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Flying Under The FAA's UAS Radar

By Patrick C. Miller | October 23, 2014

Since I began covering the UAS industry, I doubt a week’s gone by in which I haven’t spoken to someone who’s admitted to operating a UAV for commercial purposes without a Federal Aviation Administration exemption or certificate of authorization.

This purely anecdotal evidence leads me to believe that there are perhaps hundreds—if not thousands—of technically illegal UAV flights occurring every day in the U.S. Back on Oct. 10, the FAA issued a compliance enforcement bulletin which—at first glance—seemed to be aimed at cracking down on such activity.

The bulletin says: “Based on the FAA’s growing concern about the safety of UAS operations in the United States, the FAA will use its resources to educate UAS operators about regulatory compliance and, when appropriate, use administrative and legal enforcement action to gain compliance.”

Some interpreted this the start of a new effort by the agency to get tough on those violating UAS regulations.

However, if any UAS operator has been subjected to enforcement as a result of this bulletin, it hasn’t made headlines and the FAA isn’t aware of it. But that’s likely because as ominous as it sounds, the bulletin wasn’t a departure from the agency’s previously stated policy.

During the summer, I attended a UAS conference at which one of the speakers was Jim Williams, manager of the FAA Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office. I recalled that he characterized enforcement as “the last resort.”

In fact, Williams said, “When you do enforcement, it’s too late. Something has happened that’s already put people at risk.”

He stressed that the FAA’s preferred approach was to educate and inform the public because most people didn’t want to violate the rules. Enforcement would occur when there was “pushback” or continued violations, Williams explained.

So what is the bulletin really about?

FAA spokesperson Les Dorr said it does nothing to change the agency’s approach to enforcement, which is to send violators who come to their attention a letter notifying them of the regulations.

“The compliance and enforcement bulletin is simply guidance for our inspector force that if they encounter a situation where someone is not adhering to the information we give them in an educational letter, then it’s possible we could take some sort of enforcement action against them,” he said.

Before the bulletin came out, Dorr said there was nothing specific to UAS for FAA inspectors to follow. Now there is.

The lesson here is that if you fly your UAV in a safe and responsible manner, you probably won’t hear from the FAA. If you get a letter from the FAA, follow the rules and that’s likely the end of it.

However, if you continue to break the rules, the FAA inspectors now know how to handle it.