Toy Plane Christmas

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Notice: This description for “About the Song” is a little long, so it is a good suggestion to read it when you have enough time to relax, focus and follow through a few legal twists (spins, loops and rolls).  We hope you enjoy it and it stimulates some fresh ideas.

This song is about the US government behaving like they have the starring role in the Christmas classic “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”, except this time without the happy ending for the “Whos” in “Whoville” all holding hands and singing around the Christmas tree.  In this one the Grinch gets the happy ending.

For all of you whimsical “Whos” who don’t know what happened because you were in your pumpkin shaped houses hiding from the Gov/Grinch who overlooks Whoville with a complete lack of empathy for all “Whos”, here’s how it starts:

Fun loving people with warm hearts and welcoming spirits were having fun flying little toy planes around for almost a century, at least over eighty years.  Some of these hobbyists may have been a little geeky, and some were drawn to the hobby because they were “tinkerers”, you know like Benjamin Franklin (who invented lightning rods, bifocals and “discovered” electricity) or Thomas Edison (who came up with the light bulb, the phonograph, the movie camera and about 1000 other patents to amuse or improve our lives).  But most of these flying model enthusiasts are just like all Americans of every age, race, gender, size, and shape, some appearing a little odd, but all just trying to have a good time by building a better flying model to fly around and have a little fun.  This hobby has been going on for a long time.

In 1936, the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) was founded to promote model aviation as a sport and recreational activity.  It has grown to over about 180,000 members who participate in over a thousand model competitions and fly-in events.  They charter more than 2500 model airplane clubs, and sanction contests throughout the country each year.  They also sell liability insurance, help procure flying sites and develop safety guidelines.  So the AMA members and their flying clubs have been around for about eighty years.

Over all these decades, hobbyist have built and flown every type of flying machine imaginable.  That’s what they do.  They’ve built and flown everything from unpowered gliders to toys powered by rubber bands, internal combustion engines, ducted fans, pulse jet engines, turbine engines, compressed gas engines, rocket engines, and even ornithopters, with a reciprocating wing structure imitating a bird.  Historically, the modeler’s mainstay was glow plug engines which were messy and very noisy.  Because of the large variety of engines that could be built, home manufacture of model aircraft engines also became an established hobby of its own.

In the 1970s, electric flight was successfully tested by modelers, but it was too expensive until the early 1990’s when improved battery technologies, cheaper brushless motors and control electronics were developed.  Electric power offered key advantages.  It was more efficient, more reliable, less maintenance was required, it was much less messy and better still, it was very quiet.  It didn’t disturb the neighbors like the loud ear piercing high pitched sound of a glow engine.  That’s great. No more noise.  In addition, electronic speed controllers and flight controllers enabled more stable flight.  That’s great.  They’re easier to fly without crashing.  Oh you can still crash it, but it’s just not as scary, or as inevitable.

And with cheaper electronics came electronic accelerometers, gyro’s, GPS, sonar, faster processors, better programming, and etc., all in a circuit board the size of your thumb.  And with that came multi rotors, usually having four or more propellers, which allow a “quad-copter” to hover, or fly just as easily backwards as forwards.  Oh and now you can control it with your iPhone or Android device.  So now that it’s quieter, more stable and easier to fly, even more people want to join the fun.  That would be good for the industry.  In around 2008, the entry of Chinese direct-to-consumer suppliers into the market dramatically decreased the cost of electric flight.  Electric powered planes and ‘copters became the fastest growing segment of the hobby by 2010.  And along with cheap electric models came the wildly popular FPV aero-modeling.  FPV is “first person view”.  It’s a setup utilizing a camera to allow control of the toy model as if you were really onboard as the “pilot”.  Of course these things are too small to carry an actual pilot, but if you were a tiny pilot this is what it would look like to fly your model and it creates a truly immersive experience as if you were actually flying.  Now you can feel like you are really flying by wearing video goggles while flying your toy plane or copter.  So a lot of people thought it was pretty cool and wanted to try it out.

OK so now, maybe “they” thought everybody is having too much fun.  Maybe they didn’t like hundreds of thousands of young people being more innovative than they were (In one typically clumsy government purchase, they spent millions on miniature spy drone capability that college kids already had).  Maybe they didn’t like certain economic trade considerations like Chinese direct to consumer suppliers, (but then there are other ways to address that).  They claimed “safety issues”, (but their bogus story wasn’t supported by facts).  And with results similar to bull in a china shop, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) joined the “party”.  And presto, now everything’s called a “drone”, whether or not you fly it or it fly’s itself.  Now you can imagine this: they can arrest Benjamin Franklin for flying his kite.

They turned a decades old hobby into a crime.  This is a great example of the guy who is not worried about the government because he says he hasn’t done anything wrong.  The old adage is that he doesn’t understand that he’s not the one who gets to decide whether he’s done something wrong or not.  Some unaccountable bureaucrat makes that determination, and an innocent activity can become criminalized by overzealous regulation, – while we’re all having fun out spinning our propellers and not paying attention to what our government is doing.

