Drone operations of all types, including unmanned aircraft systems used for commercial, hobby and recreational purposes, have been banned in large areas of the United States under a new interpretation of Federal Aviation Administration rules.
While an Advisory Circular issued by the FAA in September announced the rules, the agency only made clear that no-fly restrictions now applied where the rules previously allowed flights under 400 feet above ground level and more than five miles from airports.
The circular was sent to the Academy of Model Aeronautics, which has had a long-standing agreement with the FAA that allowed it to operate from established flying areas, including some that are well within the five-mile distance from airports, as long as the activities were coordinated with airport operations and with the FAA controllers at the airport. Now those agreements have been put on hold.
Under the new rules, all aircraft regardless of size or type are required to be equipped with a radar transponder and an aircraft radio for communications with air traffic control. Drones and model aircraft don't carry them because the equipment is too large and heavy and requires an electrical system far beyond anything such aircraft could carry.
Previously, operators had to be in contact with air traffic control if they were within five miles of an airport, but that contact didn't need to be via an aircraft radio. Most of the time contact with air traffic control was by phone.
The new rules apply to any unmanned aircraft system (UAS) flown within 30 nautical miles of the VHF Omnidirectional Radio Range (VOR) transmitter located at Washington Reagan National Airport (DCA) in Arlington, Va. The rules also apply to any of the areas of restricted airspace that appear in the list of temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) throughout the United States.
TFRs can appear anywhere for a wide variety of reasons, frequently without advance warning. For example, any time the president flies somewhere, there's a 30-mile region of prohibited airspace around him.
An FAA spokesperson explained how this rule applies to UAS devices. "Unmanned aircraft, including model aircraft, are 'aircraft' and are subject to FAA rules," the spokesperson said in an email to eWEEK.
"No aircraft is allowed to fly inside the Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) unless it complies with the published airspace security requirements. All aircraft flying in the Washington DC SFRA are required to squawk a discrete beacon code and maintain continuous radio communications with air traffic controllers. Aircraft that cannot meet these requirements are prohibited from operating within the SFRA without specific authorization," the email said.
While the FAA comment was specifically referring to model aircraft, the spokesperson confirmed to eWEEK that the rules apply to all UAS devices, including drones.