Consumer Drone Safety Act

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Consumer Drone Safety Act 2017-06-13T02:14:04+00:00

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (“UAS”), more commonly known as “drones,” are quickly becoming a permanent fixture in the National Airspace System (“NAS”) and as such have been getting a lot of press recently, a majority of it for all the wrong reasons.  A glance at recent headlines highlights the growing popularity, and associated problems, of the explosive profusion of relatively cheap, and yet very powerful and sophisticated, consumer-grade drones.  More and more, these highly sophisticated aircraft are finding their way into the hands of operators who, whether intentionally or not, have endangered the safety of manned aircraft and the public at large.  For example, in the first half of 2015 alone, U.S. pilots have reported seeing unmanned aircraft more than 650 times, according to the FAA, which represents a dramatic increase over the 238 sightings reported in all of 2014. In addition, several pilots have reported seeing drones at altitudes up to 10,000 ft., well above the levels normally associated with “drone” activity.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that Congress has decided to weigh in on the matter: the Senate’s proposed solution, Senate Bill S.1608, would force the FAA to “publish a final rule…containing safety requirements applicable to the operation of consumer drones.” As currently drafted, S.1608, titled the “Consumer Drone Safety Act” (the “Act”) would aim to create a new framework regulating the operation of consumer drones flown recreationally as well as requiring new safety technologies be built into all new consumer drones.


For example, Section 2 of the Act would force the FAA to “publish a final rule…containing safety requirements applicable to the operation of consumer drones” in order to allow “consumer drones to be operated without posing a danger to manned aircraft.”  The final rule required by Section 2 would have to include, among others, restrictions on the maximum altitude, “circumstances or areas where flights are restricted because of the risk of unsafe interactions with manned aircraft” or “because of the risk to persons or property on the ground,” as well as any other requirements that the FAA deems appropriate.

Similarly, Section 3 of the Act would also impose a rulemaking mandate on the FAA to “publish a final rule containing safety requirements applicable to consumer drones manufactured in, imported into, or sold in the United States.”  The list of technological safety measures the Act would impose on manufacturers includes altitude limits achieved “through software or other technological means,” a “means of preventing unauthorized operation within an unsafe distance from an airport or in protected airspace,” a system that “enables avoidance of collisions,” and a requirement that consumer drones be equipped with identification markings and a technological means “to convey the drone’s location and altitude” among other requirements. And not only would the Act require new drones to come equipped with the requisite suite of technological innovations, but the rule mandated by Section 3 would also “require modification, at the manufacturer’s expense, of any consumer drone that was commercially distributed before the publication of the rule,” with limited exceptions.

Finally, the Act would codify existing FAA policy by prohibiting any person from operating “a consumer drone in the national airspace system without specific authority from the Federal Aviation Administration.” However, in defining “specific authority,” the Act would allow the rules promulgated pursuant thereto to be the “specific authority” called for by the Act.  Similarly, while the Act would replace the largely non-regulatory best practices that currently govern recreational drone operations with a fairly robust regulatory framework, the Act would also limit the applicability of the new operator requirements to consumer drones that (1) are flown for hobby or recreational use, and (2) that are not operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization, such as the Academy of Model Aeronautics (“AMA”).

In practical terms, this would mean that, so long as a drone user was operating their drone for purely recreational purposes while operating within the safety guidelines of a community-based organization, e.g. those promulgated by the AMA, then the user would be free to operate their drone under the existing standards for model aircraft as articulated by Congress in Section 336 of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act (the “FMRA”),[2] and as further clarified in the FAA’s Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft.

On the other hand, the FAA has made it explicitly clear that model aircraft that do not meet the regulatory requirements for model aircraft or that operate outside the parameters set out in Section 336 of the FMRA are considered unmanned aircraft for purposes of FAA enforcement authority, and as such, are subject to all existing FAA regulations.[3]  Furthermore, it is the FAA’s stated position that “regardless of whether a model aircraft satisfies the statutory definition and operational requirements [applicable to model aircraft], if the model aircraft is operated in such a manner that endangers the safety of the NAS, the FAA may take enforcement action” against the operator.[4]

As evidenced by their explosive popularity, drones represent an incredible opportunity for commercial as well as recreational users.  However, the growing number of close-calls with manned aircraft, some dangerous, also highlights the need for stricter regulation of drone operations, both recreational and commercial.  S.1608, though not without its flaws, would be a good start towards this end, along with the forthcoming commercial drone regulations.[5]

For more information on regulations applicable to drone operations, both recreational and commercial, and for help operating legally under a Section 333 Exemption, please contact the aviation attorneys at Carriere & Little, LLP.



[1] The Act would define a “consumer drone” as “a civil unmanned aircraft or a civil unmanned aircraft system that – (1) is—(a) equipped with an automatic stabilization system; or (b) capable of providing a video signal allowing operation beyond the visual line of sight of the operator; (2) is manufactured and intended for commercial distribution; and (3) weighs 55 pounds or less.”

[2] Under Sec. 336 of the Act, an unmanned aircraft is considered a model aircraft if: (1) it is capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere; (2) is flown within visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft; and (3) is flown for hobby or recreational purposes.  Sec. 336 of the Act also states that model aircraft are exempt from future FAA rulemaking if: (1) the aircraft is flown strictly for hobby or recreational purposes; (2) the aircraft is operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization; (3) the aircraft is limited to not more than 55 pounds…(4) the aircraft is operated in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to any manned aircraft; and (5) when flown within 5 miles of an airport, the operator of the aircraft provides the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower…with prior notice of the operation.

[3] FAA Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft, Docket No. FAA-2014-0396, at 7.

[4] Id. at 15-16.

[5] For more information on the FAA’s forthcoming commercial drone regulations under proposed 14 CFR Part 107, visit