While some may disagree with various interpretations of nuances in the regulatory language, many people read the language that Congress explicitly told the FAA “hands off” recreational RC model flyers when they passed the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act.  They believe that the FAA ignored congress.  Either way, again, as the costs of government regulation mount, here we have another federal agency undeterred in its self promoting search for regulatory “fixes” to non-existent problems.  Government interference in this emerging toy market is abusive.  Unelected bureaucrats devised a way to apply the civil aircraft registration penalties to create a federal felony offense that can result in up to three years in prison and up to $277,500 in fines for failing to register as the owner of a toy model.  Gee whiz, really, a toy plane?  That seems a little heavy handed Mr. Mussolini.  (Here’s a quick history lesson with a Benito Mussolini Quote: For Fascism the State is absolute, individuals and groups relative.)

This is really bad for the unwary flying model hobby person.  So what’s the real reason for the FAA’s drone registry? To justify its hurried regulatory burden, the FAA, fabricated phony claims about the risk associated with these toys, and then asserted its regulatory power to “protect us” from ourselves.  In doing so the FAA created a bogus “close calls report” that didn’t present the data in an accurate manner, then, they used misleading language in their press release.  So we have another typical incident of “our government lied to us and wasn’t acting in good faith”.  The AMA said “the FAA’s report only served, at best, to paint a cloudy and less than accurate picture and raises concerns that simply may not be realistic.” The AMA was in negotiations and trying to be polite.  Understandably, negotiating with the government can be a little one sided.  They have all the money, time, attorneys, laws and courts.  On your side, you have…well; you can try to be polite.

The FAA claimed that a toy plane flying into an aircraft could cause significant damage.  Historically there had been been zero collisions between toy “drones” and manned aircraft.

One researcher has lent some perspective to the problem.  Eli Dourado, a researcher at the Mercatus Center, pulled data from the FAA’s publically-available Wildlife Strike Database.  He looked into the amount of turtles hit by planes on the ground compared to drone strikes in the air. Between January 1, 1990 and July 31, 2015, airplanes have collided with 198 turtles in the U.S., with 112 strikes occurring after 2010.  So, the historical records provide documentation that it is more likely for an airplane to hit a turtle than a drone.  The FAA knew this, it was from their database, but it didn’t fit the story line they were trying to string together.

Even if a collision were to occur, there is no evidence to suggest it would be any more dangerous than an impact with a bird of comparable weight.  Bird strikes do happen, with thousands reported to the FAA each year. Most are inconsequential, well for the plane that is.  As for the birds well, it’s “puras plumas”.  That’s a Spanish saying which loosely translates to “nothing left but the feathers”, but in this case maybe not even that.  Transport category turbine powered aircraft are certified to continue flying safely after receiving an 8 lb bird strike.  We heard it’s called the “bigger than a chicken test”.  FAA knows about the “chicken test”.  They also know that the popular 250 class quad racers only weigh around 1lb.

A few people have studied the question:  Does the bird body composition when compared to hard bodied drones make a difference in mid air collisions?  Using bird strike data is realistic because while there are many factors involved in the impact dynamics between two flying objects, the most important is kinetic energy (KE).  The closing speed of these impacts is dominated by the flight speed of the bigger and faster aircraft. Therefore, similar sized birds and toy planes would have similar kinetic energy during an impact.  The primary determination of damage is the KE, and also, where the impact occurs.

And so it turns out that the composition of the object hitting the plane matters a lot less than where the plane gets hit. Collisions with the body of the airplane do less harm than hitting the engine which is even less likely.   Assuming they are flying high enough to reach a large high flying plane, small drones pose little risk to a jet turbine.  The FAA knew about the significance of KE as a primary determination of damage when impacts occur.

Even the agency’s own drone task force report notes that “fatal aircraft accidents caused by bird strikes are extremely rare.”  Additionally, solitary bird strikes are considerably less dangerous than encounters with flocks of birds. Since drones are not known to fly in “flocks”, toy drones are of less concern than birds because the chance of hurting multiple engines at the same time is improbable.  The FAA knew that toy planes don’t fly in flocks.

There might be around a million flying toys in our playful hands today, compared to billions of birds flying around, making the chance of a flying toy drone collision even less likely than a bird strike.  Coming to any other conclusion, requires the average person to be purposely malevolent or extremely careless.  Despite the population of 10 billion birds, the extreme rarity of birds colliding with aircraft (when flying in route at low altitude), demonstrates that accidental impact between toy planes and aircraft is extremely unlikely. Again, the FAA knew about bird populations, strike data and their rarity of causing an accident.

It’s also interesting to note here that Australia has a license-free category for even commercial use of drones weighing less than 2 kilos.  That’s over four (4) lbs, which is much bigger than a 250 class set up, and bigger than a DJI Phantom at 1300 grams. But it “grounds” the DJI Inspire which takes off at around 2900 g, even though that is still less than the eight (8) pound chicken a turbine is certified to eat.

