to pass an “aeronautical knowledge and safety test,” and to show proof of their passing to any law enforcement if questioned. Also with the repeal of Section 336, “young people might actually be excluded from flying remote-controlled aircraft,” Nardi writes. “While many RC planes and quadcopters are marketed as children’s toys, in the absence of Section 336, it’s not clear that a child could legally operate one. The FAA requires a person to be 16 years of age to obtain a pilot’s license, and if unmanned aircraft are truly expected to obey the same ‘rules of the road,’ it’s not unreasonable to assume that age requirement will remain in effect.”

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