3D Robotics

FAA vs Search-and-Rescue drones


From IEEE Spectrum:

Gene Robinson of Wimberly, Texas, is a licensed pilot and also flies radio-controlled model airplanes—not an unusual combination. About a decade ago, he realized that a model aircraft outfitted to take aerial photos could be enormously useful in locating people who have gone missing—perhaps because they’ve been abducted or maybe just because they are very young and have wandered off into the woods alone. His efforts have paid valuable dividends over the years— helping find the remains of nearly a dozen people. But since late February his search-and-rescue model airplanes have been grounded: That’s when the Federal Aviation Administration notified him in writing that what he has been doing is illegal.

Since 2007, the FAA has maintained that model airplanes, no matter how small, cannot be flown for commercial purposes until the agency puts regulations in place to accommodate them. But thousands of people fly radio-controlled (RC) model airplanes as a hobby, and what Robinson has been doing with his 2-kilogram, electrically powered, foam-and-plastic planes is really no different. “This is a double standard we’ve had to deal with for almost seven years,” says Robinson.

Ostensibly, the FAA’s concern is safety. But Robinson is more careful than most RC modelers, following strict procedural guidelines and taking care always to coordinate his flights with the local authorities on the scene. So it’s difficult to argue that his flights are more dangerous than what goes on every weekend at RC modeling sites throughout the United States, which can include flights of huge models that weigh 10 times as much as Robinson’s planes; aerial stunts of nitromethane-fueled model helicopters; and the low-altitude, 500-kilometer-per-hour passes in front of spectators of model jets powered by miniature turbine engines.

The FAA’s objection here is that Robinson is violating its ban on commercial drone flights. But Robinson takes no money from the families seeking their lost loved ones, and he has created a not-for-profit organization, RP Search Services, to demonstrate that he is not running a money-making operation. He works closely with Texas EquuSearch, another not-for-profit organization that originally enlisted volunteers on horseback to find people who had gone missing in the wilderness and now helps direct volunteer searchers who have many different kinds of skills and specialty equipment to contribute to the effort.

Since 2006, aerial photos taken with Robinson’s models have helped EquuSearch volunteers to avoid hazards on the ground as they comb the wilderness. And his images have been instrumental in locating the remains of 11 people who were killed or succumbed to the elements while missing, helping to bring closure to their distraught families.

FAA officials have long been aware of Robinson model airplane flights and have expressed their displeasure to him verbally at various times since 2007, when the FAA first established its ban on the commercial use of model airplanes. But it was only this past February that an official stated the FAA’s position in writing, telling Robinson in an email message to “stop immediately. That is an illegal operation regardless if it is below 400ft AGL [above ground level], VLOS [visual line of sight] or doing volunteer SAR [search and rescue].”

At that point, Robinson and Tim Miller, founder of Texas EquuSearch, approached Brendan Schulman, a special counsel with the law firm Kramer, Levin, Naftalis & Frankel, who offered pro bono help. Schulman, an RC modeler himself, had recently succeeded in getting a favorable court ruling for Raphael Pirker, another RC modeler the FAA held to be violating its regulations. “It is incomprehensible that the FAA would for decades raise no issue with respect to recreational operation of these devices but prohibit and deem ‘illegal’ the exact same use for the purpose of saving the lives of missing children,” Schulman wrote on 17 March to the FAA chief counsel in a lengthy argument on behalf of his clients.

Schulman’s letter asks the FAA to reverse its position within 30 days. “I wanted to give them time to think it over,” says Schulman. “On the other hand, there are people every week who need help.” In the meantime, Schulman has advised Robinson not to fly his models on any more search-and-rescue missions. “We’ve made the painful decision to hold off on some searches,” says Robinson. “We’re gritting our teeth.”

Even if the FAA refuses to change its position in the near term, it’s possible that when it finally does issue its long-awaited rules for “small unmanned aerial systems,” things could change. The new rules might well make it legal for volunteers like Robinson to use camera- or sensor-equipped model airplanes in searches for people who have gone missing.


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  • Money and power. Bureaucracies live to grow, and will use any excuse to annex an activity in order to do so. Heck, one day, they'll regulate jumping rope, if the practitioner doesn't leave at least one foot on the ground. Paper airplanes? "You got a license for that, bud?"

