Lawful Drone Flight In the United States – FAA guidance 08-01

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 UAW flight in domestic airspace.  In a previous post I discussed a little about one of the original pieces of guidance from FAA concerning recreational flights of hobbyist UAS.

What I want to share with you today is part of the more recent FAA guidance contained in Interim Operational Approval Guidance 08-01 concerning Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operations in the U. S. National Airspace System, dated March 13, 2008.


First off I would encourage every UAV or UAS operator that is even considering flights for anything other than recreational purposes to go and read this entire document.  The document itself is a short read (only 18 pages) and is very pointed in it’s language.  What I want to do is review what I consider some key points from 08-01 and discuss the interpretation of the language.

Who at FAA is providing the guidance and why?

One of the most important questions on my mind when I read this was who issued this guidance and how do I keep in touch with the people who are making future guidance so I can stay current?  Fortunately the document provides that and with a little hyper-linking we can keep up nicely.

This guidance was jointly developed by, and reflects the consensus opinion of:

While all of those links give you insight into the players giving the guidance, the most important link is this one which contains all kinds of useful links on everything from online policy sessions, obtaining a Certificate of Authorization or Waiver (COA), to Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Test Sites and selections.  If you want to keep in touch with UAS updates at FAA this is the single site for you to follow in my opinion.

Another important link is the Unmanned Aircraft Question and Answer Page.  This simple to read question-answer type page provides a lot of information about UAS and their operation.  This is another must read for UAS operators in my opinion.

Now with the who out of the way, lets move on to the why.  I think these two paragraphs in the beginning of the document tell the story.

The proliferation of UAS into the NAS has resulted in an increased demand for the FAA to process a large number of applications to review for operational approvals. These approvals are required due to the fact that unmanned aircraft (UA) are not compliant with various sections of Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) and therefore, require an alternate means of compliance. Most notably, the lack of an on-board pilot requires an alternate method of the “see-and-avoid” provisions of 14 CFR 91.113, Right-of-Way Rules: Except Water Operations.


See-and-Avoid (courtesy of Stephen Carlson)See-and-Avoid (courtesy of Stephen Carlson)


My interpretation is that the FAA considers non-modelist UAS as aircraft or a subset of aircraft and this means they are covered by much of the same legislation.  Because of the very nature of UAS they are not compliant with portions of these laws and therefore require special exceptions to the law in order to operate.  In particular they lack an on-board pilot to apply the “see-and-avoid” principle.  A very interesting literature review was done for see-and-avoid for UAS in 2009.  I’d encourage you to have a read.

UAS operations have increased dramatically during the past several years in both the public and private sectors. In response to this increasing activity, it has become necessary to develop guidance for Federal Aviation Administration to use when evaluating applications for certificate(s) of waiver or authorization and special airworthiness certificates. This guidance is not meant as a substitute for any regulatory process.

This second paragraph acknowledges the increase in UAS activity as well as requests for certificates of waiver or authorization and this document serves (in part) as a basis for the FAA to evaluate UAS and issue these certificates.

Now here is the important part for the recreational hobbyist flyer.  In the notes of section 4, on page 5 the following is provided with bold and hyperlinks added for emphasis and usefulness:

  • “This document and the processes prescribed do not apply to hobbyists and amateur model aircraft users when operating systems for sport and recreation. Those individuals should seek guidance under Advisory Circular (AC) 91-57, Model Aircraft Operating Standards, which is currently under revision. 
  • Civil UAS operations require a special airworthiness certificate and should follow the process as specified in this document. 
  • AC 91-57 shall not be used as a basis of approval for UAS operations and is applicable to recreational and hobbyists use only.

So here’s the interesting part.  Can I fly the UAS for recreation and take pictures for recreation and put the pictures online for sale?  If I’m flying for fun and taking pictures for fun am I a participating party covered under AC 91-57?  I think this fails the common sense test but then again when have a lot of our laws made sense?  The take away message is that recreational hobbyist UAS flyers are NOT bound by 08-01.

What do you think about the first part of my review of the content in 08-01?   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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