To put things in greater perspective, lots of recreational hobbies can be dangerous and even result in fatalities.  Think about it.  Lots of people have died skiing, skydiving, hunting, fishing, canoeing, cycling, mountain climbing, even just exercising.  There are statistics.  In the U.S., about 30 million children and teens participate in some form of organized sports, and experience more than 3.5 million injuries each year.  Consider these estimated injury statistics for 2009 from the Consumer Product Safety Commission.  More than 170,000 children are treated in hospital emergency rooms for basketball-related injuries.  Nearly 110,000 children are treated for baseball-related injuries. Baseball also has the highest fatality rate among sports for children, with three to four children dying from baseball injuries each year.  More than 200,000 children are treated in hospital emergency rooms for bicycle-related injuries, almost 215,000 for football-related injuries.

Just about every hobby has injury statistics and fatalities, and it is obvious that registering our bicycles, basketballs and baseballs won’t help prevent injuries.  In the United States, we found that one (1) out of every 10,000 people dies from an automobile accident every year.  However, we’ve found only one (1) unusual “fluke” death of a model hobbyist, in at least 80 years.  So flying model planes around is statistically safer than just about everything else we do.  We’re pretty sure the FAA knew all that too.

So the FAA over reach rests on doubtful legal authority which was challenged in the courts.  Their reasons for creating the regulations are not supportable by statistics, physics or historical safety justification.  Still worse, it is unfounded and unsuitable criminalization of a legitimate hobby.  The Council on Government Relations said that the FAA’s proposed rule “poses a grave threat to science, research, education, and technological innovation” by restricting the use of drones in universities.  When regulations undermine innovation it deters, and often stops the development of new and innovative technologies.   Let’s face it if this were the case in Benjamin Franklin’s day, we could still be quite literally, in the dark.  Maybe that’s one of their more nefarious objectives.  A coalition of business owners said that the FAA’s proposal will effectively kill their businesses.  One has to ask: If the stated goals are not being realistically accomplished, but other harmful outcomes are being accomplished, which of the actual results were the real objectives?

The FAA’s story is that the registry of toy planes accomplishes three (3) goals: 1) educating new toy plane owners, 2) deterring dangerous toy plane operations, and 3) holding bad actors accountable. Ok, so that’s their “story” and we all know they’ll be sticking to it.

In regard to education, the FAA claims that it is attempting to educate new flying toy consumers about two potential issues: 1) a toy plane may fall from the sky and 2) it can fly into something.  Well, if that’s not already obvious it usually will be in the first 10 seconds of the new toy plane pilot’s first flight.  I guess a sticker that says “Gravity works” just won’t do.

And the FAA is trying to justify spending $56 million for that?  What a colossal waste.  Most people are betting that if the FAA is not stopped, it will get the cost up to at least $100 million because as is typical of too many government programs, they’ll hire their special interest contractor friends, have never ending budget overruns and then several high level bureaucrats, politicians and their friends will all get rich at our expense…again.

Their other excuse for this con game is that it will deter evil people from wrongdoing with toy planes. Nobody told them that; 1) Individuals who plan to use toy planes to accomplish criminal conduct will probably not register.   2) Individuals who plan to accomplish criminal conduct will probably find easier ways to accomplish most any conceivable criminal conduct without fooling around with toy planes which require too much investment in both money and time developing the necessary skills to fly.  There are just too many easier ways to do bad deeds if that’s your thing, but anyway see point #1.

So in review, thousands of innocent people are now exposed to criminal liability for no legitimate reason, other than to create another sham government program to enrich high level bureaucrats, politicians and their friends at our expense.  Sadly, it’s not the first time.

The FAA’s recreational drone registry illustrates one of the most wearisome aspects of recent American regulatory trends, namely, the tendency to apply criminal punishment to minor infractions of numerous petty rules.  It is central to the growing government over criminalization dilemma.  It happens all the time.  Many new regulatory crimes are carried out by individuals who had no idea they were engaging in illegal activity.  One example that hit the news was Abner Schoenwetter who served more than six (6) years in U.S. federal prison for using plastic instead cardboard which violated a Honduran regulation.  (Wow that really raises the bar on the old grocery store dilemma: paper or plastic?)  Even though the Attorney General of Honduras certified in writing that this regulation and two (2) others that the federal prosecutors alleged that Abner violated were not applicable to his case, they charged forward.  Sounds familiar?  Similarly these prosecutors were armed with overly broad and unjust federal law and it just didn’t matter to them.  Their job is often performed like a Dobermans; they can prosecute with a complete lack of empathy for any or all of the “Whos” in Whoville.

The damage caused by excessive criminal punishment in regulations leads to harming reputations and constrains individual freedom.  Americans don’t want to lose their freedom, liberty and civil rights, but they don’t always realize its’ happening.  The problem is so big that Justice Elena Kagen wrote in her dissenting opinion in Yates v. United States that “over criminalization and excessive punishment”… are a… “Real issue,” but in addition it’s a “pathology in the federal criminal code.”

