How long will unregulated FPV and RC last?

Another title might be "How long before we kill someone?".

Why such a provocative title? Well, a few days ago a fellow RC enthusiast approached me brimming with pride and sense of accomplishment. He wanted to tell me how he had flow his FPV RC airplane up to 3500 feet and in the clouds and successfully brought it back to it's launch location. I commended him on his technical achievement and his flying skills but, I was aghast and shocked by his mission. You see  I'm also an instrument rated fixed wing and helicopter pilot and I know and fly in this area all the time. The area where we live is one of the most busy and congested airspaces in the country. Even worse, I knew the field this young man was flying out of was directly under the approach path for a major international airport where airplanes are required to be at 2500' directly over that field as they approach the airport and everything from small Cessna to hugh 747's fly through that spot at approximately one per minute. As well aircraft not approaching that major airport are required to be below 2000' feet when they transition the area. Turns out that field is also immediately adjacent to a popular ATC reporting point where ATC will ask aircraft under their control to fly to and then report having reached. 

Do you see the problem? If not, and you are an RC enthusiast you best get a different hobby. Especially if you fly sailplanes or FPV. It was just pure luck or the grace of God (if you are a believer) that one of those airliners traveling 250 knots (about a mile every 15 seconds) didn't collide or have a near miss with my friends aircraft! He stated he had spotters but that it was also overcast so there was NO WAY his spotters could have seen any full sized aircraft let alone his own RC aircraft. Even if they could does any one honestly believe they could get out of the way fast enough if they saw a full size aircraft burst out of the clouds at a mile every 15 seconds? If they were able to it would be much luck.

Of course this is a worst case scenario and every bit of it is true - that's what prompted me to make this blog entry. Many of you fly in far less congested airspace but the risks are still there. I've seen many videos and blog entries from guys who were so proud about their FPV flight all over some city or elsewhere at altitudes where full size aircraft fly. It's pretty rampant.

The fact is, a full size aircraft colliding with one of our RC aircraft is in for a world of hurt. Our RC aircraft are near the size and weight of birds which bring down multiple aircraft a year except that birds can make much quicker decisions to get out of the way.You see, a two pound RC aircraft hit by an aircraft doing between 80 and 250 miles per hour is going to go right through the windshield of any airplane and likely will take the head off of the pilot behind it. And if it hits a control surface it could make the aircraft unflyable or if it get's sucked into an engine, it could make the engine explode. Very high probability of serious injury or death here. 

So what are the consequences? I just told what they are for pilots and airline passengers - injury or death. For RC enthusiasts even if all you do is cause an aircraft to make an emergency deviation or landing it's going to get LOTS of press and the FAA will take action. The first time this happens you can bet our friendly representatives like Feinstein and Boxer will force the FAA (if they won't do it on their own which they likely will anyway) to enact strict new laws highly restrictive to RC flying. They've already written them. Their just waiting for the ammunition that will garner enough public support where it won't matter a bit as to what we RC enthusiasts say. Then we'll likely have to get permits, licenses, etc. and be very restricted to where we can fly - if we can fly at all.

In the case where an RC enthusiasts causes a fatality or a crash. Not only will the FAA go berserk and take the previously mentioned actions but the RCer will be going to jail. Simply causing a crash will likely get you 5 years but if you cause a death that's going to be manslaughter and if they can prove that you knew the risk it'll be second degree murder. Either way you'll be going to jail for at least 25 years. If it's only manslaughter you probably will be able to get out after 10 years if you have no prior record and behave well while in prison. That's the good news.

So, the bottom line is will this happen? The answer is yes because nothing I wrote is new news and we all see blogs and forum posts from people bragging about their exploits flying high, flying over people, etc. etc. It's really just a matter of time. We'll all suffer from lost privileges but, more importantly, the victims and their families will suffer - people killed so some irresponsible person can have 20 minutes of fun with their RC aircraft. And last, some RCer will suffer more than the rest. He'll like be a smart talented individual who had a lapse of judgement thinking "It won't happen to me. I do it all the time and have never had a problem" (popular answer right? "I do it all the time and never had a problem"). All it takes is that FIRST time and it's all over. 

