Hiring a hobbyist? You might be committing a federal crime.

The question has arisen from time-to-time, as to whether a customer who willingly engages the services of a drone operator, knowing that he or she does not hold a Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate, could be subject to federal legal action. The answer is a qualified “yes.”

This question has thus far centered around the meaning of “operate,” which is defined similarly in both the Code of Federal Regulations and the U.S. Code. Federal Aviation Regulation 14 CFR 1.1, defines “operate” as:

Operate, with respect to aircraft, means use, cause to use or authorize to use aircraft, for the purpose (except as provided in § 91.13 of this chapter) of air navigation including the piloting of aircraft, with or without the right of legal control (as owner, lessee, or otherwise).

Similarly,​ ​U.S. Code 49 U.S. Code § 40102​(a)​​(35)​​, ​defines “operate” and “operation” as:

“operate aircraft” and “operation of aircraft” mean using aircraft for the purposes of air navigation, including—
(A) the navigation of aircraft; and
(B) causing or authorizing the operation of aircraft with or without the right of legal control of the aircraft.

​Note the phrases “cause to use” and “authorize to use”​ in the regulation, and the phrase “causing or authorizing” in the statute. That language indicates that the drafters contemplated scenarios where persons who are not actually piloting an aircraft may nonetheless be “operating” one if they cause or authorize it to be operated.

As an “operator,” logic dictates that they are subject to all regulatory and statutory requirements and restrictions that apply to the operation of aircraft. Indeed, case law supports this argument, as it has been the basis of at least one FAA enforcement action, the holding of which was subsequently affirmed by a Court of Appeals.

In The Matter of Fenner, FAA Order No. 1996-17 (May 3, 1996), aff’d Fenner v. FAA, 113 F.3d 1251 (11th Cir. 1997), a DOT Administrative Law Judge held that an aircraft owner was responsible for regulatory violations committed not by him, but by another person — a licensed airmen who was piloting the aircraft with the owner’s permission. Accordingly, the aircraft owner was assessed a civil penalty. On appeal, the FAA Administrator affirmed the DOT Judge’s holding, and the FAA Administrator’s holding was subsequently affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

In Fenner, an aircraft owner permitted another licensed pilot to fly his aircraft. That pilot proceeded to operate the owner’s aircraft in a careless and reckless manner, near other aircraft and he failed to grant the right of way to other aircraft, in violation of FARs 91.13, 91.111 and 91.113 respectively.

For reasons unknown, the aircraft owner refused to identify the unknown pilot he had permitted to operate his aircraft. Since there was no way to enforce anything against the unknown pilot, the FAA instead brought an enforcement action against the aircraft owner, using the legal definitions of “operate” as its basis for the action.

The DOT Judge held that the owner of the aircraft was the “operator” of the aircraft even without having been the person who flew it when the regulatory violations occurred, because he had permitted (caused or authorized) the operation. On appeal, the FAA Administrator upheld the DOT Judge’s decision, and on further appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Thus, as the Fenner case shows, it is possible for someone other than the actual pilot to be found liable for illegally operating of an aircraft, at least in the context of an aircraft owner permitting another person to fly his or her aircraft.

But what if it’s not the aircraft owner? What if it’s simply someone — namely a customer — who willingly hires someone to fly a drone who they know is not licensed to operate a drone commercially? Could they (like the aircraft owner in Fenner), be found legally liable for operating a drone commercially without holding an FAA Remote Pilot Certificate?

The answer is a qualified yes, and it’s a federal crime punishable by a fine of up to $250,000.00 or 3 years in prison, or both. It’s a qualified yes solely because to the best of this writer’s knowledge and research, the relevant section of the statute (referenced below), has never been enforced; it was drafted and adopted prior to the existence of modern drones; and prior to the availability of the now required FAA license to operate drones commercially.

I understand that it seems very odd and impossible to imagine that someone who hires an unlicensed drone operator could potentially face federal criminal charges. However, buried within our bodies of law exists a federal criminal statute, the plain language of which states it is a crime if a person “knowingly and willingly employs for service or uses in any capacity as an airman an individual who does not have an airman’s certificate authorizing the individual to serve in that capacity.” See: 49 U.S. Code § 46306(b)(8), entitled, “Registration violations involving aircraft not providing air transportation.”

The statute’s language is unambiguous, and would arguably apply to the knowing and willful hiring of an unlicensed person to conduct commercial drone operations. Drones are legally “aircraft,” they must be registered if operated commercially, and they do not provide air transportation. Although, as previously stated, this writer has no evidence of the statute ever having been enforced in this manner, there is nothing in its clear and plain language that would seem to prevent it from being used.