All an agency like the FAA has to do is suggest that a regulated person might face criminal prosecution for failure to follow their directive (which of course is obscured in the 81,405 pages of CFR “regulatory speak” and then requires a specialized attorney to interpret), and the regulated person will likely fall into line without questioning the agency’s authority.  It’s an abuse of power and position.  And remember, the FAA promulgated these regulations without proper authority.  It is the FAA who acted unlawfully to create this artificial problem which poses a threat to individual liberties as well as does the country economic harm.

The FAA’s violated rule making requirements so that their “toy plane registry” could go into effect quickly.  On October 22, 2015, the FAA published a rule dictating that toy planes are subject to existing aircraft registry requirements. A month later, the agency’s “Special Toy Plane Registry Task Force” (just kidding they called it the “Special Drone Registry Task Force” so that it would not be so embarrassing to the members of the task force), composed of government and so-called “industry representatives”, released a report outlining specific recommendations for a smooth registration process.  Three (3) weeks later, the FAA published its “interim final rule” establishing the recreational “Toy Plane”-owners’ registry.  Seven (7) days after its release, the rule went into effect, and it officially became a federal felony to operate a toy plane weighing more than 0.55 pounds without first registering as a “drone” owner.  It is also interesting that this effectively moved the modeler’s exemption from under 55 pounds to under 0.55 pounds, a factor of 100. Also at under 0.55 pounds, while not nearly big as an eight (8) pound chicken, it could be a kite if it only weighs a little more than two sticks of butter.  The FAA knew that they had to target weight entry levels below one (1) pound in order to entangle the popular 250 class FPV race quad enthusiasts in their regulatory net, even though those toys are way below the weight threshold of the eight (8) pound chicken test used for certification of transport category turbine powered aircraft.

From start to finish, the regulatory criminalization of almost a century old hobby took only two (2) months to complete.  That’s unusually quick in government time, so someone must have told them to do this.  For a government agency rule making, they acted unusually, as if they were highly motivated.  What was the motivation to fast track the rule making procedure to the point it violated its own legal requirements?  Who outside of FAA was pushing an agenda?  Who was going to profit?

In regard to the technical approach to regulation, Agency rule making is guided by two primary aspects of law: 1) the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and 2) the Chevron doctrine, which enables agencies to create regulations within guidelines when Congress has delegated that power. The FAA “Toy Plane” registry violated these procedures under both parts of the law.

The speed of the FAA’s drone action was achieved because it bypassed many of the requirements set forth in the APA. Under the APA, administrative agencies publicize their intent to add new regulations by filing a notice of proposed rule making (NPRM) in the Federal Register, (because we all read that every morning, right?).  Then interested parties only have 60 days to file comments with the agency.  The agency then must consider the public’s input and it may comment before publishing a final rule.  So how many kids read the Federal Register everyday to see if their playtime hobby is in peril?  New pages are published every day, and just as a point of reference, during the 1980’s the total pages added was 52,992 per year and in 2010 it was 81,405 pages per year.  So, most kids won’t have time to fly their toy plane if they’re reading the Federal Register.  The stuff is difficult to read, written with a lot of circular cross references, and is enough to give even a determined reader possible “brain damage”.

Back to the APA, the requirements of the APA attempt to institute public involvement and fair notice.  However, a federal agency can create a “good cause” exemption to the normal notice-and-comment process if they can show that complying with the APA requirements is “impracticable, unnecessary, or contrary to the public interest”.  This is not intended to be a method to circumvent the APA’s requirements for political or bureaucratic convenience. It is intended to be a rarely used exemption.

In creating its new “Toy Plane registry”, the FAA abused this “good cause exemption”, claiming a hypothetical (read “imaginary”) danger stemming from the number of toy planes which might be purchased in the Christmas shopping season and then flown in the “national airspace” Where does that airspace begin? above 400 ft? above 500 ft? I’m sure it’s done, but how often is the average novice toy plane consumer flying their toy above 500 ft.?  It seems that most of the fun is below 200 ft.  There are just too many problems with FAA’s story.  It was said to be a Christmas time emergency.  People argued that Christmas was not an emergency because it came the same time every year.

According to the FAA, “it is critical that the Department be able to link the expected number of new unmanned aircraft to their owners and educate these new owners prior to commencing operations.”  Just for starters, many people doubt the FAA’s claims that these toys have suddenly become such a menace to society that it could not stand for any delay in rule making.

It is clear that there are reasons to doubt the FAA’s claims.  (But wait, our government officials never lie.  Right?) In the process of rushing its registry, the FAA exposed hundreds of thousands of toy plane owners to unreasonable criminal penalties for conduct that is not wrongful and that was not unlawful before they illegitimately created the unlawful and unnecessary laws.

