Model airplanes took off as a hobby in the U.S. after the Wright brothers credited their toy helicopter as the inspiration behind their flights in the early 20th century. Comprehensive books were published on the subject, and thousands of model aircraft clubs were established. Perhaps it was the nation’s fond history of model planes that prompted the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), not officially established until 1958, to avoid regulating these tech toys.
In 1981, however, that all changed. The FAA, which has the authority to regulate all American civil aviation, mentioned model planes for the first time in an “Advisory Circular,” signed by then director of air traffic services R. J. Van Vure. The document sets forth voluntary guidelines that address basic safety concerns. It essentially asked radio-controlled copter hobbyists to avoid flying their aircraft above 120 meters, and near airports, spectators (for untested planes), full-scale aircraft and noise-sensitive areas.
Then, in 2007 the FAA turned its attention to model airplanes once again. Now termed drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), the agency banned their use for business purposes. “We recognized that unmanned aircraft systems [UAS] would expand significantly and [took steps] to make sure UAS operation [did] not adversely affect safety,” said an FAA spokesperson who would not give his or her name. “Integration of UAS into the nation’s skies must be deliberate and incremental to avoid introducing unacceptable safety risks,” the FAA says.
Yet, because the policy was established without undergoing the requisite administrative rule-making process, it continues to stand on uncertain legal ground. Despite this, the agency gives the impression that the policy is mandatory by sending cease-and-desist letter to aerial filmography companies. It also states on its Web site that people are not allowed to fly UAVs for commercial purposes.
Nonetheless, according to the FAA, the administration “currently do[es] not have regulatory standards for commercial operations of UAS,” thereby admitting they can’t enforce their 2007 notice. “We can, however, enforce existing safety regulations that apply to all aircraft, [such as] careless or reckless operation of an aircraft,” the FAA says.
Such being the case, the FAA subjects commercial UAVs to the same laws as a full-scale aircraft, but not UAVs for personal use. Now a radio-controlled model aircraft pilot is challenging the FAA on this policy after receiving a large fine for flying his RC-fixed winged model plane in an allegedly reckless manner. The FAA has only charged him in response to a flight that he was compensated for, and not his other flights.
Because of the ambiguous regulatory environment surrounding drones and UAVs, some companies, including Beaufort, S.C.–based Wollwerth Films, have carried out aerial filmography via a UAV regardless of government threats. Company founder Stephen Wollwerth says he has flown radio-controlled aircraft for much of his life, so when he became a film director he merely integrated his copter into shoots, unaware of legal issues. The licensed pilot, who has officially been in the film business for three years, contacted the FAA in July for a waiver when he was hired by the Bravo network to shoot aerials of high-priced houses in Charleston, S.C. FAA UAS inspector Chris Grotewohl replied with a basic statement (pdf) of the agency’s policy outlining three possible ways of operating drones. The description of each method concluded, however, with the statement that “commercial operations, including aerial photography for hire, are not allowed.” The waiver was denied, so Wollwerth lost about $10,000 because he had to decline the job. Although directly ordered by the FAA to cease operations, Wollwerth continues to run his business on the grounds that the threat “was based off a policy. There’s no law or actual regulation. [The FAA] cannot fine me, because it’s not a law,” Wollwerth says. And so far the FAA hasn’t tried.