So, what’s a customer to do? Well, simply verify that the drone pilot holds an FAA-issued Remote Pilot Certificate. They must have been issued one to legally conduct commercial drone services. If they don’t have one, certainly don’t hire them. If you are searching online for an FAA-licensed commercial drone pilot, use a pilot directory like CommercialDronePilot.com, which verifies its member pilots’ credentials. (Full disclosure: I own and operate the site.)

In any instance, although this writer has yet to find any instances of the statute described above having been used for this purpose, there is nothing that would indicate it could not be used to charge a customer who does not perform due diligence, with a serious federal criminal offense. Why take a chance being a party to the first test case? Don’t hire hobbyists. Hire only FAA-licensed commercial drone pilots.

DC Circuit Vacates Model Aircraft Registration Rule

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in Taylor v. Huerta, that the FAA’s registration rule — with respect to model aircraft — is illegal, and has vacated that rule. This means that if you operate drones strictly for hobby or recreation, you do not have to register yourself with the FAA as a drone owner. This is the only thing that has changed. If you fly commercially, you must still register all of your drones.

Court Order: http://bit.ly/2qz1p5h
Court Opinion: http://bit.ly/2q0tiAB

Read more from Former NTSB Member John Goglia here.

Why is there a TFR over Standing Rock?

[UPDATE Dec. 2, 2016: For the first time ever, the FAA has granted a waiver to a freelance drone journalist, to flying within a TFR — the one imposed over the Standing Rock protest. See Former NTSB Member John Goglia’s “FAA Reverses Course, Grants Drone Journalist Permission To Fly in No-Fly Zone Over Standing Rock.”]

The FAA has imposed a 4-nautical mile Temporary Flight Restriction, (“TFR”), in airspace up to 3500 feet above sea level, over the Standing Rock Protest in North Dakota. The land in that area sits approximately 1600 feet above sea level, meaning about 1900 feet of the sky above the protest is off limits to any aircraft other than those permitted to fly — namely, aircraft in support of the law enforcement activities.

Neither the mainstream media, nor citizen journalists, nor activist hobbyists may fly in that area to document what law enforcement is doing. In essence, a “giant tarp” has been laid over the site, allowing law enforcement to act with impunity and without any witnesses. There is something very troubling about that, especially given the widespread accounts of militaristic law enforcement tactics, many of which have already been documented by drones.

Let me make it clear that I am not anti-law enforcement. I work with law enforcement on a regular basis, and many of my friends are local, state and federal law enforcement members. I simply do not consider the behavior of the law enforcement members at Standing Rock to be acceptable, or representative of professional law enforcement.

It does not take a degree in rocket science to realize the effect of the TFR is that it blocks any documentation of the protest from the sky. Whether that is also the reason it was requested and granted is a matter of opinion, of course. In this writer’s opinion that is unquestionably the reason. It’s another Ferguson-style TFR, where a TFR was requested and imposed specifically to bar media coverage. (The FAA has denied that of course, but the transcript indicates otherwise.)

What is not a matter of opinion is what the law requires for the issuance of a TFR. A TFR is issued by the FAA after it reviews and approves an agency’s request for one. The federal aviation regulation that governs the issuance of TFRs is FAR 91.137. In this instance, the FAA has used the most strict of the three degrees of flight restrictions available — 91.137(a)(1) — the relevant portion of which reads:

91.137 Temporary flight restrictions in the vicinity of disaster/hazard areas.

(a) The Administrator will issue a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) designating an area within which temporary flight restrictions apply and specifying the hazard or condition requiring their imposition, whenever he determines it is necessary in order to –

(1) Protect persons and property on the surface or in the air from a hazard associated with an incident on the surface;

. . .

The Notice to Airmen will specify the hazard or condition that requires the imposition of temporary flight restrictions.

(b) When a NOTAM has been issued under paragraph (a)(1) of this section, no person may operate an aircraft within the designated area unless that aircraft is participating in the hazard relief activities and is being operated under the direction of the official in charge of on scene emergency response activities.

Note that FAR 91.137 requires that the FAA “specify the hazard or condition that requires the imposition of temporary flight restrictions.” Here’s the text of the NOTAM that accompanies the TFR:


The only language in the text of the NOTAM that even remotely resembles the specification of a hazard or condition, is the phrase “FOR LAW ENFORCEMENT OPERATIONS,” and I was able to confirm with an FAA spokesperson yesterday, that “FOR LAW ENFORCEMENT OPERATIONS” is, in fact, the specified hazard or condition for the TFR.

Assuming that the FAA does not consider law enforcement operations themselves to be a “hazard,” (which ironically is the case at Standing Rock), it must consider those operations to be a “condition.” Under FAR 91.137, that condition must also be the reason specified to support the issuance of the TFR to “[p]rotect persons and property on the surface or in the air from a hazard associated with an incident on the surface.”

What condition about “law enforcement operations” would present a hazard to persons or property on the surface?

