NTSB Rules That Model Aircraft Can Be Regulated By FAA

What’s the difference between a model aircraft you’d take out to the park and fly for your own amusement without having to worry about being fined or penalized by the Federal Aviation Administration, and operating a remote-controlled aircraft that does fall under the regulatory umbrella of the FAA? Earlier this year, a federal administrative law judge said it was pretty clear that model aircrafts of any sort are exempt from FAA oversight, but the National Transportation Safety Board today said the judge was mistaken.

This all involves the 2011 case of a man who was fined $10,000 for operating a remote-controlled model aircraft that had been fitted with a camera.

The man, who allegedly flew the plane as low as a few feet off the ground and as high as 1,500 feet, said he had been hired to take aerial photos of my beloved University of Virginia. He was accused of operating the craft recklessly, coming too close to pedestrians and operating too near to a helipad.

In March, the judge held that model aircraft are explicitly exempt from FAA regulation and so the the fine could not be levied against the man.

He ruled that accepting the FAA’s position that the man’s Ritewing Zephyr constituted an “aircraft” under federal law would “result in the risible argument that a flight in the air of… a paper aircraft, or a toy balsa wood glider,” could then be regulated by the FAA.

But the FAA appealed the judge’s decision to the full NTSB, which ruled [PDF] today that the Zephyr could indeed be considered an aircraft under federal law.

“An aircraft is ‘any’ ‘device’ that is ‘used for flight’,” reads the ruling. “We acknowledge the definitions are as broad as they are clear, but they are clear nonetheless.”

The pilot of the Zephyr maintains that FAA regulations only explicitly cover manned aircraft. And the Board concedes that when the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 was enacted,”‘drones’ were largely the currency of science fiction.” However, the Board says that the Act does not exclude unmanned aircraft.

“If the operator of an unmanned aircraft is not ‘using’ the aircraft for flight and some derivative purpose — be it aerial photography or purely recreational pleasure — there would be little point in buying such a device,” reads the ruling, which remanded the case back to the administrative law judge.

Additionally, the Board says that “Congress demonstrated prescience” when it left open the possibility for new types of aircraft “now known or hereafter invented, used, or designed for navigation of or flight in the air.”

As remote-controlled aircraft have developed into sturdier machines, they have expanded beyond mere hobbyists. In addition to the growing number of businesses using drones for aerial photography and surveying, several companies — most notably Amazon and UPS — are seeking to use the flying harbingers of man’s doom for delivering packages.

In June, the FAA began seeking public comment on rules for model aircraft. In its proposal, it allows that model aircraft may be used for hobby and recreational purposes, which could include aerial photography. However, as soon as any of that piloting is being done for commercial purposes, the use of the aircraft would fall under FAA regulations.