Multirotors and the Law

There has been a tremendous amount of new developments since the last installment of Multirotor Flight, so it seemed appropriate to go into some of the new rules, regulations, exemptions and landmark decisions that have been made over the past few weeks.

Thursday September 25th, 2014 marked the beginning of a new era in aerial cinematography. During a 24 minute long press conference, the FAA granted permission for the motion picture industry to use aerial platforms, such as R/C Helicopters and Multirotors, on closed sets for the purpose of aerial photography. Speaking on behalf of the FAA, Michael Huerta began his statement with the following words. “We recognize the potential unmanned aircraft bring to business, such as surveying, movie making, farming, monitoring pipelines and electric lines, as well as countless other industries. Our challenge at the FAA is to integrate unmanned aircraft into the busiest, most complex airspace system in the world—and to do so while we maintain our mission—protecting the safety of the American people in the air and on the ground. We are taking a reasonable and responsible approach. We are introducing unmanned aircraft into America’s airspace incrementally and with the interest of safety first.

This process opens up a whole new avenue for companies and organizations wishing to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into their business. In addition, it’s a major step forward in our plan for safe and staged integration.”

During the press conference, the FAA announced that it has granted special exemptions under section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act to 6 companies who have already provided all of the necessary paperwork and have been working on this with the FAA for some time now. In order to be able to operate, these companies will be required to operate under the following set of guidelines.

  1. All pilots of the UAS craft must hold a minimum of an FAA Private Pilots License
  2. All Aircraft must pass a safety inspection before flight
  3. All aircraft must be operated within the guidelines of a Pilots Operational Handbook (POH) that is generated for each specific aircraft
  4. All flights must take place in a “Sterile environment” on a closed set away from the general public
  5. The aircraft must be operated within the line of sight of the pilot at all times
  6. The aircraft must stay below an altitude of 400 feet AGL at all times during the flight
  7. All aircraft must maintain maintenance logbooks describing any and all work done to the aircraft
  8. All operations must be conducted during daylight hours

The 6 companies that have been granted exemptions by the FAA thus far are: Astraeus Aerial, Aerial MOB. LLC, Pictorvision Inc., HeliVideo Productions, LLC, Snaproll Media, LLC and RC Pro Productions Consulting LLC, dba Vortex Aerial. A seventh company has also submitted paperwork to the FAA and is still waiting for final approval of their revised documents.

In addition to the 6 exemptions that have already been granted, the FAA is currently considering requests from 40 other commercial entities that have expressed an interest in conducting operations under the new guidelines. This is a huge step forward, and just the beginning of an ongoing integration of UAS aircraft into the Federal Airspace System.

Obviously there are mixed reactions within the modeling community regarding the FAA’s ruling in this matter. Some feel that it is a huge victory to have any exemptions granted that will begin the trial period in which the FAA will be able to see how this technology progresses in a controlled manner. Others are upset that the guidelines seem to be extremely restrictive, and this is putting aerial cinematography out of the grasp of the majority of pilots.

The bottom line is that the FAA has an obligation to the general public to insure that the Federal Airspace System is kept free of any and all possible hazards to both public and private air transportation. In order to be able to do that, the FAA needs to make sure that the pilots who are operating the UAS aircraft are both competent pilots, and have a good working knowledge of the Federal Airspace System and all the rules and regulations that govern the operation of aircraft within the system.

According to the latest statistics gathered by the FAA, on average, approximately two million people fly within the Unites States every single day! Each and every one of these people expects to take off, travel for several hours, and then land safely at their destination. It is the job of the FAA and the United States Air Traffic Control System to make sure that this happens each and every day on every single flight.

It is very unsettling when an individual does something with a small UAS aircraft, whether it is a Multirotor, Helicopter or Aircraft, that jeopardizes the safety of this system. We have all heard of people flying multirotors near airports, sporting events, over crowds of people and other places that they simply do not belong. Many people will actually brag on the RC forums how they got their multirotor up to 10,000 feet of altitude during a flight, without any regard to the potential for disaster that they are creating. Everyone needs to be responsible for the safety of other people around them while they fly. All too often, pilots simply do not consider the damage or injury that can be caused by our RC model aircraft should something go wrong.

Figure 1
Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 3
Figure 3

In general aviation, there are several instances every year of in-flight damages caused by aircraft striking objects in flight. Normally this is caused by something as simple as hitting a bird in flight. The amount of damage that a simple bird strike can do to a general aviation aircraft is mind boggling. Figure 1 shows the result of a relatively small bird impacting the windshield of a private jet. Figure 2 shows the type of damage that a turbine engine can sustain when ingesting a larger bird, such as a Canada Goose during flight. Figure 3 shows the damage that a bird strike caused on the nose of a jet aircraft. The one thing to remember is that all this damage was caused by the relative soft tissue and light-weight hollow bone structure of birds. Imagine the damage that could be caused by a 10 or 15 pound Octo multirotor with a large digital camera hanging underneath it!

