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The FAA’s New Commercial Drone Regulations Are a Mess for Hobby Pilots

In order to fly first person view drone flights, you'll now need to get a background check from the TSA.

by Jason Koebler
Aug 29 2016, 4:28pm

Image: Lars Plougman/Flickr

The Federal Aviation Administration's long-awaited commercial drone rule went into effect Monday, ending several years of confusion and aggravation from those who want to fly a drone for business purposes and starting a whole new chapter of confusion for hobby drone pilots.

The FAA's new drone regulations are a highly important milestone that will allow the United States's nascent drone industry to grow in a legal and rational manner. To this point, many drone businesses have been operating in a legal grey area. But the drone regulations also complicate the rules for hobbyists who want to fly their drones for fun.

The new rule puts drone operations into two separate categories. Drone hobbyists will fly under what's known as Part 101, and commercial drone operators will fly under what's being called Part 107. To fly legally under Part 107, you must get a Remote Pilot Certificate, which requires passing an online test about the new drone regulations. Part 107 flyers must also pass a basic aeronautical regulations test and will finally be vetted by the TSA. The whole process is expected to cost about $150.

Read More: Is Flying a Drone Illegal? A Comprehensive Guide to America's Drone Laws

Drone hobbyists can fly under Part 101 with fewer restrictions so long as the drone is "operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization." So far, the FAA has not specifically said which "nationwide community-based organizations" it will consider as legitimate, but many in the industry believe the FAA is referring to the Academy of Model Aircraft, which is the largest drone hobbyist group.

The rub is this: If you are not following these amorphous and undefined guidelines, you do not qualify for Part 101 and thus must get a license under Part 107. Otherwise, you will be flying illegally.

This is most concerning for people who fly in first person view (FPV), in which a camera on the drone beams back an image of its surroundings to goggles worn by the pilot. FPV mode is most popular with drone racers and with people who want to fly long distances (the camera allows the pilot to fly beyond line-of-sight). The AMA requires FPV pilots to fly under strict guidelines, and a report in Forbes last week suggested that FPV flyers will now have to get a remote pilot certification.

FPV is increasingly popular because it's fast, fun, and occasionally disorienting. Flying it feels like playing Mario Kart in real life, and the FAA confirmed last week to Forbes's John Goglia that it's about to put up a huge barrier to those who fly FPV:

"Modelers who want to fly their drones using first-person-view systems must operate under Part 107, which requires a Remote Pilot Certificate," the FAA said.

Image: Lara Heintz

This has sown a lot of confusion in the community—the AMA says its members can still fly FPV under its guidelines, while the FAA says that you cannot.

For now, if you want to spend your free time racing drones and be 100 percent cool with the FAA, you'll not only have to get a remote pilot certification, you'll also have to submit to a federal government background check. Even getting a certification and flying under Part 107 is not necessarily a great idea for hobbyists, because anyone who flies under Part 107 must follow the more restrictive commercial regulations or risk getting slapped with a fine. Such restrictions on hobby flying are something that Congress specifically sought to prevent when it originally instructed the FAA to create drone regulations.

This means the FAA has made life much easier and straightforward for one large group of drone pilots, while making things more confusing for those who fly as a pastime—a group of people who presumably have less incentive to navigate the ins and outs of the FAA's legal process.

Update: This story has been updated to clarify the AMA's position on FPV.

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