Well, law enforcement is shooting drones out of the sky — eight of them as of this writing. Aside from being a federal felony, shooting drones (which are “aircraft”), from the sky most certainly presents a hazard to persons or property on the surface because of a universally-recognized law — gravity. However, that particular hazard, created solely by law enforcement, could be easily eliminated if they simply stopped shooting down drones. Law enforcement at Standing Rock is also flying aircraft, (displaying altered registration numbers in violation of federal criminal law), at extremely low and unsafe altitudes over those protesting against the pipeline, arguably in violation of FAR 91.13, which prohibits careless and reckless flight.

What condition about “law enforcement operations” would present a hazard to persons or property in the air?

Well, if they are flying carelessly or recklessly, that would certainly present a hazard. Intentionally descending upon other aircraft (the lower flying drones) would also present a hazard. Flying in areas where they know drones are flying would present a hazard, especially when FAR 91.113 requires all pilots to “see and avoid” other aircraft, rather than see and encounter them.

Thus, it appears that “law enforcement operations” is the only condition associated with the incident on the surface that presents any hazard to persons and property on the surface or in the air. That being the case, perhaps law enforcement aircraft, and only law enforcement aircraft, should be barred from flight over Standing Rock.

FAR Parts 101 and 107 have arrived.

August 29 has arrived, and FAR Parts 101 and 107 are in effect. The FAA will be holding a media briefing today at 11:45 EDT, which will be live-streamed. In the meantime, the FAA has gone “live” with its Part 107 Waiver/Airspace Authorization Requests page on its site, and has added “Remote Pilot Certification” to IACRA. It has also posted “Performance Based Standards, which provides some insight into what the FAA will be considering in approving or denying Part 107 Waivers.

Leaked: Latest Summary of Part 107

I obtained a copy of the May 2016 version of the FAA’s “Summary of Major Provisions Under 14 CFR 107,” which reveals some changes that have been made to the originally proposed NPRM. Note that this is a May 2016 Summary, and that there might have been further changes made to the NPRM since the publication date of this document.

  • The minimum age for a Remote Pilot in Command is now 16-years-old;
  • The maximum altitude has been changed to 400 feet AGL;
  • There is a read, speak, write and understand English requirement; and
  • Current Part 61 manned aircraft certificate holders will only have to take and pass an online test (see screenshot below).

Current-Pilots-Online-ExamThe prior (February 2015) version of this Summary is posted publicly online here.

Don’t bother with a 333. Wait for Part 107.

At this writing, the FAA has granted over 5,000 Section 333 Exemptions, and over 4,000 petitions sit in a queue, awaiting the FAA’s “careful inspection,” which amount to little more than “rubber stamping.” After all, the only requirements for being granted a 333 is that you submit the proper paperwork and have a pulse. If you are currently awaiting your grant, you’ll get it — eventually. It takes months and months but everyone is granted one. Remember, I even got one for a paper airplane

However, once you receive your grant, will you be able to use it? Remember, the grantee can be anyone (or any company). But the person who actually flies the drone must be a licensed manned aircraft pilot, and they must be current. Does this describe you? If so, you yourself may legally fly commercially under your 333. If not, you must find (and presumably pay) a licensed and current manned aircraft pilot to fly your drone for you.

Even then, you’ll likely not benefit from it, since the myriad of onerous conditions that accompany 333s make it completely impractical — indeed nearly impossible — to operate a drone commercially. Even the FAA’s own NPRM suggests that many of the 333 conditions are entirely unnecessary. Its proposed Part 107 presents far fewer barriers to fly commercially. Unlike a 333, Part 107 proposes no pilot license or medical certificate requirement, no spotter requirement, no 500 buffer from any structure requirement and no NOTAM requirement.

Moreover, despite its claim of illegality, the FAA has never attempted to enforce against anyone solely for operating a drone commercially without a 333. Jason Koebler of Motherboard FOIA’ed all of the FAA’s enforcement actions, and they reveal the agency has never initiated a single enforcement action based solely upon commercial operation. Instead each was based on an alleged violation of some existing FAR, mostly FAR 91.13 (careless/reckless operation). Why isn’t the FAA enforcing against something it claims is illegal? They know there is no legal basis for that claim, and that they will lose.

So why bother getting a 333 now? You’re better off waiting until Part 107 is final. It might not be perfect, but it’s far better than a 333, and it’s likely to become final well before you ever see your 333 granted. In the interim, it appears that as long as you operate safely and responsibly — meaning don’t violate FAR 91.13 — you may fly for pleasure or for profit without the threat of FAA enforcement action.

As always, nothing I write is intended to be, and should not be considered legal advice.

