DC drone hobbyists in limbo over flying locations

WASHINGTON — A small, four-propeller copter buzzes like a swarm of aggressive bees, hovering in place above its land-based operator, now making small high-pitched beeps indicating it’s running low on juice in its flight through rural Virginia.

Just north, the nation’s capital has been a restricted flight zone since shortly after the 9/11 attacks, but that hasn’t stopped D.C. drone users from fueling their hobby in the Virginia countryside.

The Federal Aviation Administration has strict regulations on unmanned aircrafts in the District of Columbia and its Maryland and Northern Virginia suburbs. The rules, however, got murky this year after a National Transportation Safety Board law judge ruled that an FAA ban on commercial drones was unenforceable.

That ambiguity got worse last week when the FAA canceled a voluntary set of guidelines for drone users, known as the advisory circular for unmanned aircrafts, that’s been in place since 1981.

“It’s a problem that there’s a lot of people who are flying unsafely and not knowing any of the rules or not knowing any of the community-based guidelines,” said Christopher Vo, president of the DC Area Drone User Group.

In 2011 the FAA fined a photographer $10,000 for flying a drone over the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville. The FAA lost the case in a court challenge and appealed to the National Transportation Safety Board, after the law judge dismissed it and ruled in March that the FAA ban on commercial drones was “non-binding.”

And Washington-area drone users struggling to understand the rules, let alone follow them, are waiting for FAA to publish an updated set of guidelines.

Vo said flying commercial drones is “technically not illegal.” He doesn’t see any other reason for the FAA canceling the guidelines, besides giving “users the impression that they were permitted to fly their aircraft,” he said.

FAA spokesman Les Dorr said the FAA plans to issue a new, updated set of guidelines to come in line with laws put in place two years ago by Congress, but there’s no release date yet. Dorr said the FAA is obligated to follow laws that Congress passes.

“Some of the guidance that is in the old advisory circular somewhat conflicts the language in the law,” Dorr said. “The language in the law takes precedence.”

The 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act outlined restrictions the FAA can put in place for a model aircraft.

Despite the NTSB ruling on the non-binding nature of the drone rules, Dorr said the FAA has “publicized what the law is and how we interpret it.”

The DC Area Drone User Group has 1,350 members, making it the largest such organization in the country. While some of these members are commercial drone users — including people who use drones for academic research — most are hobbyists who own small drones the size of toy helicopters.

“There are no stakeholders looking toward the interest of the hobbyists or the commercial users within the FAA, so the FAA has no idea or doesn’t care about any of our interests,” Vo said. He added: “Basically I want the federal government out of my hair when it comes to my less-than-5-kilogram aircraft.”

Gray areas pose a problem for both hobbyists and commercial users, who want locations where they can legally fly their drones. Vo is petitioning to use eight locations in the Washington area.

Vo, a Ph.D. robotics student at George Mason University, said the search process is “in the very beginning stages.” But the most promising location is the Fairfax County Landfill, where a model airplane club is already allowed to fly.

At the dump, there’s less concern over privacy or security issues. The biggest risk, Vo said, is a drone crashing into a pile and joining the rest of the trash.

“There’s pretty much no risk at all flying in a landfill,” he said.

Drones have been a matter of dispute because of their potential ability to gather information about their locations and take photos that could jeopardize privacy rights. Existing rules for drone flyers include a limit of no higher than 400 feet up in the air and no-fly zones of a five-mile radius around airports, so as not to interfere with planes.

Vo said he’s waiting to see more nuanced rules that would incorporate both unrestricted recreational flying and some commercial flying.

“I think most people in the DC Area Drone User Group would agree,” Vo said, “we are willing to accept some sort of licensing requirements or some sort of registration requirements, if it means that we would be allowed to fly.”

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