What happened to ultralights? And does this foreshadow what may happen to drones and quadcopters?
I remember seeing ultralights flying above me, and thinking that was what i wanted to do. There is something appealing about flying for recreation, with the wind in your face. The ultralights I used to see have disappeared. I have read articles about sport flying destroying the ultralight sport.
Ultralights are single seat, very light weight aircraft that could be flown without a pilot’s license. In the years since 9/11, something curious happened – the ultralight movement nearly vanished.
I was at a large air show earlier this year which had an area set aside for ultralights and light sport aircraft – but there were just 5 ultralights present where once they covered a few acres. What happened?
I asked around and was told by many that FAA rules killed the ultralight movement. The full story is a bit complex but essentially, the FAA used the advent of the Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) category to kill an exemption for two-seat ultralights used for training. With two-seat training unavailable, new pilots cannot be trained. These rule changes grounded most of the existing two-seat trainers. Pilots were told they’d need to spend (at the time) about $6,000 to earn a light sport pilot’s certificate. A former ultralight pilot told me that this cost was more than the value of his ultralight aircraft.
Other’s told me they had spoken with FAA staff “off the record” and said the FAA used the new rules to intentionally extinguish the ultralight movement, by making most training aircraft no longer legal. They did this in the aftermath of 9/11 – where ultralights, flown by persons without a Homeland Security background check – were viewed as a threat.
How does this relate to Quadcopters, Drones and Model Aircraft?
The FAA indicates it is intent on regulating the model aircraft community and seems poised to use the methods involved with ultralights and LSAs to curtail model aircraft. Just as ultralights are not illegal, model aircraft will remain legal. But the hurdles to fly them will increase.
Politically, some quadcopter hobbyists are begging for regulation through their illegal actions – like flying quads in airport airspace close to airliners, flying long distance first-person-view flights well outside line-of-sight, flying over crowds of people and so on. These incidents provide political cover for the FAA to add heavy handed regulation, as well as a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report directing FAA to pro-actively manage the risks (FAA agrees with the report). The Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security has called for changes to Federal laws so that the FAA can regulated all objects in the air. Some members of Congress are demanding that all hobby “drones” have mandated “geofencing” that prohibits them from flying within 5 miles of an airport, all have beacon ID transmitters and some would like to see all flyers licensed by the FAA.
It is apparent that the “wild west” anarchy underway today by some drone pilots will not be allowed to continue.
At the local level, some politicians ranging from city council members to a few Congressional representatives believe that all operations should be tightly regulated and conducted only by licensed pilots. While local government cannot ban flights by model aircraft, they can – and some have – banned take off and landing within their jurisdiction, effectively banning model aircraft operations.
Lastly, a large industrial group is seeking to sanitize low level airspace for their own automated drone systems. Companies like Amazon want to use automated drones to deliver packages to residences. The industry has admitted their systems cannot detect small model aircraft so they want all other airspace users to have mandated beacon transponders.
What will happen to quadcopters and model aircraft?
What will happen seems obvious based on what we know so far:
- Unlicensed model aircraft flying will be restricted to community-based and certified model aircraft flying airfields, and possibly to areas (rural and far from cities) that contain unregulated airspace (Class G airspace).
- Operation of model aircraft outside of model airfields and Class G airspace (may be) will require, at a minimum, a beacon identification transponder (see Open Drone ID) transmitting the aircraft’s unique identifier, take off point, current location, vertical and horizontal speed and other data, every 3 seconds. Industrial drone operators foresee using beacon IDs as part of collision avoidance. Would collision avoidance require both aircraft to use automated collision avoidance systems or just the commercial drone?
- Beacon IDs will be built in to new model aircraft and may be retrofitted into many existing model aircraft. Retrofits will likely take the form of small unit similar in size to an R/C receiver unit, with integrated antenna, controller, Bluetooth beacon and a GPS receiver. The price of this is unknown but am guessing these will initially cost about $50 each.