This type of interaction between UAS aircraft and passenger aircraft is exactly what the FAA is so concerned about. In addition to the structural damage that could be caused to an aircraft, the secondary damage can be even worse. In the event of a collision like this, you can be guaranteed that the Li-Po battery powering the multirotor will be severely damaged, and will most likely result in a secondary Li-Po fire. In a collision like that shown in Figure 3, this could result in an immediate electrical fire right behind the instrument panel of the aircraft. In a windshield collision, like that shown in Figure 1, you could end up with a Li-Po battery on fire inside the cockpit of the aircraft. In most cases, the damage caused by a bird strike to an aircraft does not cause the aircraft to crash. The pilot is usually able to make a controlled emergency landing at the nearest airport and get the plane and everyone on board down safely.

On the other hand, if any of these accidents were caused by a large multirotor instead of a bird, and the Li-Po batteries on board created an in-flight fire as a result of the collision, the odds of survival go down dramatically. These are the types of things that need to be considered when Multirotors are flown any where near the flight path of general aviation or commercial aircraft. None of us want to see anything like this happen, but all it takes is the careless actions of one individual to create a problem that would devastate both the aviation and modeling communities.

There are of course other considerations to the use of Multirotor aircraft, and these need to be addressed as well. Right now, there is nothing stopping the casual sport flyer from flying a multirotor aircraft for fun and recreation. You can even use the craft to take still and motion pictures from the air, as long as it is not done for profit or commercial purposes. This does not mean that you can, or should, take your newly purchased multirotor down to beach on Labor Day weekend and fly it over crowds of thousands of people. At all times during your flight you should be able to ask yourself, “If I lost power right now, and the multirotor fell straight down out of the sky, is there a potential for someone to get injured?” If the answer to that question is yes, then you should not be flying there under any circumstances.

Many people will say, “The chances of that happening are one in a million, so why worry about it.” That very well may be true, but it is that mindset that separates the true professional aerial cinematographers from the weekend wannabees that do not have safety as a paramount concern.

In addition the concerns of injury and property damage are the concerns for privacy. Nobody wants to be spied on, and some people think that this is exactly what is happening. Recently there was a story in the news about a man who used his DJI Phantom to take some aerial photos of a friend’s house that was under construction. A few minutes into the flight they heard a shotgun go off. Then they heard someone from the neighboring property yell, “Get that Drone off my property!” Shortly after that 3 more shots were fired, one of which struck the craft and caused it to fall out of the sky. The police were called, and the crazy neighbor was hauled off to jail and charged with assault with a deadly weapon. Unfortunately there are people out there that are scared to death of the new multirotor technology, and as operators of these craft, it is extremely important to make sure that no one sees us or our aircraft as a threat.

The truth of the matter is that as a new technology, the use of multirotor aircraft for aerial photography and other commercial applications will be a slow, steady uphill pursuit. It will take some time for the FAA to keep an eye on the use of these aircraft in a very controlled environment, and to log enough flights to establish safety records and common practices that all operators can follow. In the mean time, it is up to the people that do get their aircraft certified for use during the early stages of this new legislation that must maintain constant vigilance to ensure that everything is done “by the book” in a safe and controlled manner.

Other organizations are already taking form to help the motion picture industry be able to operate multirotors in a safe manner while filming. The Society of Aerial Cinematographers (SOAC), was founded by Robert Rodriguez in July of 2014 as a community organization to train and educate the camera operators, directors, producers, as well as other people involved in the motion picture industry. Located in Burbank, California, the SOAC will be right in the heart of Hollywood, and will work with the cinematographers in that area to insure the safe integration of this new technology into the film industry. The SOAC is working in conjunction with the AMA and will be setting up educational programs to meet the needs of Hollywood. A copy of the SOAC logo can be seen in Figure 4.

Figure 4
Figure 4

During this time of controlled integration of UAS aircraft into US airspace, the FAA and other regulatory agencies will be watching all of us with a microscope. We need to be on our best behavior, and also work with one another to make sure that all flying is done in a safe manner, and that all of the equipment used is in top operating condition. Hopefully, within a few years, the FAA will see how safely these aircraft can be operated, and as a result, the current restrictions will be relaxed to make it easier for more people to enjoy this section of the hobby, and possibly turn it into a money making career!

Till next time, fly safe and fly often!

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