What does the FAA Reauthorization Act Mean for Educational & Recreational Flyers?

June 26, 2019

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The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 became public law on October 5, 2018. It is a five-year law that provided much needed consistency, resources, guidance, and regulatory authority to the FAA. There are many provisions in this bill with wide-ranging implications for aviation safety, security, passengers, education, and operations. In this article, we will focus on two sections of this law specifically targeted at the operation of unmanned aircraft systems for recreational purposes (section 349) and educational purposes (section 350). Please keep in mind that the following information is based on my interpretation of selected parts of the law, supplemented by the information I gathered at this year’s FAA UAS Symposium. This article is not intended to provide legal guidance or an exhaustive overview of the entire FAA Reauthorization Act. For more information, I encourage you to read the full text of the document.

Highlights from Section 349, “Exception for limited recreational operations of unmanned aircraft”

This provision focuses on operators who are flying UAS for recreational (non-commercial) purposes.

These operations must comply with the guidelines established by a non-profit community-based organization (CBO), which is defined as a membership-based organization with comprehensive safety guidelines, support for local clubs, and flying fields, that has been recognized as a CBO by the FAA. In addition, recreational operators must abide by rules such as flying within visual line of sight, ensuring that the aircraft is registered with proper external markings, and operating below 400 feet above ground level when operating in uncontrolled airspace.

Recreational users can operate in uncontrolled airspace (Class G) without prior authorization; however, they must now secure authorization to operate in controlled airspace (Class B, C, D, E2), rather than simply notifying an airport as required by previous legislations. Unfortunately, as of the writing of this article, there is no way for recreational operators to secure authorization because the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability system needed to do so will likely not be available to recreational operators until July 2019 at the earliest. (The LAANC system has been available to Part 107 operators since 2018). Thus, the only option for recreational operators who wish to fly in controlled air space right now is to either (1) become a Part 107 operator or (2) operate from FAA designated fixed sites (i.e., recreational flying fields), where one can fly up to the altitude prescribed by the FAA UAS Facility Maps without prior authorization, as long as the operator follows the CBO’s safety guidelines. (Find FAA designated fixed sites here. Learn more about different types of airspace here.)

Moreover, recreational operators will be required to pass an aeronautical knowledge and safety test under this new law, and provide proof of test passage upon request. However, since the knowledge and safety test has not yet been finalized by the FAA, recreational operators can continue to operate in uncontrolled airspace without passing the test provided that they follow the aforementioned rules and guidelines.

Highlights from Section 350, “Use of unmanned aircraft systems at institutions of higher education”

The types of operation targeted in this section include those by institutions of higher education for educational and research purposes. Under the new law, educational operators can fly under Part 107 or fly as a recreational operator by following the guidelines noted in the previous section.

However, these procedures and rules can be updated at any time by the FAA, since Congress gave the FAA roughly 9 months (or 270 days after the passage of the Reauthorization Act) to “establish regulations, procedures, and standards, as necessary, to facilitate the safe operation of unmanned aircraft systems operated by institutions of higher education.” Thus, it is important for recreational and educational UAS operators to stay up to date with the latest rules and requirements by visiting the FAA’s UAS website.

Work reported in this article are supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant ATE #1700552. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

“image: Freepik.com”. The drone/FAA image has been designed using resources from Freepik.com


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