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.


Read more here

Views: 2359

Comment by Dennis Okeefe on April 11, 2014 at 1:56pm

the "read more" link doesn't work....?

Comment by Gary Mortimer on April 11, 2014 at 1:57pm

Go Gene, don't forget to book early to avoid disappointment spaces for his SAR workshop at our show in May are limited. Chris Anderson will also be speaking along with the CEO of Parrot and the man from the FAA charged with getting UA in civil airspace.

Last year Lady GaGa's pilot and his wife Maha created this video which says it all really about Gene's work.

All shameless plugs I know but we folks have been pushing and pushing for years now to make things work and they should be heard.

Comment by Sgt Ric on April 11, 2014 at 2:16pm

I see the link to is broken.

ie.  "Read more here"

Comment by Gary McCray on April 11, 2014 at 4:14pm

Once again the FAA seems totally determined to plant its own foot firmly in it's own mouth.

Aside from not having any actual formal legislation with which to ban commercial operation in the first place, what part of its own "commercial" statement does it fail to understand.

Commercial is - commercial - involving commerce - involving money changing hands.

Pro bono - not for profit - volunteer, by definition DOES NOT involve commerce of any type, it is by it's very definition not commercial.

The FAA seems determined to act like a Bully "Big Brother" from the Newspeak world of Orwell's 1984, free to redefine words to suit any desired interpretation should it suit it's current whim for oppressing the masses.

The FAA seems completely out of control here and is apparentl quite willing to say and do whatever it wants, illegally and without any factual justification for it's actions.

I truly hope the lawyer makes it very clear what utter fools we taxpayers are subsidizing to (Work For Us) in this totally out of control bureaucracy which is apparently far more interested in wielding power than in performing it's function.


Comment by Dennis Okeefe on April 11, 2014 at 4:18pm

don't forget to vote in November.......   this whole issue is COMPLETELY OUT OF CONTROL....

Comment by Harry on April 11, 2014 at 4:54pm

There's two lines at the polls, Democrat flavored koolaid or Republican flavored koolaid and they're both rancid.  I'll vote for anything that puts Government back in its Constitutional box where it can be monitored, regulated, restricted and controlled as intended.  I don't know exactly when they broke out of their box, but giving them more and more power and money is how they became the antithesis of freedom. 

Comment by Michael J. Buckley on April 11, 2014 at 5:44pm

But then you have those presume they know what they are doing simply because they purchased a RTF UAS.  Myself a fully rated rotorcraft aviator FAA Lic# 3251272 enjoy building and flying UAS mostly tricopters and quads. However recently I had guy drop his quad from 350'agl onto a roof of a house at full speed. That's where the problems are going to start first.

Last month we had another incident where a UAS was harassing a sheriff's office EC120B Helo tripping it's TCAS creating an unstable element for the pilots whom are close friends of mine.  People fly and don't know a thing about general aviation. Terms like clean air dirty air, settling with power or retreating blade stall. Pilots like Gene and myself spent a lot of money and time in school and it's a true commitment.

The FAA cannot handle any extra general aviation load with its current system and this is fact. Gene should have been let alone by the FAA. He is a rated and qualified pilot and has far more experience which is why I am confused as to the FAA selection of a sacrificial lamb. Here in Florida we have HB92 which permits UAS use for search and rescue, natural disaster or to stop the loss of human life. Most other states have the same. Needless to say it is going to be very interesting to see what transpires. I'll make the call right now. You will in fact need at some point an FAA license requiring ground school for general aviation and UAS flight training with FAA licensed instructors. I'm guessing alone the lines of sport pilot rating which you can find in FAR part 61.94.

All though I tend to agree with Gary's comment. I disagree with the FAA being viewed as a bully. It's worse then that. The FAA is not ready for this and it's moving way to fast. They do not have the staff to begin with and then need more qualified UAS specialists. However I've called my local FSDO several times to work with them but have been blown off. I've applied for a COA twice for one of my UAS and have heard nothing. So in my view it's worse then big brother it's big mess!


p.s. as an American I respect everyones opinion and voice. 

Comment by Oliver on April 11, 2014 at 6:10pm

@ Michael: All sorts of existing criminal laws already cover negligent operation of any device, more are simply not needed. And here the issue is not even operation as such, but whether that operation has or does not have a "commercial" component. Perhaps  this SAR fellow screwed himself by forming an organization, even though it is a non-profit. Maybe if he had he simply remained a completely disconnected volunteer, there would be no way whatsoever for the FAA to claim even a far-fetched commercial component. Also: We lose approximately 30,000 people per year to motor vehicle accidents, and a much bigger number are injured. Does "licensing" in it's present form help suppress those numbers? Not a bit, the tests and qualifications to hurl tons of metal around within inches of our fellow citizens are a feeble joke, everyone knows that. What keeps things under control and weeds out/discourages the dangerous drivers are the general criminal and civil penalties that underlie not just this activity, but many, many others. There is no need to re-invent the wheel here, except to feed a pack of overbearing, worthless bureaucrats.

Comment by Dennis Okeefe on April 11, 2014 at 6:25pm

it is only a matter of time before someone in the FAA decides to get involved with the hardware and software end of the autopilots that are making this revolutionary change in the field a reality.  and let's not forget to safety wire all those nuts that might vibrate loose and kill an endangered species as they fall from the sky.

Comment by Bill Patterson on April 11, 2014 at 7:42pm

Michael. I refer you to ultralights, which weight more, fly faster, farther and higher and do it legally, than any RC model, and on top of that carry a person. No license needed. To say that a smaller, slower, less dangerous, unmanned RC model will require a license when pilots of true aircraft do not, seems pretty far fetched.


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