FAA drone rule a giant middle finger to r/c hobbyists?


More than 34,000 people have deluged the Federal Aviation Administration with comments over a proposed regulation that would require almost every drone in the sky to broadcast its location over the Internet at all times. The comments are overwhelmingly negative, with thousands of hobbyists warning that the rules would impose huge new costs on those who simply wanted to continue flying model airplanes, home-built drones, or other personally owned devices.

“These regulations could kill a hobby I love,” wrote Virginian Irby Allen Jr. in a comment last week. “RC aviation has brought my family together and if these regulations are enacted we will no longer be able to fly nor be able to afford the hobby.”


The new regulations probably wouldn’t kill the hobby of flying radio-controlled airplanes outright, but it could do a lot of damage. Owners of existing drones and model airplanes would face new restrictions on when and where they could be used. The regulations could effectively destroy the market for kit aircraft and custom-designed drones by shifting large financial and paperwork burdens on the shoulders of consumers.

“I think it’s going to be harmful to the community and harmful to the growth of the UAS industry,” said Greg Reverdiau, co-founder of the Pilot Institute, in a Friday phone interview. He wrote a point-by-point critique of the FAA proposal that has circulated widely among aviation hobbyists.

An Internet connection for every aircraft

The new rules are largely designed to address safety and security concerns raised by law enforcement agencies. They worry that drones flying too close to an airport could disrupt operations or even cause a crash. They also worry about terrorists using drones to deliver payloads to heavily populated areas.

To address these concerns, the new FAA rule would require all new drones weighing more than 0.55 pounds to connect over the Internet to one of several location-tracking databases (still to be developed by private vendors) and provide real-time updates on their location. That would enable the FAA or law enforcement agencies to see, at a glance, which registered drones are in any particular area.

But critics say the rules impose massive costs on thousands of law-abiding Americans who have been quietly flying model airplanes, quad-copters, and other small unmanned aircraft for years—and in many cases decades.

The rules require that the drone itself have an Internet connection. That will instantly render many existing drones obsolete, forcing hobbyists to upgrade or discard them. And it will also make it significantly more expensive to own a drone, since you’ll need to sign up for a data plan for each device you own. A hobby that previously had near-zero operating costs might suddenly cost $50 per month—per aircraft.

In many cases, it may not even be possible for people to upgrade their existing aircraft to the new standard. The FAA rule states that a compliant drone needs to have a serial number that was issued by the device’s manufacturer in compliance with the new rules. Yet many RC aircraft are built by small companies who never intended to get into the commercial drone business. They might not have the technical resources to comply with the new standards or the legal resources to get FAA approval.

Critics say this approach is overkill. DJI, the leading dronemaker, opposes the FAA proposal. The company points out that it has already implemented a drone identification technology for its own drones that is based on sending out radio signals from the drone. Law enforcement agencies can buy hardware that receives these broadcasts and shows which DJI drones are nearby.

DJI argues that this approach is simpler, cheaper, and less intrusive than an always-on Internet connection. In the view of DJI—and other opponents of the FAA’s approach—it would be better for the FAA to mandate the development of an industry-standard version of DJI’s technology, rather than forcing every drone to get an Internet connection.

FAA expects homebuilt aircraft to be “phased out”

There’s a large community of people who build aircraft from kits or using parts purchased at hobbyist stores or online. The new rules would impose huge new burdens on these hobbyists. With one exception I’ll discuss in a minute, these hobbyists would also be required to comply with the remote ID requirements, which means that they’d need to be designed with an onboard cellular chip and a significant amount of computing power.

Next, a hobbyist would have to submit paperwork to the FAA explaining how their drone works and demonstrating that it meets all the requirements of the new regulations. You might need to hire a lawyer before you can fly a model aircraft you design yourself.

This approach seems like a terrible fit for do-it-yourself aircraft builders. California drone hobbyist Anatoly Vizitiu explained the issue in a recent comment to the FAA:

We do not buy commercially manufactured drones, but build our own drones, we race them and crush them, then rebuild them again. [A] hobbyist drone is not an aircraft, but a collection of parts that work together. After crashes those surviving parts find themselves on multiple other models. [An] average hobbyist does not own one model but dozens and some hundreds, which are always modified and experimented with.

This do-it-yourself approach runs directly counter to the FAA’s vision, in which every drone has a single manufacturer who takes care of regulatory compliance.