So, you think this is unlikely to happen? You think that if it does happen that the instigator is unlikely to get prosecuted and sent to jail? Well, you should educate yourself. Every year, licensed aircraft pilots are fined tens of thousands of dollars and sent to jail for violating airspace and for causing accidents, deaths or even near misses (if negligence was found). Recently, the pilot of a Cessna 172 nearly collided with a small biz jet forcing the pilots to take evasive action where by they ultimate crashed and were killed. The Cessna pilot was flying in could without being under a flight plan and without an instrument rating. He was convicted of second degree murder and is serving 25 to life. I see no reason why an RCer who causes an equally serious accident wouldn't be treated equally.

AMA already has guidelines for us - stay under 400 feet within 3 miles of an airport which help but aren't good enough. They guy flying at 3500 feet was 5 miles from the airport so technically he was following AMA rules but he was totally ignorant of what was actually going on around and above him. The problem with the AMA rules is they were clearly drafted by people who know little about how full size aircraft actually navigate. The only thing that will help is for people flying these machines to get educated on where they are flying and to use good judgement. Problem is many will not get educated and we already know there are some who lack or have a different definition of what good judgement is. I'm definitely not an advocate of more government rules and regs so I sit torn on the matter. How do we prevent a major incident from happening in our current environment? I'm not feeling too positive about a solution that doesn't negatively impact us all and I expect there will be an incident which will compel the FAA to take harsh and restrictive action.


(photo of the results of a UAV collision with a C130 added by the Moderators to comply with site guidelines that all posts have have an appropriate picture)

Views: 20780

Comment by David M Eno on March 31, 2012 at 10:20pm

Have a look at this guys.

This is basically the new rules.

Comment by Gary Mortimer on April 1, 2012 at 12:19am

Those are not the rules for autonomous flight David, when the AMA was at the table they were pushing for no APs. The AMA are no longer at the ARC table.

I also had not noticed before that this is there

(c) Model Aircraft Defined.--In this section, the term ``model aircraft'' means an unmanned
aircraft that is--

(1) capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere

That is actually stricter than what the FAA is currently saying which defines a UAS as something that can be controlled in three axis, so kites and balloons are exempt at the minute. Me thinks this brings them into the fold.

This what people wanting to fly autopilot equipped UAS for fun should be looking at


Comment by Veikko Vierola on April 1, 2012 at 12:32am

You have to check from the navigation maps where the controlled airspaces are located. Usually around airfield is a controlled airspace called CTR (0-1500ft), above that is usually TMA (1500-FL65/95) and above TMAs begin ACC (FL65/95+) controlled airspace for airliners etc. It varies a bit in every country. Don't fly in any of these controlled airspaces without permission and you will be out of trouble. I don't see any reason why RCs are always flown near airfields, why can't we go few miles away from the airfields to some fields to fly, there we will be out of CTRs etc. Somehow the controlled airfields and airspaces are like magnets were everyone wants to fly even if it is not necessary. There is a lot of room few miles outside from the airfield vicinity. I think the general airspace structure is the thing the we RC hobbyist need to get familiar with. Then we know where we can fly and with what requirements.

Comment by Veikko Vierola on April 1, 2012 at 12:36am

And I really hope that FAA will not over react with the light hobby UAV/FPVs, because they are much lighter than heavy birds which are in reality much much bigger threat for the aircrafts than some rare hobby UAVs.

Comment by R. D. Starwalt on April 1, 2012 at 6:26am

As the adage goes, "Commone sense is uncommon."

I suspect, just as with the HPR (high power rocketry) folk, tiers of requirements will eventually be needed as the risk increases. (I need someone to explain to me the risk of flying in the Black Rock Desert)

What those who want regulation/licensing/restrictions are really saying is that a condition of no rules is unacceptable. I hate to be a rules book thumper but...

AMA Document 550, FPV Operations:

First Person View (FPV) Operations

1. An FPV-equipped model must be flown by two AMA members utilizing a buddy-box system. The pilot in command must be on the primary transmitter, maintain visual contact, and be prepared to assume control in the event of a problem.

