Warning: FAA Says US Airspace Is Closed To ALL Commercial

January 24th, 2012

Update Sept 2013: The FAA’s policy of not allowing commercial UAVs in US airspace is being challenged legally.

Yesterday I had a phone conversation from NYTimes reporter, Nick Wingfield, who is working on a story about the fact that the FAA has shutdown of US Airspace to Commercial Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). I told Nick that over the last few posts I’ve done on UAVs that there were some knowledgeable sounding pilots and hobbyist’s commented that there was a FAA policy of some sort restricting the use of UAVs. I tried to find a clear FAA statement about this but couldn’t find anything I could understand.

I referred Nick to Rusty Freeman  because I knew Rusty was heavy into UAVs and did that kind of work in the LA area. After I hung up the phone with Nick I looked at Rusty’s site and saw that in fact Rusty’s UAV business shutdown by the FAA. All of Rusty’s aerial photography is now done with  piloted full size helicopters.

I contacted Rusty and he told me:

The summer 2011, I got a phone call + e-mail from the FAA, to call them. We did talk then, which I did not like what I heard a warning. Then in September 2011, another call, very firm to stop flying. I requested to talk with the head person, which I finally did. Lance Nuckolls at the FAA, is the top guy in Washington DC office, he is writing the new pending regulations.

On one of several phone calls with Lance, the final conclusion was, no matter how high, or what we were doing did not matter, the RC Helicopter flying in the USA airspace ground zero feet, to 90,000 feet, they controlled it, and for commercial use, we could not fly in it, period, until they figured out how to regulate no one can fly in the USA airspace.

Yesterday Nick told me his call to Lance @ FAA office, spoke with the gal there, not Lance, but the pending new regulations will not be out till Spring 2012.

I understand they will be model somewhat after what Australia is doing now. Basic, you will need a normal FAA Pilot License, yea… to fly a regular plane with an RC Helicopter endorsement on your license.

If you have a FAA Pilot License now, you get endorsements is normal, to fly a bigger aircraft, multi-engine aircraft, helicopter etc, so it is just an added certification that goes on your license.

FAA new rules, 2013? 2014? who knows. I do know of one other major aerial company out of business too, these guys in New York.

One more item. In discussions with staffers about FAA regulations they indicated that a first time offense minimum fine is $10,000, up to $100,000, plus carries a possible 3 to 10 years in the pen. Not a light thing to consider, even if you get probation for the time !

This morning (1/24) I got several emails from real estate photographers and real estate agents in the LA area pointing out that  the California Association of Realtors® today sent out a notice saying:

Los Angeles authorities have asked C.A.R. to communicate this warning to REALTORS® who hire unmanned aircraft operators to take aerial photographs for marketing high-end properties. Using these devices (also known as drones) for flight in the air with no onboard pilot may violate, among other things, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) policy on unmanned aircrafts, and Los Angeles’s local ordinance requiring permits for filming commercial motion pictures and still photographs…

Under the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s current policy, no one can operate an unmanned aircraft in the National Airspace System without specific authority. Operators who wish to fly an unmanned aircraft for civil use must obtain an FAA experimental airworthiness certificate, which will not be issued to an unmanned aircraft used for compensation or hire. Although the FAA allows hobbyists to fly model airplanes for recreational purposes under specific guidelines, that authority does not extend to operators flying unmanned aircraft for business purposes…

My understanding at this point is that hobbyists (UAVs not for hire) are exempt from this FAA regulation.  FAA allows hobbyists to fly model airplanes for recreational purposes under specific guidelines: 1981 Dept of Transportation Advisory Circular.

I wanted to get all this information out there as soon as possible because I suspect the “sky is falling in LA” because there is just more commercial UAV  photography going on in the LA area than any other place. But it’s clear that enforcement of these FAA regulations are coming soon to a US location near you!

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57 Responses to “Warning: FAA Says US Airspace Is Closed To ALL Commercial”

  • All these “professional pilots” and the FAA need to get a grip

    -are we talking about the little r/c helicopters that geeks fly around the malls, etc? so we need to tell all those six year olds who got a flying toy at Christmas “sorry, you need a pilots license for that!”

    No? well most of those would weigh more than 100gm.

    The authorities need to get real and adopt some sensible definitions re altitude, weight, etc, or they are going to look like idiots.

  • Love the idea of giving the service away for free and selling a t-shirt, but does the policy regard “commercial purposes” or “personal profit”? Because if it’s the former and the production uses the footage, that would fall under “commercial purposes”.

    Luke wrote, “FAA policy does NOT constitute enforceable regulations. Until regulations are actually and legitimately promulgated the FAA policies on UAVs are only regulatory safe harbors. You cannot be prosecuted for violation of the policies.”

    Does this mean that the FAA can say whatever it wants but until it’s written into law we can do whatever we want? Confused by this.

  • How about those vendors who actually fly the helis about the malls, they receive ‘financial reward’ for demonstrating and selling those helis, so in theory they too should also be prosecuted :)

  • @Harry- As I understand things right now we are in kind of a gray period of time… The FAA has been chartered by congress to come up with a plan that will open skys to commercial UAVs by Sept 2015, in the mean time to fly a commercial drone in US airspace you have to get a COA (Certificate of Authorization) from the FAA. An I believe the FAA is only granting COAs to police depts, and government agencies and some Universities. Yet hobbyists can operate UAVs under 400 feet. I’ve been trying to find what specific laws exist that say you have to have a COA or what happens to you if you don’t have one… I don’t think there are any… there are some commercial UAVs operating around the country. It’s not clear what the rules are!

  • Harry, this FAA issue is not applicable for indoor flying, like in a mall. Because then you are not within the FAA common airspace. Still, of course, it would be subject to internal regulation for general safety, insurance etc… Police / security guards may ban it for different reasons, but not FAA.
    I did not get this from the US FAA, but from the swedish counterpart “Transportstyrelsen”, and I is reasonable to assume this is how it works in the US as well.

  • Anyone fly in the NYC area? i want to get an AR drone for fun but i don’t want to get arrested for going into nyc airspace. is there a website i can refer to for NYC restrictions? thanks!

  • This whole argument is laughable, the same Gov that is telling you flying your UAV is illegal makes upwards of 20 billion a year in tax on Cigarettes. I think we can all agree that they are bad.

    @Harry, the guy in the mall is not flying in controlled airspace, he is inside a building, means no FAA rules for flying inside a structure.