Like It or Not, Drone Licensing Is Coming
It’s better for drone hobbyists to start the discussion about common sense rules for licensing than to wait for your Congressman to direct the FAA to take drastic action.
What an outrageous proposal. How dare you propose drone hobbyists be licensed before they start flying?
This is the only way to save the hobby of personal drone flight. It’s the only way to protect the hobby from overreaching, confusing, conflicting and almost always illegal attempts by the government to regulate flight.
Licensing is going to happen. Just look at all the hysteria that surrounds every drone sighting. No sensation-seeking journalist or politician can pass that opportunity for grandstanding. This is why we should get ahead of them and propose reasonable licensing now before the politicians force very unreasonable licensing terms on us.
Ham radio is a good example of how this can work. Amateur Radio operators have been operating in an environment regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for decades using volunteer examiners (VE) to administer the tests for various Amateur Radio classes of licenses.
The VE forwards the test materials to the FCC and, if the applicant passes, they receive their Amateur Radio license. VEs usually are members of ham radio clubs who also provide classes in radio theory and FCC rules. The FCC does not collect any fees for the Amateur Radio license, but the VE may charge a small fee for preparing and administering the test.
Why can’t we do the same for drone operators?
How would this save the hobby? Today, the hobby is facing more local opposition from politicians who make their flight rules based on absolutely no factual evidence. Just fear and ignorance. Licensing the operators would establish the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as the governing jurisdiction for flight, preempting local rules. A license would, at the very least, assure that the applicant is aware of the FAA rules and of basic flight parameters. (Insurance companies would love that). Also, the FAA prefers a certificate action for a violation of FAA rules rather than an assessment of a fine.
Where’s the AMA?
Where is the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) when amateur legislators promulgate laws restricting drone flight in their jurisdiction? “Fly at AMA fields” is their reply. Or put another way, the AMA only cares if the new local laws would impact flights at their club fields. They claim to represent the hobby flyer, but if the AMA had ever responded to these oppressive local laws, I haven’t seen any evidence of it.
The AMA has historically been slow to adopt, or as in the case of drones, been openly hostile to them at first. I don’t think licensing drone operators would be any different. Here are some ideas that could moderate the expected opposition by the AMA:
- Flight at established and charted hobby flying sites (predominately AMA fields) would not require a license. This way one may buy and fly the same day.
- Flight below 50 feet would not have to be licensed. For example, drones in your backyard. Again, you can buy and fly the same day.
- The AMA could be the primary source of VEs from their existing clubs. It would be an opportunity for the organization to grow with younger members.
- The FAA would likely offload the Model Aircraft Pilot licensing to a third party and the AMA would be in a prime position to bid on the contract.
Could the FAA do this even in view of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012? The law states:
License Plates for Drones
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, are testing “license plates” for drones that could make drone operators more accountable. The system involves a rectangular array of multicolored LEDs attached to the bottom of the drone. The LEDs blink a unique pattern that could be looked up in a database by law enforcement to identify a drone’s owner. The LED license plate is designed to be decoded by a smartphone app, specialized camera equipment in the hands of law enforcement.
SEC. 336. SPECIAL RULE FOR MODEL AIRCRAFT.
(a) IN GENERAL. - Notwithstanding any other provision of law relating to the incorporation of unmanned aircraft systems into Federal Aviation Administration plans and policies, including this subtitle, the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft, or an aircraft being developed as a model aircraft.
Do we need Congress to amend Section 336? I don’t think so. The proposal is for licensing the operator, not the aircraft.
Is Education the Answer?
The alternative is too oppressive for drone hobbyists to sit back and do nothing. The AMA thinks education is the answer. They are right, but there are a remarkable number of drone operators who have never heard of the AMA, so its outreach and training efforts are too little, too late.
With DJI selling 30,000 Phantom drones a month (worldwide), there’s an awful lot of drone operators in the US who are not getting the message.
How many drones are flying today? No one knows, but here’s some anecdotal data. Flytrex shows how many flights have been recorded in the past hour. There have been thirty in the US as I write this. How many drones have a Flytrex GPS tracker on them? Five percent? Do the math: that would be 600 drone flights in the US in just the past hour. How many of those drone operators are aware of the AMA, let alone a member, or the guidelines of the FAA? How’s the AMA educational program working for you?
Photo credit: B Ystebo, Flickr, CC-BY-SA