2. The operational range of the model is limited to the pilot in command’s visual line of sight as defined in the Official AMA National Model Aircraft Safety Code (see Radio Control, item 9).

3. The flight path of model operations shall be limited to the designated flying site and approved overfly area.

4. The model weight and speed shall be limited to a maximum of 10 pounds and 60 miles per hour.

I grant that the rules were initially intended for fixed wing aircraft.

Adding a second pilot to the mix really isn't what I call a hobby environment either and the buddy box simply increases the cost of the operation.

In short, drone RC hobby is in the gray area that policy makers abhor.

Do I think that a rule is needed for me buzzing around the driveway getting my APM working?


Should I have some sort of qualifications to take the same machine to a public school and give kids an 'FPV ride'?

Maybe - more is at risk.

No one wants anyone to get hurt but what are we willing to put up with to make sure those outside the hobby think we have our act together?

Comment by John Arne Birkeland on April 1, 2012 at 8:03am

If you choose to look at this as a math problem, the chance of two planes (R/C or not ) flying random paths and altitude (not following the same flight route) hitting is close to non-existent. The available 3 dimensional areal is just enormous compared to the space occupied by the planes. If fact as anyone who has flown R/C combat knows, actually hitting another plane is really, really hard. Even when you are trying to do so.

But let me be crystal clear. I am not saying that makes it ok to fly R/C at airplane altitudes. Not at all. But what I am saying is that even if some idiot does, the dangers are blown out of proportion, compared to for example a bird strike (for every R/C plane there are millions of birds in the sky).

Comment by Sean Livingston on April 1, 2012 at 12:30pm

Not sure I would agree this is being blown out of proportion. Besides RC, I also fly small fixed wing aircraft (piper warrior, etc.), and the author is correct that if you do have a collision you could be in big trouble if you are the pilot of the manned aircraft. The assertion that there is a big amount of sky so you are unlikely to have issues occur really is wishful thinking IMO. A few years back I just took off out of a controlled class D airspace airport in north west Houston, and some twits were flying kites from the park at the end of the runway reaching about 250 feet. I was within about 50 feet horizontally of them as they swung into my airspace. I was a new 42 hour pilot at the time, and I nearly crapped myself. If I had of over corrected to avoid, or worse had a collision and then either panicked or actually had a engine or control surface failure it could have been loss of my and my wife's life.

The key here is that although there is a lot of sky, there are also clusters of traffic where you just need extreme vigilance and maturity in your actions. The kite in this case was about 4 feet in wingspan, and was only visible at the last 10 seconds or so. The tree line at the park obscured the kite until that point, and the small size and light color made it well camouflaged. Now consider that a quadcopter at the same height would have been within AMA rules, but would be smaller and harder to see, and the results are much more uncertain.

I will always fly safe, and we all MUST do so or we all will lose out (and not just the pilot, passengers, and RC pilot).


Comment by Gary Mortimer on April 1, 2012 at 12:42pm

The difference between birds and UAS is that it's easy to mitigate the UAS risk, just ban them....

I don't think that will happen and there is alot of sky. 

Comment by David M Eno on April 1, 2012 at 12:59pm

There is very little point in this debate.  The powers that be have put forward new rules that basically will assign blame if an FPV pilot causes an accident with manned aviation or does anything interesting within the site of an FAA observer.  Most of us will follow our own interpretation of these rules much like people who own guns, people who drive fast cars, and people who download copyrighted material.  None of these rules directly attack our supply chain, so it's not like the people that sell us our video equipment are going to stop selling it.  These rules aren't going to do spit as long as long as we are careful.

Also, at this point I would like to currently cite the drake equation.  The drake equation is an equation used to figure out the odds of intelligent life in the universe.