Luckily, several lawsuits were filed.  The first suit challenging the FAA drone-owners’ registry, alleges that the rule violates the text and congressional intent of Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. John Taylor, is the plaintiff who claims the registry “creates a burden on hobbyists that Congress did not want to create,” as evidenced by the language of Section 336, which states that “the agency may not create new rules if such model aircraft are ‘flown strictly for hobby or recreational use.’  The group Tech Freedom and other groups have also filed lawsuits challenging the overreaching regulations on similar grounds.  John Taylor, Tech Freedom and all other cheered on challengers of this giant government bureaucracy should be commended for being vigilant in defending the rights of toy plane flying children everywhere against greedy overreaching bureaucrats and self serving politicians.  If any of these lawsuits were to succeed, the courts could overturn the “Toy Plane Registration Process”; and we should erect bronze statues at flying clubs across the country, honoring the hobby saviors who saved the hobby (and future Christmas’s).  If they do not succeed, that task will be left to the members of Congress which should not be re-elected if they don’t fix it.

In theory, only Congress can create a federal criminal law although it can also enact legislation making it a crime to violate those regulations.  But here it seems clear that the FAA was not empowered either to criminalize the failure to register recreational toy planes or to require their registration in the first place.

Congress provided, in Section 336 that “the agency may not create new rules if such model aircraft are ‘flown strictly for hobby or recreational use.’  Moreover, Congress previously gave the FAA the authority to register only aircraft, not aircraft owners, which is how the FAA set up its toy plane owners’ registry.  In addition to the fact that the FAA acted unlawfully here, the FAA toy plane registry should be rescinded because it needlessly resorted to criminal penalties when civil fines would be enough deterrent for the typical hobbyist who must save from paycheck to paycheck for his next flying accessory.

Besides all this, realistically, it would be hard to hit a plane with a toy drone even if you were very close to an airport runway and actually trying to hit one.  Otherwise, the planes are flying high and fast, it would be hard to judge their altitude and it would be difficult to even intentionally place a drone in their path.  Anything is possible, but we would be talking about malicious intent to do harm (and putting a reasonably expensive toy at risk). That kind of criminal behavior is already addressed by dozens of federal and state laws.

Those who are most likely to be held accountable by the FAA’s registry because they registered are those who are least likely to actually create a “close call”. Treating innocent conduct, such as not knowing to or forgetting to register a child’s toy plane, in the same way we treat murder or rape ignores the severity of the different offenses and puts people engaged in legitimate recreational playtime without any intent to break the law at risk of real criminal punishment earned by more serious crimes. Imagine your teenager sitting on the police station bench after being arrested and explaining to their new murdering rapist bench companion that they are “in for” flying a toy plane.  This problem is increased by the fact that there are a million “toy plane” owners, and their population grows daily. Some have compared the whole FAA registration process to being registered as a sex offender for having a toy.  It just doesn’t make sense.

It does not matter to the FAA that it cannot guarantee that this group is aware of the registration requirement or that they face criminal penalties for failing to comply. Since most people do not check with a federal agency before using their latest toy or electronic thingamabob, this leaves a growing population wrongfully exposed to criminal liability. Regulations like the FAA “Toy Plane” registration requirement generally make it all but impossible for individuals to know which of their toys, or any other things considered potentially “unsafe”, are ok today but will make them “criminals” tomorrow. This is the type of regulation that fuels the dramatic expansion of government obesity and burdens the taxpaying public, all to the benefit of corrupt bureaucrats, politicians and their government contractor friends.

And another problem is this: The FAA seems to be strongly prejudiced against the FPV community who fly with onboard cameras sometimes even with sophisticated on screen displays (OSD’s) which provide tremendous situational awareness, yet FAA allows both high-altitude balloons and free-flight model airplanes, which have no ability to see or avoid anything.  So there is no rational for FAA officials to attempt to forbid video piloting of flying toy models.  It hurts thousands of passionate FPV hobbyist’s who will be struggling to understand how they can continue to enjoy their beloved pastime, in which they have made significant investment, over multiple years.  It is abusive.

Recreational drones are relatively new, but their potential harms and risks, whether to one’s person, property, or privacy are not exclusive to “things that fly”. Existing federal regulations, as well as numerous state laws, already adequately address potential harms related to personal injury, property damage, or invasion of privacy without the need for toy-specific laws.  Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of airplane models have been flown safely for decades, exempt from FAA’s meddling and criminalization.  The FAA’s “Toy Plane Owners Registration” is no more than a pointless publication of a consumer’s personal information with inappropriate criminal penalties for nonconformity.  It’s just forcing another electronic database of your personal information which will further define you to mass marketers.

Often, when claims are hyped to create a false narrative and then used to justify some unneeded regulation, it is done to hide other reprehensible motives, like helping or protecting a politically connected interest, self promotion, expanding regulatory jurisdiction over new areas or more typically, to set up another government financial milk cow for corrupt officials.

So their “Safety Narrative” isn’t supported by realistic statistical data.  They do seem to be trying to expand the definition of “National Airspace” to reach down to the surface of private property, and that hardly seems fair.  They do seem to be trying to expand the definition of “Aircraft” or “unmanned aircraft” to include toys which have been traditionally exempt.

The result is that the FAA has made a lot of nice people miserable and we’d all like to know more about the real reason and how this is happening.

