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As the Federal Aviation Administration prepares to issue guidelines for how it will handle unmanned aircraft systems, the agency is tightening what constitutes a model aircraft so there’s no confusion between the two.

According to an interpretation of the special rule for model aircraft posted by the FAA on Regulations.gov, a model aircraft must be flown as a hobby, not weigh more than 55 pounds, not interfere with manned aircraft, not fly within five miles of an airport without prior permission and adhere to a set of community-based guidelines.

In the interpretation, the FAA included this chart classifying the difference between recreational and commercial use of model aircraft.  Source: FAA Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft

In the interpretation, the FAA included this chart classifying the difference between recreational and commercial use of model aircraft.
(Credit: FAA Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft)

The special ruling for model aircraft comes from section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which defined them as any unmanned aircraft that fly within the line of sight of the person operating them for hobby or recreational purposes.

Under the act, if an aircraft meets the criteria of a model aircraft, it is not subject to further FAA ruling. In the new interpretation, the agency said if a remote controlled craft does not meet the requirements, it will be classified as an unmanned aircraft and must adhere to any future regulations.

So far, the posting on Regulations.gov has warranted more than 29,000 comments from individuals, anonymous users, think-tanks, organizations and academies.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation said in its comment the interpretation of the rule for model aircraft is too narrow and could place unnecessary burdens on recreational model aircraft users.

Specifically, the foundation cites the prohibition on the use of first person view goggles by the FAA because the technology would impede the operators direct line of sight, one of the main classifications for model aircraft.

Instead of issuing blanket interpretations, like prohibiting the use of the goggles for model aircraft, Alan McQuinn, a research assistant for ITIF and co-author of the foundation’s comments to the FAA, told FedScoop the agency should look at new technologies on a case-by-case basis.

“We recommend that the FAA not create rules to stop technologies but address them as each of them come into light, because a lot of this technology is still growing,” McQuinn said. “We recommend that the FAA work with community-based standards that already exist around these technologies and are evolving around these technologies to create a ruling for each of them.”

ITIF also encouraged the agency to use another approach to help distinguish between commercial and noncommercial UAS and establish rules to qualify each before issuing guidance on drones in 2015.

“The distinction is tenuous because if they’re regulating for safety, a drone right now being flown by someone who is just a model aircraft enthusiast who takes it up 300 feet and takes a picture of his house, that’s totally legal,” McQuinn said. “But if he takes that picture and sells it, that’s a $10,000 fine. That is a little ridiculous. So if they’re using those standards going forward, we will continue to file comments and advocate for looking at drones in a commercial light that gives them the ability to innovate within the spectrum.”

The Academy of Model Aeronautics also found some areas of the FAA’s interpretation objectionable and said the language of the law — which refers to community-based guidelines, some of which were created by the AMA —required no interpretation.

“The interpretive rule specifically addresses model aircraft operated within the safety programming of a nationwide community-based organization, AMA,” the academy said in its comments. “[The FAA] effectively establishes new rules to which model aircraft were not previously subjected.”

AMA also requested the FAA extend the comment period on the Regulations.gov posting from July 25 until Sept. 23. The FAA granted that request.

The agency’s model aircraft interpretation comes as it plans to release guidelines for the use of unmanned aircraft systems, commonly referred to as drones, in the coming months. The agency’s inspector general reported last month, however, that the guidelines could be delayed.

There have also been reports of an executive order in the works from President Barack Obama that would create a set of privacy guidelines for commercially operated drones.

According to a source familiar with the potential executive order, the White House National Security Council organized an intergovernmental working group last year to examine the issue. The group then tasked the National Telecommunications and Information Administration with developing and enforcing a set of privacy guidelines.

NSC spokesperson Ned Price told FedScoop via email the White House had no comment on any potential executive order but that an interagency review of the issue was underway.

During a July 24 press gaggle in Los Angeles, deputy White House press secretary Eric Schultz would not comment on the specifics of an executive order regulating privacy for commercial drones.

“What we have said on this issue in the past is that the interagency continues to develop and review policies concerning the domestic use of unmanned aircraft systems, and that remains the case,” Schultz said.