While the FAA’s Interpretation for the Special Rule for Model Aircraft ruffled a few feathers in the UAS hobbyist community, overall, hobbyists have had it pretty good over the past few years. After all, the only person to be fined by the FAA for flying a UAS, Mr. Pirker, actually flew his aircraft back in 2011. Despite all of the news reports about airport incursions and flights over stadiums, there have been no FAA enforcement actions against hobbyists over the past 3 years.
Part of the reason may be that, so far, the first test case involving Mr. Pirker has not gone particularly well for the FAA. As we are sure you remember, the Administrative Law Judge handling the matter dismissed the action, claiming that the FAA did not have the authority to fine a hobbyist. While that ruling is still under appeal, and the FAA believes it will ultimately prevail, they have not been taking any chances.
The issuance of the Interpretation of the Special Rule of Model Aircraft has been part of a carefully thought out, systematic approach to ensure that, regardless of how the appeal comes out, the FAA’s authority to prosecute dangerous or rogue hobbyists is on a sound footing.
The core of the FAA’s authority comes from the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act. In creating the carve-out for hobbyists, the FAA specifically stated that nothing in the act:
shall be construed to limit the authority of the Administrator to pursue enforcement action against persons operating model aircraft who endanger the safety of the national airspace system.
While we are sure that everyone agrees with that principle, in order to be enforceable, hobbyist have to know what types of action actually endanger the national airspace system. Well, last week, the FAA provided a comprehensive definition.
The FAA has updated its Compliance and Enforcement Handbook to list the provisions of the FARs that can be used as a basis to punish a hobbyist: 14 CFR §§ 91.13-91.15, 91.113, 91.126-135, 91.137-145, and 14 CFR Part 73. For those of you who do not have the FARs memorized, 91.13 prevents the “careless or reckless” operation of an aircraft and 91.15 prohibits dropping any object from an aircraft if there is a hazard to persons or property on the ground. Section 91.113 sets out the right-of-way rules for aircraft. Sections 91.126-135 sets forth all of the restrictions and rules for operating in each class of airspace. Sections 91.137-145 deals with a host of temporary flight restrictions, such as after a natural disaster, when the president is near, or if space launches are occurring. Finally, Part 73 deals with special use airspace.
The new provisions in the Handbook make clear that the penalty for violations should be dependent on how severe the threat was to persons and property, whether the violation was intentional, and whether there were repeated violations. Under the guidelines, the fine can be expected to range from between $500 and $1,000 per violation. However, just as they do with all aircraft, it is important to keep in mind that each flight can be considered a separate violation, so if the FAA finds out you broke the rules on ten different flights, the fine would be ten times that number.
The Bulletin also makes clear that the FAA plans on stepping up its enforcement actions. It makes reference to Aviation Safety Inspectors who will be looking into UAS issues, and provides instructions for how the inspectors should coordinate with the FAA Regional Counsel’s Office, the Chief Counsel’s Office, and AFS-80, which is the UAS Integration Office. The Bulletin also promises that increased enforcement is only part of the effort, and that substantial efforts will be made to educate the UAS community on these standards and how to comply.
So, hobbyists, take note! It looks like the FAA has plans to get into the UAS enforcement business in a big way. Now would be a good time to brush up on the FARs and make sure you are not the next test case.