Coming Soon: A “New” Drone Law Journal

In the upcoming months, the NPRM is expected to become final. At that time, and for the first time ever, there will be actual codified FAA regulations applicable to drones. Since 2013, this site has expressed the fact that (with very limited exceptions), there have been no currently enforceable federal statutes or regulations regarding drones that apply to the general public.

Upon finalization of the NPRM, this will no longer be the case. However, even after the rules are final there will remain many legal issues, such as what they mean and how to comply. There will be cases brought and interpretations made. There are and will continue to be state statues and local ordinances that raise issues. In short, the legality of drone operations will not be entirely settled simply because the the NPRM is final.

This is why Drone Law Journal will transform from the single page that it is, to posts about these legal issues. I have also invited a number of prominent individuals in the “drone world” to be occasional contributors to the site, so that the reader can benefit from their unique knowledge and experience.

I look forward to providing you with interesting and useful information about drone law from this point forward. If you wish to be alerted whenever there are new articles posted, subscribe in the column to the right.

In the meantime, here is the page you are used to seeing.

A Giant Step for Micro Drones

On February 11, 2016, Illinois Congressman Rodney Davis introduced an innovative Micro Drone amendment to the AIRR Act, which is the latest FAA Reauthorization Act. The amendment creates a new "Micro UAS Classification" of unmanned aircraft systems, and would permit non-hobbyists to operate the smallest and the safest drones under regulations that are safety-oriented, but contain simplified and streamlined requirements and restrictions. The House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee voted to accept the Micro Drone amendment and approved the entire AIRR Act, as amended.

The Micro Drone amendment does not deregulate drones. Quite the contrary, actually. The amendment proposes replacing a scheme of "regulation by exemption" that discourages compliance, with regulation that encourages it. It would make the skies safer by regulating micro drone operations in a manner that all pilots could easily understand and abide by, by replacing the complex and onerous existing path to non-hobbyist flight with a streamlined, easy-to-understand, sensible and safety-oriented regulation.

Micro drone operations would no longer require the granting of a Section 333 Exemption, which is a lengthy process that can be expensive to obtain, and which contains 31 convoluted and burdensome conditions (even for my 19-gram paper airplane). The Exemption conditions alone are, more often than not, an impediment rather than an advantage. As such, Section 333 Exemptions actually discourage the very safety culture that is sought, because the more burdensome compliance is made, the less likely it is for people to comply. This is also why only a fraction of those operating micro drones today as non-hobbyists even bother to seek an Exemption, regardless of the fact that (in the eyes of the FAA at least), they are operating in violation of the law. 

Under the amendment, a "micro drone" is defined as one that weighs 4.4 pounds (2 kg) or less, including any payload it carries. This weight is based upon the same risk-based weight classifications other countries have embraced, such as Australia, Canada, and Mexico. Micro drones would include all consumer drones of the 3D Robotics Solo size and below. It would not apply to drones that weigh more than 4.4 pounds, the operators of which would (for now at least) have to either petition for a Section 333 Exemption, wait until the NPRM is final or fly as a non-hobbyist without an Exemption, and be labeled an "outlaw" by the FAA.

Also under the amendment, to fly a micro drone as a non-hobbyist, the pilot would not be subject to the airman certification requirements of 49 U.S. Code § 44703, 49 U.S. Code § 44711 or 14 CFR Part 61. Micro drone pilots would not be required to pass any aeronautical knowledge test or meet any age or experience requirements. Micro drones would also not be subject to the airworthiness certification requirements of 49 U.S. Code § 44711, or any other law, rule, or regulation pertaining to the certification of an aircraft. All micro drone pilots would, of course, still be required to register with the FAA, under its new registration procedures.

Micro drone pilots would remain subject to regulation with 5 simple rules:

  1. fly below 400 feet above ground level;
  2. fly no faster than 40 knots;
  3. fly within visual line of sight;
  4. fly only during daylight hours; and 
  5. stay at least 5 statute miles from the geographic center of a tower-controlled airport, or airport denoted on a current FAA-published aeronautical chart, unless ​​the pilot provides prior notice to the airport operator and ​​the pilot receives, for a tower-controlled airport, prior approval from the air traffic control facility located at the airport.

Simply put, there is nothing bad in this amendment, and everything it proposes is good. It would allow the countless beneficial non-hobby drones operations — including commercial, educational and humanitarian — to openly flourish, rather than be conducted surreptitiously for fear of FAA enforcement action. It would also benefit the FAA, which is already burdened with reviewing and granting thousands of backlogged Section 333 Exemption petitions, the usefulness of which is widely questioned.

Take a moment to read the amendment. It's short, simple and easily understood. It presents no artificial barriers, nor any vague language that would be subject to tenuous interpretation. In short, the micro drone amendment proposes exactly what it should — it advances innovation, promotes safety, encourages compliance and would ensure the aviation leadership role America has always enjoyed.