From the very first time a kid showed up at an AMA field with a quad copter, the old timers flying glow plug driven planes took notice.  The quad copter was different.  Some called it a “drone”, but whatever you called it, it flew as easily backwards, forwards, straight up or down or it could stop in midair from a full speed run and then hover, spin in place and go the other direction, forwards, backwards, sideways, it didn’t matter.  As a result, it was more maneuverable.  And even more, with FPV equipment, the new kid could confidently fly while weaving thru the trees in a park and performing maneuvers that made even the birds jealous.  That was something that the seasoned glow plug plane pilot would be crazy to do, for fear of spending hundreds of hours building his model plane and then loosing it to a “model plane eating tree”.

Some say there was a little bit of a frictional undercurrent between the AMA traditionalist and the new quad copter pilots.  And then again even more with the FPV community, who could pretty much fly anywhere because of the small size of the craft, its maneuverability and better situational awareness, and bird’s eye view point offered by the FPV equipment.  And then when the popularity of quad copters “took off”, everybody wanted one. Everybody wanted to fly “FPV” and the government wanted to regulate it.  The AMA traditionalist’s got caught up in the FAA’s regulation dragnet and they protested.  Before the “drones” showed up, traditional modelers were largely left to themselves, able to fly their aircraft in peace.  Who could blame them?  Now they were going to have the government in the middle of their nice solitary Sunday afternoon flying hobby.  Many felt they were being unfairly punished and it wasn’t their fault.  It was those other “multi-copter guys”.

But as the AMA experienced growth in membership, it was those “other multi-copter guys” showing up as new members.  The AMA has a fiduciary duty to be loyal to all its members, but naturally it has a warm spot in its heart for the traditional modelers that first “brought them to the dance”.  The modelers are the AMA, they are part of a long historical identity and tight family like familiarity that once defined AMA.

Some newer members felt that the AMA was not in alignment with the needs of new users.  Some of the fast growing multi-copter crowd believed that some of the AMA clubs were openly hostile to non-traditional flying concepts.  On the other side some highly recognized AMA members lobbied to divorce the organization from the perception of model airplanes as “drones”.  They reasoned that FPV operations contributed to the blurring of the line of distinction between a model airplane and a UAS.  They argued that government involvement would kill the hobby and associated businesses.  But then some in AMA still wanted to pursue the membership opportunity presented by the multi-copter crowd.

The AMA did a couple of things that could be argued as either good or bad or both for the community.

On December 25, the FAA more than doubled the airspace around the D.C. metro area that it considers a ‘no fly zone.’  This was bad news for fourteen AMA clubs in the Washington area.  The AMA’s Government Affairs team worked with the FAA to roll back flying restrictions in the Special Flights Rule Area (SFRA) Washington, D.C. area.  On February 10, 2016, the FAA updated the conditions for flying in the SFRA, issuing a permanent Notice to Airmen (NOTAM).  The operating procedures allow model aircraft, commercial and public users to operate in the outer ring of the Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) under specific conditions. The SFRA rule still prohibits unmanned aircraft operations within 15 miles of Washington, D.C. in the Flight Restricted Zone without specific FAA authorization.  The term “specific conditions” may be burdensome here, depending on whether or not you are flying traditional RC models or you want to play FPV race and chase games.  Either way, the “good old days” were gone, but maybe not absolutely.

The AMA also managed to carve out a privileged position in the law for some of its members.  But again depending on what kind of member you are, and your flying interests, and whether you pay AMA membership dues, or especially if you are not a member, you may have gotten thrown under the bus in the process.

To be more specific, the FAA states you must comply fully with FAR 101, which references section 336. If you cannot fully comply, you will fall under FAR 107, i.e. you must get a FAA license.

Ok here’s where a lot of wormy wording happens.  The FAA says that it “does not mandate membership in any particular community-based organization.”  It can’t do that legally.  The government is not supposed to tell us who we must buy products or services from, but it often does dance around its own restrictions.

So, to qualify for the Special Rule for Model Aircraft, an unmanned aircraft must, among other things, be operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization…..So far so good?…maybe not.

If a hobbyist can’t show that he or she is operating in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization, then he or she will have to meet the requirements of Part 107.

So if you are doing everything the AMA tells you to do, fine, at least for FAA.  AMA negotiated that with FAA.  They also negotiated to qualify as a community-based organization (CBO).  It was published in the federal register.  In order to promulgate the regulations requiring a CBO, there had to be a qualifying CBO, and that was AMA.  The FAA couldn’t pass a law requiring something that didn’t exist.  (Well, ok even though they can’t, it doesn’t mean they won’t, the government has done that in another issue, but we haven’t finished the song yet, so we’ll explain that later.)

The FAA’s interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft, which was published in the Federal Register on June 25, 2014, noted that the AMA qualified as a community-based organization to provide an example of what types of organizations would qualify. The FAA does not intend to maintain a list of organizations that would qualify as a CBO under the Special Rule for Model Aircraft.

So FAA won’t tell you ahead of time that an organization and its guidelines don’t qualify as a CBO.  It will only tell you that the AMA qualifies as a CBO.

