3D Robotics


In Forbes, aviation expert John Goglia (at right) analyzes the FAA's appeal in the the "Trappy" case

In an indication that the FAA is not going to give up on its test case against Raphael Pirker for operating a small drone in the vicinity of the University of Virginia, the FAA filed its brief specifying the legal bases for its appeal of the National Transportation Safety Board judge’s decision dismissing the FAA’s $10,000 civil penalty.  The appeal will be decided by the Board’s Members who are charged with reviewing appeals of FAA cases. 

The FAA raises two issues in its brief: 1. that the judge erred in determining that Pirker’s small drone was not an “aircraft”, as defined by the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) and 2. that the judge erred in determining that the small drone’s operation was not subject to the FARs.

The FAA’s arguments are familiar to many who have been following this case.  The FAA believes that drones or unmanned aircraft systems (its preferred term) are aircraft and that as aircraft are subject to the requirements of federal regulations, including the requirement that aircraft not be “operated in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.”  The FAA contends in its brief that the NTSB judge was wrong to conclude that Mr. Pirker’s drone was a model aircraft and that the FAA had effectively waived any right to enforce its rules against model aircraft operators, regardless of whether they are operated as a hobby or for commercial purposes.

While the FAA claims that Mr. Pirker’s drone was an aircraft and that he acted as pilot-in-command when he was not licensed, the FAA does not charge him with violations related to the drone’s lack of certification or his lack of a pilot’s license.  The FAA’s sole charge against Mr. Pirker is careless or reckless operation of an aircraft.

As a Board Member for almost ten years, I reviewed hundreds of appeals of FAA cases against pilots and mechanics.  Most often, the FAA’s cases were properly brought and the legal and factual bases were appropriate and I would vote to sustain the FAA’s position.  On occasion, the FAA’s legal arguments defied logic and I would vote to reverse the action.  This case appears to me to be one that defies logic.  How can the FAA suddenly claim that a small unmanned aerial vehicle is an aircraft when for decades it has allowed them to be operated – albeit under the term “model aircraft” – without complying with any of the regulatory requirements for aircraft, such as type certificates, airworthiness certificates, maintenance requirements, pilot licenses and so on? 

The distinction the FAA has made between commercial and non-commercial when it comes to the operation of model aircraft doesn’t make sense to me, when the issue is really whether they are aircraft at all. That being said, I am concerned with the manner in which this drone was allegedly operated, especially if it was operated too close to people or property.  But even if the drone’s operation was unsafe, unless that operation is covered by a rule, FAA enforcement would be inappropriate.

Since I’m not a lawyer, I checked with Loretta Alkalay, former top attorney for the FAA in New York and an adjunct professor at Vaughn College of Aeronautics (where we co-teach) what she thought of the FAA’s legal arguments.  This is her response:

“The FAA clearly has the statutory authority to regulate commercial unmanned aerial vehicles of any size. (Congress recently took away the FAA’s authority to regulate model aircraft operated for hobby or recreational purposes.)  The question is whether it has properly promulgated regulations to do so.  I do not believe it has when it comes to small UAVs to the extent that they can be considered model aircraft, as in the case of Mr. Pirker’s.  Although I am sympathetic to the FAA wanting to prohibit unsafe operation of these aerial vehicles that may endanger persons or property – as it clearly believes was the case here- it has to do so via properly enacted regulations. 

Unfortunately, the FAA created its own legal confusion by relying on advisory (as opposed to regulatory) methods for distinguishing model aircraft (which could include the small drone operated by Mr. Pirker) from other aircraft beginning in 1981.  Its attempt to retroactively distinguish model aircraft based on the nature of their operations (commercial vs. non-commercial) is unenforceable as that distinction has only been made via public notices (first starting in 2007) and not by  rulemaking.  Since notices are not rules, they are legally unenforceable.

Fortunately, the remedy for the problem created by the FAA also lies with the FAA.  And that is to issue legally promulgated rules to cover small, commercially-operated drones.”

It seems to me that it would be a better expenditure of FAA time and resources to focus on issuing regulations allowing the safe operation of small commercial drones than continuing this case against Mr. Pirker.

E-mail me when people leave their comments –

You need to be a member of diydrones to add comments!

