Why Flying a Drone as a Hobbyist is Currently a Mine Field for Public Safety Agencies

I’ve seen more and more news stories pop up where some police of fire department is quoted as they are flying their UAS as hobbyists and not FAA approved agency or pilot.

This is a mine field. I understand the hobbyist exemption very well and it is not just a causal wide loophole for people who want to fly a UAS for a department. While you might not be paid to fly, making your flights clearly commercial, you had also better not be a member of the department or an agency your department regularly provides mutual aid to.

According to the FAA an affiliated person flying in the furtherance of their job could not fly as a hobbyist.

I’m not trying to rain on your parade here, just keep you clear of the FAA clouds which, if caught, could cause you to be fined or even never certified to legally fly. The FAA is like an elephant, they never forget.

At this point in time the FAA has an exemption I’ve written about here. The hobbyist exemption will allow people to fly a UAS now in accordance with current safety standards put forth by the FAA and Academy of Model Aeronautics.

But I think the urge for people to fly UAS has overshadowed their research of what the rules and exemptions really mean.

In June of 2014 the FAA issued this document which appears to remove any ambiguity of hobbyist flight.

According to the FAA, people flying a UAS as a hobby or for recreational purposes shall be individuals who engage in UAS flight as a “pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation.”

Any flight not conducted under such an umbrella would not be eligible for approved flight under the hobby or recreation loophole.

When it comes to fire department, EMS, or police department UAS flights the pilot-in-command (PIC) appears to not be able to be a member of the department or engaged in any of those services as a regular occupation.

Again to quote the FAA, “Although they are not commercial operations conducted for compensation or hire, such operations do not qualify as a hobby or recreation flight because of the nexus between the operator’s business and the operation of the aircraft.”

While the FAA did not specifically mention public safety agencies in their examples, they do use the example of a realtor in flight not permitted.

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If a department has a law enforcement officer or firefighter flying a drone, even a volunteer firefighter, it seems to create an issue with the FAA statement, “Likewise, flights that are in furtherance of a business, or incidental to a person’s business, would not be a hobby or recreation flight.” You don’t have to be paid to be a member of a business or department to have public safety service as a occupational focus.

The FAA seems to make very clear what is and is not appropriate as hobbyist flight.

Even a pure hobby flyer does not get a complete free pass. A hobbyist operating in flight above the ground must still comply with several FAA regulations in part 91 of the FAA published regulations.

Rules relevant to hobby flyers in this section fall into three categories: (1) how the aircraft is operated; (2) operating rules for designated airspace; and, (3) special restrictions such as temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) and notices to airmen (NOTAMs).

So Where Does This Leave Us

While there will certainly be FAA rules and licenses available in the future for UAS pilots, there are not now. To fly specifically as a member of a department or as a contract pilot for any public safety agency a UAS pilot would need to currently hold a FAA private pilot license and meet other requirements described in this article.

Let’s not forget, flight operations of a UAS would also need to be permitted under a FAA Certificate of Authorization (COA), which is a complete separate process. The two routes to pursue that now are either as a Civil COA or a department COA.