Lawful Drone Flight In the United States – History Part 1

As a part of my research I felt responsible to understand the legal aspects of drone flight in US Airspace.  Right now the US is in the midst of a debate about the commercial and legal aspects of UAV flight in domestic airspace.  To understand where we are legally as domestic drone pilots, I think a look over our shoulder to the past will give perspective.  This is part 1 of my look into the past.

In an Advisory circular dated June 9, 1981, the United States Federal Aviation Administration as a part of the Department of Transportation issued guidance concerning “Model Aircraft Operating Standards” for general use.  The advisory circular “outlines, and encourages voluntary compliance with, safety standards for model aircraft operators” and was signed by the Director, Air Traffic Service at the time, R. J.Van Vuren.

In the background of the memo, Director Van Vuren notes that “Modelers, generally, are concerned about safety and do exercise good judgement when flying model aircraft.”  I wonder if Team Black Sheep got that memo?  (Editor’s Note: Nothing but love guys – be careful!!)  The Director goes on to acknowledge that “model aircraft can at times pose a hazard to full-scale aircraft in flight…” and to civilians and public property.  His words ring true over 30 years later as we continue, as a nation, to debate the use of UAVs domestically.  The advisory goes on to issue, “standards (that) will help reduce the potential for that hazard and create a good neighbor environment with affected communities and airspace users.”  These standards are listed below and are still applicable over 30 years from their original writing.

a.  Select an operating site that is of sufficient distance from populated areas. The selected site should be away from noise sensitive areas such as parks, schools, hospitals, churches, etc.
b.  Do not operate model aircraft in the presence of spectators until the aircraft is successfully flight tested and proven airworthy.
c.  Do not fly model aircraft higher than 400 feet above the surface.  When flying aircraft within 3 miles of an airport, notify the airport operator, or when an air traffic facility is located at the airport, notify the control tower, or flight service station.
d. Give right of way to, and avoid flying in the proximity of, full-scale aircraft. Use observers to help if possible.
e.  Do not hesitate to ask for assistance from any airport traffic control concerning compliance with these standards.”

Since this early guidance there have been a few policy changes and I’ll discuss them in future posts in this series.  Next up will be the more recent FAA guidance 08-01 so stay tuned.

What do you think about the Director’s early memo?  Is there some value in looking back at older guidance to help understand where we are or should we just look ahead to the future?  Leave your feedback here or drop me an email at [email protected] this blog’s url and let me know.  Finally (and most importantly) sign up for my mailing list to keep in contact with me and the projects I’m pursuing.  I promise no spam, just periodic updates on the projects I’m working on and topics related to them.

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