- Operation of model aircraft outside of model airfields may require a license similar to the FAA’s Part 107 Remote Pilot’s certificate (passing an exam and paying $150 fee every 2 years).
- Many flight zones may require pre-authorization from the FAA. This likely requires licensing (see 3) and the use of an app to file a flight plan prior to proposed model aircraft flights.
- Because model aircraft will require beacon transmitters, and because proposed concepts envision long range receiving systems used by police, military and airports, within a few years, receiving systems will be widely installed and will be used to track, in real-time, all model aircraft flights over large areas of the country.
- Currently, the FAA requires all model aircraft over 1/2 pound to be registered with the FAA at a cost of $5 for 3 years. However, fees will be raised to pay for enforcement. These fees will likely be used for enforcement, “counter drone technologies” (methods to disrupt or shoot down small aircraft) and for a nationwide network of beacon receiving systems that tie into the back end of the air traffic control system. All of this will be paid for by “user fees” and it will not be cheap (think billions of dollars).
When will these changes occur?
Some of these may occur soon. As of the summer of 2018, Congress is working on a funding re-authorization bill for the FAA. The version that passed the House earlier this year retains Section 336 protections for model aircraft. However, since then Congress has held hearings about regulating model aircraft (aka referred to by the media as “drones”). Section 336 may not remain in its present form after the bill reaches the Senate. The US Department of Homeland Security, the FAA itself, and members of Congress, have all called for changes in the law so that the FAA can regulate all model aircraft in the United States.
Expect a final bill to be finished by the end of September, with the new law taking effect on January 1st, 2019. The future of the model aircraft hobby comes down to Section 336 protections. It is also possible that Congress will merely extend the existing 2012 bill for another year, in which case nothing changes in the near term. It is also possible that Congress will take a more lenient approach than some of the regulatory proponents are seeking.
The FAA and Homeland Security may both be granted increased enforcement powers. If that occurs, the FAA would release a notice of proposed rule making soon. The implementation date would depend upon the availability of manufactured beacon ID units and the time frame needed for manufacturers of quadcopters to integrate the technology into production.
Today, one can take a model aircraft out for a flight by going to an appropriate area and flying the aircraft.
- In the future – and may be a few years out still – it is likely that each aircraft will need to be registered, outfitted with a beacon transponder (price unknown but am guessing it will come down to the $50 per aircraft range based on costs of existing R/C aircraft receivers), and may require filing and pre-authorization of a flight plan. However, not all existing model aircraft may be capable of being retrofitted with beacon technology. Hopefully very small aircraft and aircraft flown in remote areas, would be excluded.
- Some features may require replacing R/C aircraft remote control transmitters and receivers at cost of hundreds of dollars, each.
- Many flights may require an FAA license – cost $150 every two years.
Current discussions suggest FAA would not mind doing to the model aircraft community what they did to the ultralight community.
And that is, like with ultralights, you can still own and fly one, but the hurdles needed to do so may make flying prohibitive for many.
What problem is this solving?
We will be told this is to prevent “terror attacks”. However, anyone can easily build a quadcopter that lacks a beacon transmitter and fly clandestinely. None of this solves that problem.
What it does solve is to clear the airspace for industrial applications.
It also solves, indirectly, the problem of idiots flying recklessly by adding new hurdles which remove many potential fliers from the airspace.
The rules do not, however, prevent collisions with real aircraft. Real aircraft owners are spending thousands of dollars to add ADS-B transponders to their aircraft, as required by the FAA in much of U.S. airspace. None of these units receive the proposed Open Drone ID beacons and aircraft owners will not be excited to hear they should replace their just purchased ADS-B units to work with the new technology to detect drones.
This is where national real-time tracking of all model aircraft comes in. By distributing Open Drone ID tracking receivers throughout the country, the data will be collected and relayed into the data stream used by air traffic control and relayed to aircraft over ADS-B “in”.
See where this is going? Long term, total information surveillance of all model and hobby aircraft operations.