Join diydrones


  • I guess you decided to completely ignore anything I said and make up some other unrelated argument.  Let me clarify a few things for you and hopefully you pay attention this time. I never said the AMA was a bad organization or that they have no purpose.  I never said they haven't done good things.  I do not "hate/fear" the AMA.  The following paragraph explains my complaint. If you decide to once again take it to mean something else and put words in my mouth, that is your problem, not mine.

    My complaint is that the AMA is very specifically worded all proposed rules/regulations/laws to require membership for any and all personal hobby use of model aircraft. When others have suggested that rules be made to apply to all hobby use, whether the person is a member of the AMA or not, the AMA contests it, using the senseless excuse of "safety". The rules and regulations mean the same thing whether you're a member or not. Simply paying dues to the AMA does not magically make one safer than they were 5 minutes before.  So the argument that the AMA is doing this "for hobbyists everywhere" is complete crap. They're doing it for themselves.

  • Euan -- LOL! If I had a new APC 10 x 4 prop set for every time my name was pronounced that way, I could bust all the props on all my quads every week and still not run out of spares. 

    I also apologize to the international community for attempting to defend a 75 year old organization that has done more to build and enhance model flying recognition and freedom than any other group of volunteers in the history of the science and technology.

    Matt (P2P) did not originate this 'AMA fear/hate'. It pops up all too frequently on RCG and is usually ignored. In this case, gross misquoting and skewing of facts simply could not be ignored.



  • Dave, It is in black and white.  http://www.modelaircraft.org/faa/recommendations.pdf  Note specifically part 3.  Part 3 of these proposed rules cover hobbyists flying their own personal aircraft on their own personal time, having nothing at all to do with the AMA.  The only participant in this panel to object was... you guessed it... the AMA.  And their reason for objecting was that it allows people to enjoy their hobby without AMA membership.  Because they apparently think it is impossible for anyone to do anything without their oversight. They sound like the government, don't worry, we're here to help.

    If the AMA wants to help set guidelines, that is wonderful.  If the AMA wants to lobby on behalf of hobbyists, that is wonderful.  But the AMA's proposals mysteriously all require AMA membership. I don't care how wonderful you think the AMA is.  Proposing a federal law that requires thousands of people to become due-paying members of their organization just to fly their own personal model aircraft on their own personal time, on their own personal property, is complete crap.  I will not join an organization that thinks it is fun to use congress to force thousands of people to join the AMA who have no need or desire to.  You can make guidelines and without requiring due paying membership. They know it. And they oppose it at every turn.

  • Given R.D.'s response above, who here votes he changes his name from R.D. Starwalt, to R.D.Stalwart?


  • Gentlemen,

    Thanks for the support. I generally don't speak out like that but this time I could not hold back. I fully expected to get stomped on when I started.

    humph ! I was 36 years old when Doug joined the AMA. In those days we actually built our own radios! Quite a broad spectrum of pilot age I would say. I think my original AMA number was 15954. I stopped modeling for many years to raise a family and to build Experimental N18DW (you can search it on the web). One day at Homestead General Airport a fellow pilot suggested I come out and watch some RC flying.

    I was hooked. Within a month I had my trainer and was also flying RC.

    I guess that qualifies me as one of "Those Grumpy Old Men" so let me confess how we gang up on the newbees at Osprey RC Club in Homestead. First we offer them free flight training on the buddy box until they solo. Next we help them trim out their new aircraft. Then if a new pilot has a problem us Grumpy Old Men gang up on the new pilot around the starting bench to SEE IF WE CAN HELP.


  • +1 David T... and don't forget the webinar that the AMA hosted a couple weeks ago with the guys from the Roswell Flight Test Crew giving their presentation of FPV.

    I watched/participated and found it very professional and well done but, targeted to the newcomers to the hobby.

    Yep, I am an AMA member. Have been for a long time. How long?


    I won't scan the rest of them but think the first nine years of cards is sufficient to make my point (I think I joined before 76 but don't have the card). I have voted for presidents and vice presidents I liked, voted against the ones I didn't....just like we do for other Democratic processes here in our Republic of these United States.

    Soon I will be visiting the National Model Airplane Museum, across the street form AMA HQ in Muncie, Indiana. If the AMA is only interested in left hand turning in circles, why is the museum asking for a list of 5 RC helicopters?