Apparently anticipating a backlash, the FAA does offer a workaround for people with existing or custom-built aircraft: special FAA-designated areas where people could fly non-compliant aircraft. These would be run by “community-based organizations”—most likely existing model airplane clubs that already operate fields for hobbyists to fly their aircraft. These clubs would have a one-year window to apply to the FAA for permission to run one of these sites. At the end of the year, the FAA would publish a list of approved sites, and anyone who wants to fly a non-compliant aircraft would need to travel to one of the sites.

But the FAA makes clear that it views this arrangement as a temporary expedient:

At the end of that 12-month period, no new applications for FAA-recognized identification areas would be accepted. After that date, the number of FAA-recognized identification areas could therefore only remain the same or decrease. Over time, the FAA anticipates that most UAS without remote identification will reach the end of their useful lives or be phased out. As these numbers dwindle, and as compliance with remote identification requirements becomes cheaper and easier, the number of UAS that need to operate only at FAA-recognized identification areas would likely drop significantly.

Significantly, the FAA doesn’t appear to envision people continuing to design and build their own aircraft after the rules go into effect—even if they’re only flown in special FAA-designated locations. If the FAA is wrong about this and the number of non-compliant aircraft grows over time, the FAA offers no mechanism for adding new flying fields. The drone hobbyist community would be stuck with the flying fields that existed at the time these rules went into effect—no matter how many people wanted to use them. No one will be able to fly homebuilt aircraft in their backyards or nearby empty fields.

And this exception also does nothing for people who want to use custom-built drones for practical applications, for example on farms or construction sites. Presumably over time large dronemakers would build drones that would meet most needs. But having individuals and small companies experimenting with homebrew technology is an important source of innovation—and the FAA seems determined to stamp that kind of innovation out.




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  1. Tony Iannucelli on

    Just thinking … I’ve been building and flying radio controlled model aircraft of all types since 1971, not counting the U/C models I had in the 1950s. I’ve belonged to several different model clubs over the years in three different states. I currently have about 35 aircraft including three quad copters, several jets, helicopters, and scale warbirds. In all that time, on all those flying fields, I have NEVER seen an FAA person when I was flying. NEVER. Looking forward to meeting one at some point, not just mailing them checks on the honor system. Wonder if that will ever happen…

    I’m remined of the comment, “We’re from the government, and we are here to help…”

  2. 66carsandguitars on

    The government wants to regulate the use of fixed wing rc aircraft because of the senseless acts of a bunch of irresponsible drone users in the hope that terrorists can’t use this technology. But in turn they are spending millions of dollars on research for driverless cars! No, terrorists wouldn’t EVER think of using driverless cars for dibolocal means. It’s ridiculous.

  3. The problem occurred when the AMA decided to INCLUDE DRONES into our MODEL AIRCRAFT organization. This was done I believe to try to gather MORE MEMBERS. You can buy DRONES ANYWHERE and never do you see anything about JOINING THE AMA!!!! I have model kits from the seventies that mention AMA in the instructions. Look online and read about a DRONE FOR SALE and there is NO MENTION!!! Never before were OUR BELOVED AIRCRAFT called DRONES but now after the AMA attempted their” EPIC FAIL” we are in the mix. I am sure if you go to an event where DRONES are the subject the owners are AMA members but you see someone out in a park or anywhere in the general public with one they DO NOT even know what the AMA stands for!!! I personally have 24 AIRCRAFT and many kits that were hopefully to be enjoyed by my Grandchildren but it looks like they are OUT OF LUCK! And by the way the DRONES are the UAVs that have caused all the trouble by flying irresponsibly. This is just my take on a REALLY BAD SITUATION. Heck, We were never even called UAVs. Just MODEL AIRPLANES!!!

  4. The terrorists concern is really asinine. If a terrorist really wants to use a drone to cause damage to people, do you really think they are going to use the remote ID in it?
    The safety concerns should be focused on the rogue drone pilots not the thousands upon thousands on responsible flyers. It’s just another way the government wants complete and utter control of the population.

  5. Over the last 20 years many r/c “hobbyists” have been giving the giant middle finger to the AMA and mainstream hobbyists who followed some simple rules. And now they are crying about the fact the FAA got sick of their nonsense while the rest of us can still fly at registered sites without being bothered.

    • CRX Turbines on

      Hobbyists is a vague term. Anyone doing something presumably for pleasure as opposed for hire is a hobbyist, whatever it is. The issue here are drone operators not fixed wing line of sight aircraft. Like most I have been flying RC “planes” since I was a young boy. Drones popped up in recent years and all the stir is about drones, not fixed wing aircraft. Drone operators have given the middle finger to the AMA and to society with the reckless operations we have all seen but the AMA IMHO were ignorant to try to work with drone operators in the first place.

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