  • Gene should continue flying as if nothing happened. The FAA has no jurisdiction to stop him. It isn't a commercial operation and it is all done within the scope of their half brained fake rules and advisories.  The FAA has no grounds to stop him and has no business even speaking to him about it.  This would be like the DOT sending a letter to the owners of all blue cars demanding they be painted red because we don't like blue anymore.

    Gene is the poster boy for doing it right. Yet they pick him to unlawfully stomp all over.  Instead of the countless morons who are our there being reckless and dangerous.  Typical.

  • What we need is more people like Trappy, willing to conduct their own particular operation for profit without waiting for big brother to give them the go ahead.  And when big brother gets angry that some of the sheep refuse to go in the slaughter pen, we need more lawyers like Trappy's who are willing to see the FAA for what it is authorized to be and nothing more.

    We don't need more laws and beaurocracy to be free.

  • @ Michael,

    Actually I very much agree that the FAA is completly understaffed and virtually unfunded to handle this and in all liklihood they are running around like chickens with their heads cut off individually hoping they can find another job somewhere else before the ax falls (talk about mixed metaphors).

    In any case I am sure they hate the situation they are in, but from a public standpoint they are attempting to handle it by behaving as bullies, basically telling people what to do (or more precisely what not to do) without even any of their own legislation to back them up.

    You have a legislative enforcement body without any supporting legislation telling people what to do.

    And that is a complete crock.

    Further, they have made a complete mockery of their own completely unjustified in the first place commercial operation (in their own minds) prohibition.

    With this action, they have simply compounded their own stupidity.

    And in one fell swoop made the term "commercial" - meaningless.

    I called them Idiots, it actually takes a considerable amount of intelligence to behave this stupidly.

    They are not moving forward - but backward.

    What we really need is a completly separate and separately funded organization to handle this, not a bunch of equally stupid politicians telling the already overtaxed FAA OK guys you are now responsible for this to and no we aren't giving you any more staff, money or resources. (These are really the TOP IDIOTS!)

  • Deon: Ka-ching! Exactly. Thank god someone else sees it like this as well.
  • I cannot believe anyone thinks this is moving fast. The FAA has been wringing its hands for the last 8 years. If it was really about safety they would have put some guidelines out by now. It is about money and power. Wasting our money and growing their power. 

  • @ Deon, It's not incomprehensible at all, it's just standard corrupt money-sucking with hardly a wink towards rational thought or reality. These petty bureaucrats, embedded in the hide of society like so many tics, set up these sorts of distinctions for several reasons, all rotten to the core. One is to create more jobs and power for themselves. Another is to squash competition from the "little folks" for their corporate masters. They care not one bit that in the process they are damaging the country and are abusing the rights of its citizens. Do not misunderstand me, I'm not saying there shouldn't be oversight (in the true meaning of that word) and when actually necessary regulation of aircraft activity. But the FAA in its present form is so dysfunctional and out of touch that the only sane thing to do is disband it and start over. But good luck with that, bureaucracies of this sort are almost impossible to eradicate once dug in as deeply as this one is. 

  • Something that I fail to comprehend (maybe because it is incomprehensible), is why the FAA is concerned about commercial vs recreational use of model aircraft, when the FAAs reason for existence is to keep the NAS safe. Getting paid for a flight does not make an airplane more or less dangerous.
  • My point stands despite your attempt at obfistication.

    You can fly an ultralight without a license.
  • Moderator

    The FAA have appealed the Trappy decision, I think that will impact this casehttp://www.suasnews.com/2014/04/28573/faa-appeals-trappy-ruling/

    Michael is right about stall speeds. I have a platform that stalls just above 20 knots so not far off that ultralight requirement. Personally the main reason using ultralights as an example is that being manned the guy driving has more of an interest in keeping it in one piece. UA drivers are daily demonstrating poor airmanship as they are not primarily aviators. 

    The FAA is doing a shocking job though. The USA will most certainly be 10 or 20 years behind the rest of the world when you finally start operating. The trite line about lots of airliners worlds busiest blah blah blah will be trotted out now I expect. Just how much traffic is operating below 1000'out in the mid west farm lands. 

    Thirty multirotors operating at night in formation right underneath the approach to Heathrow carry on


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