The following post is a guest column from Matthew Brown, an engineer, licensed attorney, drone enthusiast, and founder and creator of US Drone Law. The views of guest posters belong to the author and are not necessarily reflective of TheDroneGirl.com.
Is FPV drone racing legal?
The 2016 National Drone Racing Championships on Governors Island are just days away. For the first time, ESPN will bring live drone racing to millions of viewers. Race sponsors include heavy hitting multinational companies such as camera company GoPro, technology company EMC, insurance company AIG, and financial services company Ernst & Young.
Much of the appeal for drone racing comes from the sport’s pod-racing feel. Pilots orient and control their drones remotely by viewing a live video feed from the drone’s cockpit-mounted camera. This unique flight perspective, known as first person view (FPV), provides an exhilarating racing and spectator experience.
One of the keystone rules for drone racing is that “[p]ilots must use FPV to pilot aircraft.” While using first person view, a pilot cannot simultaneously keep the drone in his or her visual line of sight.
With the biggest FPV drone racing event just around the corner, one question lingers: Is FPV drone racing legal?
Last week I reached out to the FAA with this very question. The FAA’s response was direct and to the point: if a drone is “flown under Public Law 112-95 Section 336 (hobby and recreation), First Person View is prohibited.”
Currently drone use can fall into one of five legal categories, with a new sixth category becoming available later this month.
- Indoor Flights: Not regulated by the FAA, so no rules.
- Flights Under the Recreation/Hobby Drone Law: Known as the Special Rule for Model Aircraft, requires that a drone be operated within the pilot’s line of sight (among other requirements).
- Flights Under a Section 333 Exemption: Section 333 exemptions have traditionally been used for commercial drone operations, but could technically be used for any operations that do not fit within the Special Rule for Model Aircraft or other applicable laws.
- Flights Under a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA): Drone operations by public entities.
- Flights Under Traditional Aircraft Rules: Drone and pilot must meet the requirements of traditional manned aircraft.
- Flights Under Part 107 Rule (effective August 29, 2016): Drone operations that comply with the Part 107 requirements (includes passing an FAA test to obtain a remote pilot certificate). The new rule permits FPV flight with the aid of a spotter.
If you are participating in an indoor drone race (like the recent races at an old factory in Charlotte, North Carolina) you can use FPV. The FAA has no jurisdiction over indoor flights.
If you plan to test your drone racing skills outdoors, the FAA says you are breaking the law. To our knowledge, the FAA has granted no Section 333 exemption to drone racers. Drone racers are stuck in legal limbo until August 29, when they can pursue a remote pilot certificate under the new Part 107 rule. The FAA’s position on FPV drone flight among hobbyists leaves drone racers in an awkward legal position and ultimately suppresses entry into the sport by amateur racers.
Despite the fact that FPV drone racing is becoming a national phenomenon, the FAA has yet to take enforcement action against any FPV pilots. In fact, the FAA has participated in drone races, such as the Drone Nationals in Sacramento.
I reached out to the Drone Sports Association, the host of this week’s races, to get its thoughts on the FAA’s prohibition of first person view racing. Scot Refsland, Chairman of the DSA, told me that the “US National Drone Racing Championships is an amateur event” that is “officially sanctioned and governed by the Academy of Model Aeronautics.” From the DSA’s perspective, the FPV races do not violate federal law since the event is taking place under the
auspices of the AMA.
The DSA’s position is understandable in light of the mixed signals coming from the FAA. If the FAA is not going to enforce the rules, then why not just play on? Despite the FAA’s technical opposition to FPV drone racing under the Special Rule for Model Aircraft, every indication is that the FAA intends to soften its position.
This week’s drone races on Governor’s Island will be a canary in the FAA coal mine. If the races, with the nation platform provided by ESPN, catch the attention of the American public, we will likely see the FAA, and even Congress, revisit the restrictions on FPV racing. So, to all the pilots competing this weekend—give us a great FPV show.
-By Matthew Brown, J.D.
Matthew Brown, J.D., is a licensed attorney in Florida and Alabama and the owner of usdronelaw.com.