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Drone Regulations Won't Stall Decades-Old Model Aircraft Clubs

Image: Small unmanned non-military aircraft training
Students learn to fly fixed-wing RC planes at a small unmanned aircraft pilot training course at the Unmanned Vehicle University on Nov. 9, 2014AP

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Hear that buzz? It's the sound of drones sweeping the nation — literally. Increasingly cheap and easy to fly, quadcopters and other flying contraptions are introducing thousands to the joy of flight — and have drawn the attention of the FAA, which has for years been mulling how best to regulate such craft.

But the hobby of recreational flying goes back way before the first drones appeared on the market. Back, in fact, to before the FAA was even established. Are these old-school flyers in the model aircraft community worried that regulations will encroach on their fun? Not really.

"It's an interesting subject, but I'm not concerned," said Thomas Randall, President of Washington's Mount Rainier Remote Control Society, in a phone interview with NBC News.

"I've been flying RC models since '71, and before that control line," he said, referring to wired fliers that predated radio control. "This hobby's been around for years. There's always going to be the guys who say 'the government's taking over' and this and that, but let's apply some common sense here."

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Academy of Model Aeronautics

"We've been operating under our own safety guidelines for decades," said Rich Hanson, director of government affairs at the Academy of Model Aeronautics. "We were very much entrenched in the community when the FAA came on board."

The AMA was founded in 1936, more than two decades before the FAA appeared in 1958. It claims a membership of over 170,000, distributed among thousands of clubs all over the country. It and other industry groups advised and contributed to the FAA's rulemaking process, resulting in a set of proposed rules announced on Feb. 15.

The FAA's blind spot

The proposed rules bar (among other things) unmanned aircraft systems from flying above 500 feet, over bystanders, or outside the operator's line of sight. There's a special exception for model aircraft, but that doesn't quite close the book on things — not after an incident in 2011 made the FAA wary of letting hobbyists fly too freely.

Early that year, a pilot named Raphael Pirker flew a five-pound styrofoam craft around the University of Virginia for a commissioned video project.

"He flew low," recalls Hanson, "Over people's heads, over moving traffic. The FAA took exception to this and charged him with reckless flying."

But because he was cited under the laws that govern small planes like Cessnas, Pirker fought back, saying that what he flew was a model aircraft — and therefore not under the FAA's jurisdiction. The back-and-forth continued for years until Pirker settled last January for a fraction of the original fine.

Pirker's craft was similar to this one from Ritewing.
Pirker's craft was similar to this one from Ritewing.Ritewing RC

The case revealed a blind spot in the FAA's oversight that, until the popularity of UASes skyrocketed over the last few years, was a niche concern. But the regulators had to be careful: Too little oversight, and dangerous or invasive flying (e.g. over the freeway) would be legal. Too much and, as some critics pointed out of initial proposals, the government technically claims jurisdiction extending all the way to paper airplanes.

Some wonder whether federal authorities should even get involved, except where the hobby intersects with protected airspace like airports or around the White House.

"It doesn't have to all fall on the FAA," said Randall, a retired Air Force officer who has worked with a number of unmanned aircraft and other systems, from Predator drones to cruise missiles. "People need to learn the difference between toys and items that can really hurt people. It should be like texting and driving — empower the police, the sheriff."

Jim Holt, president of Denver's Mile Hi R/C Flying Club, concurs.

"I don't really give it much thought. From our perspective with the RC airplanes and stuff, we're kind of in a different class than what they seem to be attacking," he said. "We obey the no-fly days, like if the President is flying into Denver or something. We abide by those and we do our part."

Free to fly

Nor does anyone in the model airplane world seem to have it out for the quadcopters and other small, cheap craft that have helped hurry along the new regulations.

"We welcome them into the community as long as they're willing to follow our safety guidelines," said Hanson. In fact, an AMA survey found that a third of its membership has tried flying a quadcopter or wants to, and Randall enthused about his own craft.

"It's just another cool thing people like to fly," said Holt.

He's more concerned with matters of terminology. "Everything that's remote control is a drone these days. I fly the indoor blimp in the arena at Nuggets games, and people call that a drone. It's a blimp!"

Model aircraft are made and flown in a number of sizes and classes.
Model aircraft are made and flown in a number of sizes and classes.Academy of Model Aeronautics

The term "drone," it is true, has become a colloquial catch-all used to describe almost any small flying device, but its original application was for large, long-range craft that are operated totally remotely — like a military drone flying over Afghanistan by a pilot sitting back in Virginia. RC planes, often handmade and nearly always flown within the line of sight of the operator, are a different category in many ways.

Unfortunately, now that the different craft have become conflated, they're going to be difficult to disentangle, if history is any guide. If that's the biggest problem RC enthusiasts face, they can count themselves lucky. There are potential obstacles ahead as rules specific to small drones (under 5.5 pounds, by the FAA's definition) and to model planes are crafted, but the threat of government interference doesn't appear to have fazed practitioners of a hobby that spans the better part of a century.

The common refrain among hobbyists NBC News spoke to -- and expressed in online forums, club rules, and elsewhere -- was one of personal responsibility. Model flyers voluntarily followed rules like alerting local airports and maintaining line-of-sight long before those steps were compulsory, and often club rules are more restrictive than the current federal guidelines. New laws and public scrutiny aren't going to rain on their parade.

"I say, at the end of the day, when this all plays out, model aircraft are going to be pretty much the same as they ever were," said Hanson.

"It's been a hobby for a long time," said Randall. "Boys and girls, they get to build stuff, fly it around. They're not going to take that away from us."

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