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While the use of unmanned aircraft dates back to the late 1920's, drones have experienced a meteoric rise in both numbers and uses over the last twenty years. However, hobbyists are currently facing a new wave of regulations at the federal level to curb drone activities. We'll take a look at both the history of drone regulations and possible effects of the current ones.
Drones were treated as hobby aircraft for many years with minimal restrictions. However, this began to change during the 1980's, as the Federal Aviation Administration ( FAA) began to exercise more control over their uses. In 1981, Advisory Circular 91-57 was issued by the FAA to provide guidelines for the use of drones and unmanned aircraft. Circular 91 defined drones as hobby aircraft and specified drone operators could not fly their aircraft over military bases, dams, power plants , oil refineries, national parks, emergency services or other industrial complexes. The drones had a weight restriction of 55 lbs. and could not be flown above 400 ft. Pilots of unmanned aircraft were not to fly within five miles of an airport ( though exceptions could be granted by written request to the airport management). The overall concept of Circular 91 was to segregate airspace into commercial and recreational segments. Advisory Circular 91 also specified line of sight operation for all unmanned aircraft.
In 2012, the FAA Modernization And Reform Act was passed, which prohibited the FAA from further regulating any model aircraft used for recreational purposes. In 2014, the FAA began to categorize the uses of unmanned aircraft into hobby and commercial uses, essentially placing unmanned aircraft utilized for commercial purposes under existing manned aircraft regulations. The FAA attempted to propose additional regulations for model aircraft, but these were successfully challenged in court by the Academy Of Model Aeronautics. The following year, the FAA updated the original AC-91-57 to include more restrictions. Advisory Circular 91-57A also proposed special flight rules areas, such as Washington D.C., in which unmanned aircraft were not allowed access without prior permission. Though the additional regulations were overturned in 2017 as a result of three lawsuits (Taylor v. FAA), Congress overturned the court's ruling with the National Defense Authorization Act Of 2017.
In June 2016, the FAA began the first serious effort at regulating commercial drone use. Whenever a small UAV is flown, the Federal Aviation Administration requires the operator to possess a specific authorization, known as a Part 107 Certificate. Part 107 provides requirements for the issuance of a commercial Remote Pilot Certificate or drone license, which allows the pilot to get paid for flying a drone. Under the 107 guidelines, Remote Pilot Certificate holders may fly drones under 55 lbs., at speeds less than 100 mph., at altitudes of less than 400 ft., while not flying over bystanders and within authorized airspace. Such flights should also be conducted on a line of sight basis. Recreational drone use currently does not require a Part 107 Certificate, as such flights are not for commercial use. However, the drone must be under 55 lbs. with all FAA safety regulations followed. Supposedly, the FAA is considering recreational UAV pilots taking the Remote Pilot Certificate exam.
Perhaps the most controversial regulation under discussion by the FAA is to have all but the tiniest drones incorporate technology that would enable them to be tracked at all times while flying in United States airspace. Drone manufacturers and operators who have studied the proposal have varied opinions ranging from enthusiastic support from those seeking to identify owners of hazardous drones to those apprehensive about the added technology costs killing the hobby. Since 2015 drone operators have had to register their units with the FAA, submitting their names along with their e-mail and home addresses. Currently, prisons and a number of other federal institutions utilize systems to detect drones. For the time being, government officials at all levels have no quick way of either identifying the owner of a drone nor its location. Airports, power plants and other restricted sights lack the legal authority to track drones. The current proposal requires the owners of drones heavier than .55 lbs. to emit a particular recognition signal. New regulations require registered drones to incorporate a remote identification system, which broadcasts over the internet. If a drone pilot is in an area where an internet connection is difficult, if not impossible, the drone would have a flight perimeter of only about 400 ft. While the rationale for the new FAA proposal is largely based on the need for both safety and national security, individual freedoms and a major hobby industry hang in the balance.