Opinion RCAPA Regulation

Did the FAA Arbitrarily Change its own UAS NAS Policy?

Patrick Egan

This is just one of the many questions the Remote Control Aerial Photography Association (RCAPA), have been asking over the last several years.

This particular request was initiated over a year and half ago (2009). That must seem like an eternity to a small businessperson who has been arbitrarily told that current policy does not allow for them to make a legal living, regardless of when they started their business, or how safely they had been operating.

The following story is by no means fluff or conjecture, and in the end, after examining the included documentation, any fair-minded person should conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that FAA/DOT policy pertaining to UAS operations in the NAS did in fact make a distinct and abrupt change as of February 2007.

We have two completely different and quantifiable operating environments.

The documentation affirming this point has heretofore not been made available to the public.

I am aware that other examples, stating close to the same, exist and were sent to others that followed the likewise approach of defining procedures to operate… albeit to operate businesses in different geographical locations.  This was the case for those operators who called field offices and respective towers to ascertain procedural direction.

As a result, the membership (small business community, et al), had been led to believe, as stated by FAA personnel, that these operators were “mistakenly” operating under the auspicious of AC 91-57 as follows:

The FAA recognizes that people and companies other than modelers might be flying UAS with the mistaken understanding that they are legally operating under the authority of AC 91-57. AC 91-57 only applies to modelers, and thus specifically excludes its use by persons or companies for business purposes.”

More on that later… First, let me explain the inquiry made addressed to Administrator Babbitt, dated September 8th, 2009. The inquiry was a request for an explanation of the procedural mechanics that led to the alleged policy change (not clarification) of February 6, 2007 Posted in the Federal Register as follows:

The aforementioned document’s summary states: This notice clarifies the FAA’s current policy concerning operations of unmanned aircraft in the National Airspace System.”


And do they apply to the same? That is all well and good, as we all want to operate within the confines of the law, right? The reasoning behind the inquiry and impetus for the letter: there are certain codes and procedures that Federal Agencies must follow when making changes to regulation, noted in the RCAPA letter.

So, why should this inquiry even be a consideration? Before the following documents came to light, we as business users had no irrefutable proof to show that there was indeed a distinct change in FAA policy as it pertains to what are now commonly referred to as UAS.

(Editors note, here ends the first lesson, to be continued on Friday)


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4 thoughts on “Did the FAA Arbitrarily Change its own UAS NAS Policy?
  1. Patrick – When I started flying unmanned aircraft in 1986, the FAA had no specific rules governing civil UAS. There was an FAA order that dealt with Military Drones/RPV’s/UAS. Why was that order written; because UAS were aircraft and fell under the jurisdiction of the FAA. However, without specific policy guidance there was a sort of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” going on. There were not enough UAS flying to be concerned about.
    Now move forward to 2005, when the FAA wrote the notice in the Federal Register: UAS are aircraft and Title 14 CFR applies. At that time, RC model aircraft were also named as aircraft under the FAA definition. To be fair, they Grandfathered the RC hobby community but they had to address the UAS manufacturers who claimed hobby status for testing, etc. To make that difference clear, the FAA distinguished between recreational and commercial RC operations. That is where RCAPA got caught.
    Anything that flies is covered by FAA regulation, and it is only by exception that it is not. The exceptions are working their way through the system in the form of sUAS rulemaking.
    If you can make a safety case for RCAPA operations you might get an exception. You know your industry better than anyone else. Do you know of people who use shoddy equipment or procedures? If so the regulations are meant to curb those activities. Unfortunately, it also covers businesses who operate safely.

  2. As far as safety cases are concerned, the FAA appears to treat data collection as a backburner issue. Last time I inquired (August), they still hadn’t as much as an inkling of what data they were seeking, thus also precluding a data capture mechanism. The ironic thing is that most of what the FAA has told us they need (data, baselines and capture devices) already exists. The post Feb. 2007 environment contradicts the aforementioned “policy.” So, who is making policy, how and what are the motives? The old safety argument bucket is taking on the appearance of a colander as the years go by. No denying that UAS flying in the NAS has gone mainstream with News Corp’s Daily Drone and CNN’s offering, yet the chicken little scenario foretold has yet to materialize.

    In this same period, how many fatalities do we have as the result of accidents involving certified aircraft? Whatever the number, it casts doubts on the notion that manned aviation will be able to meet an equivalent level of safety (fatalities) with unmanned aviation. What is needed here is a group or concern that is willing and financially able to take the lead in pointing out the glaring double standards presented by a dysfunctional policymaking process.

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