The Academy of Model Aeronautics – the AMA – held the AMA Expo at the Fairplex Exposition Complex in Pomona, CA earlier this month. With a mix of indoor and outdoor activities, the 3-day, family event is designed to showcase new advances in model aircraft; offer educational activities; and bring the community of model aircraft flyers, including drone operators, together to enjoy the skies. Demos, races, building workshops and drone school classes designed to educate recreational operators on safe flight and current regulations are all part of the schedule.
Most of the events went off without a hitch. But attendees who had been looking forward to enjoying the single nighttime event as it has been held previously were disappointed. The event has been held on a soccer field surrounded by 100 foot stadium lights, fully lit. Roughly a dozen operators planned to enjoy night flying beneath the stadium lights – at an average altitude of about 50 feet. But at the last minute, days before the event, organizers were informed that they’d have to cancel this year: the FAA had denied them a waiver for night flight at the event.
Waivers for flight at night are among the most common waivers that the FAA issues for commercial drone operators – but for recreational operators, there is no clear way to apply for or receive permission to fly at night. While the AMA is a community-based organization (CBO) that fits the definition for FAA rules that refer to hobby flyers operating within CBO guidelines, apparently even AMA events are not eligible. That’s a change, says AMA’s Tyler Dobbs – and neither the AMA nor their membership understands exactly why it’s happened.
“We’re operating the same way that we’ve operated for 80 years,” says Dobbs. “Why aren’t we allowed to continue doing that?”
New legislation for recreational operators doesn’t really clarify the issue, Dobbs points out. “In the statute that says recreational operators need to ‘follow the safety program of a CBO’ there is no prohibition against night flight listed,” he says. “We’ve had a very safe program for night flight for years.” Because the FAA did not offer a safety reason for denying the waiver, Dobbs says that the AMA leadership is afraid that a new precedent has been established. “There is no safety case you can offer, no safety cause to say no – you are simply not allowed. Commercial operators have a pathway, but recreational operators don’t: there is one set of rules for one group and another set of rules for another,” he says.
The AMA has represented model aircraft enthusiasts since 1936. They’ve grown to represent almost 200,000 members from all walks of life with one passion in common – and AMA leadership has worked hard to embrace the rapid rise of the drone industry and the more rapid legal changes that have resulted. Now, however, Dobbs sees new regulations as potentially closing down AMA clubs before questions about appropriate regulation for hobby flyers can be answered. “We understand that things don’t move rapidly in government… but we’re taking the heat for it. Our members and our clubs just can’t sustain these hits,” he says.
And for a labor-strapped commercial drone industry, says Dobbs, that could be damaging. “We’re the stepping stone for the commercial industry – but the threshold to entry is becoming so burdensome that the kid who might be interested in aeronautics today might just decide to pick up a remote controlled car instead,” he comments.
A representative from the Division of Air Traffic Operations at FAA did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
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