The Drake equation states that:

N = R^{\ast} \cdot f_p \cdot n_e \cdot f_{\ell} \cdot f_i \cdot f_c \cdot L


N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible;


R* = the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
f = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space[4]

 FPV pilots, the number of us anyway, are the intelligent life.  I think where I am from I can name only one other FPV pilot in the buffalo area having asked about FPV at all four & busy hobby stores.  There might be 20-50 in the area.  Currently, we are rare as hell and our setups cost around 500$ - 2000$.  Most of us don't take serious risks to our hardware.  The real risk is if eflite puts out a 200$ FPV foamie kit on 2.4Ghz, which currently is not economically feasible.  The risk exists, but it is minimal.  Will we kill someone in the future.  Maybe, but we'd probably kill someone anyway with one of our other hobbies.  I think personally airsoft is more dangerous than FPV.          

Comment by Ron Curry on April 1, 2012 at 2:12pm

I wasn't trying just dredge up an old topic or cause pointless debate with this blog post. I also want to say that the young man that flew this mission is a real good guy and I don't consider him irresponsible. I spoke with him at length and it was clear he just didn't know what he didn't know and was as equally aghast as I was when he understood the environment he was flying in. I suspect most of us are in that same boat.

So the real problem is he had no clue as to the risks involved with what he was doing. Those of you who have made comments like "big sky", and showed mathematics decrying the risk is miniscle seem to be in a similar situation. I too believe that it is "big sky" and that in rural areas far away from airports, navaids, approach corridors, VFR transition areas, and reporting points, you can do what I described with much lower risk. However, how do you know? Do you even know what a navaid, reporting point, approach corridor, etc. is? If you do, do you know where they are relative to your flying? The young man was flying his aircraft directly in the ILS approach path for an International airport. The airliners pass through an imaginary point 2500 feet directly above the field he was flying at. They are REQUIRED to do so and are guided in by a Localizer and Glidepath radio beam. The aircraft are controlled by ATC so that they come through this point at one per minute. Directly below this point at 1000-1900 feet is a VFR transition corridor where non-IFR traffic are funneled through so as to avoid the aircraft on approach to this major airport. So, this flight was made at a point where there is an extreme high density of aircraft making the odds of a collision with some RC FPV aircraft spiraling up and down fairly high.

A point to understand is that full size aircraft don't just fly randomly around the sky. They fly between navaids that define what essentially are highways in the sky. The get vectored around by ATC who vectors them along standardly defined routes and altitudes, the make approaches to airports using STARs (STandard ARrival) routes and depart using SIDs (Standard Instrument Departure) routes. They fly at specific altitudes specified on their charts. Much of this is ATC directed but even for aircraft not in contact with ATC there are recommended routes and altitudes they fly to avoid terrain, other aircraft traffic, or to be best setup for an arrival. This all combines to put a high densities of aircraft over key areas where aircraft separation is either controlled by ATC (because the pilot is talking to them) or simply by the aircraft pilots themselves watching out for each other and flying different altitudes to help avoid a collision. If you understand this then you also underststand all such calculations using area and and assuming the dispersion of aircraft are completely void and useless because that's just not how full size aircraft fly.

The second point I was hinting at was that a very important way you can reduce risk is to get educated on how and where full size aircraft fly in your area. Licensed pilots are required to go to 80 - 150 hours of ground school (private + instrument) to learn all that stuff and they are required to have all the charts for wherever they fly on hand at all times. Unfortunately, the odds of the typical RC FPV or glider pilot doing even a tenth of that voluntarily are fairly low.

The bottom line here is that the FAA will eventually make the case that, if someone is going to fly an RC model in the same airspace as full size aircraft where they can and will interact and impact aircraft occupied by human beings, the pilot of that RC model is going to have to have similar knowledge of the airspace and procedures and follow the same rules as the full-size aircraft. They already have imposed such rules  on hang gliders and ultralight piloted aircraft - they have restrictions on what they can do and where they can fly and also required to have a minimum amount of education (and demonstrate that they know it via testing) so it doesn't take much imagination to envision them requiring the same thing for RC FPV pilots and other RC pilots who fly high and fast.

Lastly, I know some feel any such discussion like this "blows it out of proportion". I assure that was not my intent and I believe I've represented things just as they are with no hyperbola. My hope (and "hope" is not a good strategy in my book but I see little else I can do other than educate as I am doing) is that discussions such as this will prompt RC pilots to educate themselves as much as possible about the environment where they fly and then use appropriate judgement to ensure safe and fun flying.




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