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Will The FAA Soon Regulate UAV Hobbyists?

Will the alarming increase in near misses between manned and unmanned aircraft cause Congress to give the FAA authority to regulate drone hobbyists?
By Patrick C. Miller | August 13, 2015

Several months ago, I spoke to an aviation attorney who told me that the Federal Aviation Administration is always seeking to expand its regulatory authority and predicted that the trend would continue with unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

At the time, I didn’t see how the FAA could expand its power a great deal more given that it claimed authority over all U.S. airspace and all aircraft operating in it—manned or unmanned. But in light of the recent increases of close encounters between airliners and drones, it got me to thinking about some of the UAS-related Congressional hearings I’ve seen over the past year.

They almost all included a committee member asking an FAA official what it was doing to protect the flying public from drones. The FAA official would point out that hobbyist operators of unmanned aerial vehicles were likely the culprits, and then tactfully point out that Congress expressly forbids the agency from regulating hobbyist and recreational drone pilots.

Not surprisingly, members of Congress don’t like to hear that they are at least partially to blame for the problem and thus spend little time dwelling on the situation they helped create.

A few weeks ago, another attorney with expertise in UAS law suggested that for reasons of safety, improved regulation and more effective law enforcement, it might be wise to get rid of the distinction between recreational and commercial UAV operators.

Last week while writing a story about the Air Line Pilots Association’s recommendations for improving UAS safety, I noticed that the organization’s white paper was timed to advise members of Congress on what commercial airline pilots hoped would be included in the FAA reauthorization bill known as the Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization Act (AIRR).

Congress will likely begin hearings on this legislation next month. Although I have yet to hear or see anyone say that the FAA needs increased authority to regulate hobbyists and recreational UAV pilots, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the idea is given serious consideration.

Otherwise, members of Congress will continue to hear that the reason the FAA can’t get amateur drone operators under control is because Congress won’t allow it to. And no politician wants to be left holding that particular bag if a collision between a manned and unmanned aircraft becomes a tragedy.