But wait there’s more!

The AMA says to operate “within” the programming of their “nationwide community-based organization”, they require membership.  So reading between the lines, if a hobbyist doesn’t want to be prosecuted under Part 107 for operating without a license, then they need to show that they are operating in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization.  In other words, they need to be a dues paying, card carrying, and rule following AMA member.  So, the AMA made a pretty good deal for itself.  Remember, when AMA was 140,000 members?  And then they grew to 180,000 members?  So they were hoping to see their membership skyrocket.  Remember the projected million or more drone enthusiasts?  AMA could grow its organization membership revenue by five (5) times.  That’s a lot of money.

That’s also a great place to be, if you can get there.  The problem is this:  AMA was conflicted on multiple issues between the task of growing its membership and representing its existing long term members. To grow its membership, they need the FPV community.  A big conflict is that they really need all the legal arguments challenging the validity of the FAA regulations to fail, so that their own little “AMA is the only CBO” carve out will stick.  On the other hand, the FPV community would like all the unnecessary flying restrictions to be rolled back so they can have more freedom to enjoy their hobby the way they have done safely for many years.  They like the immersive experience of video goggles and would also prefer to not be chained to AMA sites, fees and restrictions.

Aside from the debate over the definition of “line of sight”, one of several rubs for FPV is the requirement for “Spotters”. Both Part 107 and the FAA negotiated AMA operations seem to require them.  But in reality, FPV hobbyist have done this safely for years without any such obligation and it may be a practice that is not regularly followed.  It’s just not a natural part of their routine.  Even at public races, often times there are no “Spotters”. Some believe that they are just making impractical, unnecessary rules that are knowingly ignored and will only be enforced when something goes wrong.  So it’s CYA for the FAA, at the expense of FPV, and the AMA will be one of many who will profit.

On August 2, 2016, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) hosted a workshop on Drones and the Future of Aviation, the first-ever event of its kind at the White House.  Its stated purpose was to advance and celebrate the potential of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones. The event gathered experts from government, industry and the academic research community to accelerate their opportunities and address their challenges.

They invited AMA’s Government and Regulatory Affairs Representative Rich Hanson, who was honored to be invited by the White House to participate in the event.

At the event, AMA voiced their commitment to partner in the development of Public Service Announcements (PSAs) for the Know before You Fly campaign in order to help educate the general public about UAS education.  AMA indicated it would be working alongside the Sinclair Broadcast Group and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International AUVSI to create and distribute these broadcasts nationwide.

AUVSI was established in 1972 when the use of target drones as reconnaissance assets in Vietnam created an opportunity for a group of U.S. Air Force officers and contractors to form the NARPV, which later became known as AUVSI. It serves more than 7,500 members from government organizations, industry and academia.  AUVSI members support the defense, civil and commercial sectors.

The White House OSTP also announced a series of actions to promote unmanned aircraft systems across the United States. These announcements included actions that expand the Federal Government’s capacity to use unmanned aircraft operations to advance agency and department missions and accelerate research discoveries.

So surprise, they are going to spend some more of our money to “expand the Federal Government’s capacity to use unmanned aircraft operations”.  Here are a few items of a list of many, just the tip of the upcoming iceberg:

  • $35 million in research funding by the National Science Foundation(NSF) over the next five years to accelerate the understanding of how to intelligently and effectively design, control, and apply UAS
  • A $5 million down-payment by the state of New York to support the growth of the emerging unmanned aircraft systems industry across New York.  Basically New York wants to be a “hub”.
  • A broad range of actions by the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) basically to improve government processes around technological adoption;
  • Enabling additional UAS operations through rule making:  The FAA is working on the next regulatory steps for integrating commercial UAS in the airspace. The proposed rule for “Operations of Small Unmanned Aircraft Over People” was scheduled to be published for public comment by winter, 2016. The regulation is the framework for beneficial uses of drones near crowds, such as aerial photography, video for news gathering, infrastructure inspection; and other applications. This rule is based on the recommendations developed by an “industry stakeholder committee” earlier in 2016.
  • Educating the public about safe unmanned aircraft operations: Sinclair Broadcast Group, in collaboration with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) and the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), will develop and broadcast drone safety Public Service Announcements (PSAs) across its stations. These PSAs are to help educate the general public about the resources they should familiarize themselves with before operating a UAS. This effort is part of the “Know before You Fly” safety campaign, developed by industry associations together with the FAA.

Ever heard of the Sinclair Broadcast Group just mentioned above?  It is one of the largest and most diversified television broadcasting companies in the country. Sinclair owns, operates, programs or provides sales services to more television stations than anyone and has affiliations with all the major networks. In addition, Sinclair is the leading local news provider in the country, as well as a producer of sports content. Sinclair owns a multicast network, four (4) radio stations and a cable network.  Its site currently lays claim to 73 television stations, 484 channels, 81 US Markets.  Sinclair Broadcast Group will also be impacted by government rule making, licensing and approvals which impact their “video news gathering” operations.