    Rarely is diatribe backed up with facts. I volunteered my time at contests where I grew up in Jacksonville, FL. Helped with control line (CL) aerobatics, watched rat racing with 4 pilots in a circle (talk about a show!); saw a CL speed plane get off the line at around 140 mph and pass through the car door it impacted with; stood in awe to watch the RC pylon racers rip around their course at nearly eye-blur speed; and never once thought that anyone in the AMA was out for themselves more than they were involved for the love of their particular aspect of the hobby. WE are the AMA.

    As they say on the shopping channels... 'Wait, there's more!'

    The AMA has SIGs, Special Interest Groups, 22 at last count, each with their own presidents/chairman. I bet you lunch at your favorite BBQ place that an FPV SIG is already being applied for or will be in operation in the next 2 years. Speaking of RC helis...IRCHA had at their 2013 national event over 1150 registered pilots! It was the largest gathering of RC Heli pilots to date.

    In closing, the discussion about recreational 'drone' flying is essentially decided. Sure, some nut could do something totally evil and we would all probably have to stop flying for a while. But that would not be the AMA's fault.

    Commercial 'drone' flying is a totally different discussion. It is essentially what this blog post started with...even if the FAA has tried to use illogical applications of non-existent regulations in an effort to protect the national airspace.


  • ikrase,

    Re your comment that you would be fine with AMA if we could carve out a place.........

    Please get the recent copy of The April issue of Model  Aviation and look for your self. They are carving out a place for fpv.

    1. Start with the cover shot of a DJI 550 and camera

    2. Then go to page 23 "FPV"for beginners.

    3. Privacy Concerns Drive New State Legislation"

    4. Pg 101 - "sUAS Aircraft, Models, and US"

    5. AMA has a booth at AUVSI in Orlando in May.

    6. I almost certain that AMA will have an event in the summer of 2015. Too late this year to plan it.

  • Pedals,

    1. Who made the suggestions to the FAA, on what document and to whom?

    2. Who made the suggestions to AMA, on what document and to whom?

    3. Who on the AMA contested it.

    Pedals, Here is how the democratic system works and this is true of our chapter here in Homestead,FL or at the AMA National organization in Muncie.

    1. Originate a plan that represents something good for the majority of the group.

    2. Get out and lobby for your idea. If it is good you will gain support. if not the idea will die.

    3. Depending on the situation, either bring it to the board of directors or bring it to a vote at the next meeting.

    4. The idea will win or die at this point.

    5. We hold elections to purge un-responsive Officers at AMA HQ and in local chapters. In the case of AMA HQ the whole electorial process is published in Model aviation for all members to read.

    I know from first hand experience that AMA is truly interested in the membership's thoughts and ideas. When I write a letter to the AMA Officers I actually send me a thoughtful response.

    Have you actually suggested or lobbied for a credible idea to the FAA, Congress(as in the recent Model Airplane Law) or spoken to anyone at AMA HQ ? If not I can give you a list of officers to call or write to.

  • David, If they're just trying to lobby for hobbyists as you suggest, then why do they oppose all suggestions that do not mandate joining the AMA? Its been suggested that rules be established for personal hobby use not under the auspices of the AMA and the AMA strongly contests it. Please don't fall for this. They are lobbying for themselves. Not for you and me. They stand to gain a tremendous amount of money.
  • I would like to set the record straight regarding the AMA flying sites and the comments about flying around in circles. Here at the Osprey RC Club in Homestead, FL We fly all types of aircraft at the same time with very few problems. We yield exclusive use of the airspace occasionally to maiden flights, jets and to helicopters. If any pilot is in the air alone he "owns the airspace" until there are two or more aircraft in the pattern. This is not a unique situation among RC Flying fields. It is possible to have several incompatible aircraft in the air all at the same time without problems by following a few simple rules.

    Here is how I handle an FPV flight. First thing is to announce "Taking Off!".  The other pilots respond with "Clear". In this example I intend to depart the airport traffic pattern and do so by taking off and flying straight out or simply departing from any of the traffic pattern legs. After my FPV mission has been completed I simply re-enter the down wind leg on a 45 degree angle by announcing my intentions and then announce "Landing", complete the flight and exit the Runway announcing "Clear of the Runway".

    All this was done while there were multiple types of aircraft in the air.

    The whole point I am trying to make is that with some very simple rules regarding the use of the airspace in the vicinity of the runway, NO FPV FLIGHT IS REQUIRED TO FLY IN CIRCLES. All one has to do is announce his intentions and depart the pattern.

    A very simple solution to prevent mid air collisions.

This reply was deleted.