Are we nearing the end of the #drone #quadcopter hobby? #quadcopters

This video is well worth watching if you are interested in radio controlled model aircraft including quadcopters.

There are two big issues facing the radio controlled aircraft hobby. The first is the reckless way that a few hobbyists are flying, putting people in danger. The second is powerful corporate interests that want to use commercial  automated, pilot-less commercial drone technology for deliveries and are lobbying government for airspace that is de facto exclusive to themselves – and seeking strict rules on model aircraft.

Reckless Flying

For almost 100 years, hobbyists have flown model aircraft and for the last half of that period, typically at club maintained model airfields.

The advent of low cost, easy to fly quadcopters has changed the environment. Today anyone, including idiots, can fly a quadcopter – and they do so where ever they want and sometimes in reckless and dangerous ways.

There was a collision with a U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter in NYC  last year, and many videos posted to YouTube feature close calls including with an Airbus A380, a helicopter, and fixed wing aircraft landing at an airport. A hobbyist in Maui, Hawaii has replaced his remote control transmitter and receiver with a 4G LTE cellular data modem and posted videos of flying his model flying wing aircraft on flights up to 25 miles, which is against FAA regulations requiring line-of-sight flight  only.

Most hobbyists ignore existing flight restrictions. Hobbyists must not fly within 5 miles of *any* airport including private airfields and heliports.  Hobbyists are required to notify all airports within 5 miles of their flights before taking to the air but they ignore this requirement.

We are a matter of months – perhaps – from an incident that will be really bad. And when that happens, the FAA will immediately ground all model aircraft nationwide until new – and strict – regulations are put in place.

Corporate Lobbying

An industrial consortia is lobbying the Federal government for strict new rules on all model aircraft. They want a sanitized airspace for their automated, cargo carrying drone networks. Their systems cannot truly avoid potential collisions – and they have lobbied Congress to restrict all model aircraft to below 200 feet and to require beacon transponders on all aircraft.  Their goal is to privatize the airspace between 200 and 400 feet.

In the summer of 2018, Congress held a hearing to discuss these issues – and only invited representatives of industry and government. They sought no testimony from the model aircraft community.

Best Guess as to What Will Happen

First, a bad incident may happen soon. Even if it does not, efforts are underway to strictly regulate model aircraft.

One does not need to look far to see the “wild west” perspective of far too many idiots flying quadcopters to see that anarchy can not last.

My guess is Congress will give FAA the authority to regulate hobby aircraft flown at all locations other than community-based model airfields and will require:

  • All aircraft over about 1/2 pound must be registered with the FAA.
  • A remote pilots license will be required to fly any aircraft over 1/2 pound at locations other than community-based model airfields. Stated another way, if you join a local model flying club, you can fly at their airfield without a license. All flying elsewhere will requite an FAA remote pilots license.
  • All aircraft flown at other than an established model airfield will require an onboard beacon transponder sending location, speed, direction of flight, coordinates of take off point, and the FAA registration number.
  • All aircraft flown at other than established model airfields will likely require a pre-authorization from the FAA. This will be implemented using their existing app-based system for commercial Part 107 remote pilot operations. Before you fly, you will be required to submit a flight plan to the FAA and wait for approval.

(Note – light aircraft are not required to file flight plans. Light weight aircraft known as “ultralights” or Part 103 aircraft do not require a pilot’s license to fly. The rules will be quite different for model aircraft.)

The era of taking your quadcopter in your back yard or to a local park or up in the hills for fun flying are coming to an end.

And the costs of model aircraft flying will climb. A remote pilot’s license currently costs US$150 and must be renewed by taking an exam every two years. The costs of beacon transponders is unknown. Hypothetically, an ADSB transponder (used on aircraft) might be cost reduced to $500. Presumably a different system will be developed for model aircraft. This will add cost, weight and reduce battery life for each aircraft. It might even mean that smaller model aircraft, due to the battery requirements, become unusable. Thus, the costs of each aircraft go up as only larger aircraft can accommodate the transponder size, weight and power requirements. Hopefully that is not the case and new technology will develop a small, power efficient beacon.

Many hobbyists have multiple model aircraft and the costs will add up rapidly.