So the public will be bludgeoned with the government approved story line in regard to anything to do with “drones”, which was until recently just RC toy plane model flying, but now it’s “drones”.  In a few years most people will not even remember that.  The term “drone” winds people up.  It sounds like the bad guy’s minions in a Star Wars movie. By calling all these flying toys “drones” they make everything more frightening, more news worthy, especially to the uninformed.  “A toy plane flew through my neighbor hood” is not an exciting headline, but replace the words “toy plane” with “drone” and maybe add an adjective like an “unknown Drone” or “mysterious Drone” or “unidentified Drone” and a simple toy plane becomes news worthy.  By labeling RC toys “drones”, they can intensify the public nail biting.  Even though we’re just talking about a plastic toy that might only weigh a pound or two, they can make it acceptable for all the uninformed, “non hobbyists” in the general public to call law enforcement, even when the hobby people are behaving within their rights.  Once as American as apple pie, the RC flyers who historically were just peacefully enjoying one of the safest recreational activities there is, have now become criminals, something like bank robbers or some sort of threat to national security, a menace to society that the peace loving public probably should report to some “authority”. It’s amazing what a good media campaign strategy can do.

Many believe that in the next decade, the U.S. commercial drone industry is projected to generate more than $82 billion.  It looks like the government and its friends are poised to take advantage of the commercial opportunities.  They are putting a regulatory leash on the model flying general public and preparing to hand out government funding and contracts for commercial drone operations.  As an entity, the government has a longer horizon, is self preserving, and makes longer term plans than the general public.  So maybe that tells us what all these unjustifiable and heavy handed toy rules are about.  They may just want to put a lid on the general public growing into areas where they are planning future claims on “new” airspace.  Clear the way for their new urban, smaller than full scale, military contractor styled drones for government processes, government inspection, regulatory compliance investigation, urban mapping, information gathering, and whatever other missions might be on their agenda.  This concept might be a little too futuristic for some readers but remember that the government works on a different time scale which is not related to your lifespan.  And they do have an agenda.  (For more background read “About the Song – Spy Drone Bounty”) They are playing chess while we are all playing with checkers.

There’s an old saying that goes “If you can’t beat them, then join them”. And it seems that while the world was splitting between traditional RC model plane flyers and the new FPV community, the AMA made a cozy place for itself in the shadows of the FAA.  But while cozying up to the government, AMA may have distanced itself from the most wildly popular interests of its new membership, – FPV.  At the same time, they also may not realize that some people just don’t want to deal with the government nosing in on their Sunday afternoon hobby or have their enjoyment be heavily restricted by a quasi-government “stakeholder” CBO.  As deeply as many people may love this hobby, who wants to participate in a hobby that involves being intimidated into paying membership dues to a quasi-government organization which is being propped up by unjust threats of harsh criminal penalties?  What is your recourse when they increase your membership dues or add additional fees?  What happens when you can only fly at their sites to qualify for the “exemption”?  What happens when flying on your own property becomes illegal because it’s no longer your airspace at any altitude?

The traditional model plane hobbyist may eventually pass into obscurity and the community may actually wither, instead of grow.  Fear of what the government might do with their abusive regulatory strategies has already had a degenerative effect on how industry distributors buy and how manufactures produce because it has lowered the confidence new consumers have in whether or not they should invest in the hobby.  That also affects where venture capital puts its money.  The government threw some water on what was turning out to be an otherwise remarkable expansion of a new and innovative consumer market.  The regulatory landscape is always a factor and it can become an insurmountable barrier when evaluating an investment.  By stifling investment in the consumer sector, and thereby slowing the continued explosive growth of this community, they eliminate future growth of a large population of voting “freedom flyers” who can oppose their monopoly of flying freedoms, drone technologies and capabilities.

So what will happen to the FPV community?  It doesn’t seem to have a cohesive community or a champion fighting for its survival.  Will FPV get regulated out of existence?  Will FPV gradually deteriorate because of over regulation?  Will “Fat Shark Goggles” become “Skinny Starving Toothless Shark Goggles”?  We hope not, but FPV needs a real champion to fight for its survival.

And this is not just a problem for the FPV community, or the traditional RC model hobbyists, this is a problem for everyone, because this regulatory strategy is a template which will be used for future regulations of all kinds.  When regulations are implemented like this, two things happen: 1) the public, (you and I) pay for it in the form of higher costs for everyday necessities, goods and services or taxes. 2) Politicians who pushed it make their friends (and themselves) wealthy at our expense.

Now in order to regain some of our lost flying freedom, we need to change the federal law to re-define what a model aircraft is, and we might consider defining the public’s national airspace by defining our own private airspace. There should be some way to at least fly over your own land.  Should a jet liner, government drone or their contractor’s drone be allowed within only a few hundred feet above your private land?

Unfortunately this means campaign donations to your favorite congress person.  So, they may have already won again.  When you have a big obese government, freedom is not really “free”, it gets more expensive.  These regulations were not really needed.

 

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