Friday, October 18, 2013

Commercial Model Aircraft Use

22nd IMR Meshing Contest Model
There are some interesting commercial uses of model aircraft listed in Pirker's motion to dismiss an FAA civil penalty for commercial drone use. The motion provides examples in four broad categories: Cinema and Television, The Model Aircraft Industry, Model Airplane Operators Who Are “Sponsored” or Compensated at Competitions, and Media Coverage and Entertainment.

  • In 2004, makers of the film The Aviator (which grossed over $100 million in domestic ticket sales) utilized custom-made model airplanes to create the many aerial special effects shots. Joe Bock of Aero Telemetry recounted in an interview how his company created a 25-foot wingspan model of the Spruce Goose which the film crew "took off and flew and landed under its own power right out of the Long Beach Harbor in the exact location where the real one did."
  • The crew of Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers has for years used radio-control model airplanes and, more recently, "quadcopter drones" equipped with cameras and GPS tracking to photograph and measure dangerous storms for the production of commercial television programs.
  • The 1982 film "Zapped" starring Scott Baio features an extended sequence of a model airplane flown in a park over the heads of the actors. The airplane is flown low to the ground, over people, and is depicted as coming close to striking one of the actors.
  • The 1998 film "Rushmore," filmed on location in Texas, utilizes the operation of a radio-control model airplane in a stadium parking lot.
  • The popular show Mythbusters makes frequent use of radio-controlled model aircraft, which are flown for the "commercial" purpose of creating a for-profit television program.
  • The "Jackass" series of slapstick films makes use of radio-control aircraft, often with the intent of placing actors in harm’s way for comedic effect. In one scene, for example, a radio-control helicopter equipped with a paintball gun is used by one of the actor to fire paintballs at other actors.
  • In a 2012 episode of truTV’s "Storage Hunters," the winners of an auction for the contents of an abandoned self-storage un it discover that they have purchased an expensive T-Rex 700 model helicopter with a camera gimbal designed for aerial photography. They proceed to fly it outdoors, and the episode ends with a video shot from the model helicopter itself.
  • Various companies involved in the model airplane industry not only operate model aircraft for "business" purposes, but they pay people to fly those models. The public record reflects countless examples of model aircraft videotaped in flight, for advertising purposes . In some cases, those videos are taken not only from the ground, but from the airborne model aircraft itself. Additionally, these companies conduct airborne testing and development of commercial products (just as military “drone” contractors do).
  • Companies in the industry also "sponsor" model airplane pilots who are paid to fly model aircraft at events so as to promote the brand and products the company sells.
  • Countless contests are held each year in which cash is paid to model aircraft operators who perform best at different types of radio-controlled flight, such as pattern flying and aerobatics. For example, the "Top Gun" competition has been held for 25 years in Florida and is heavily funded by corporate sponsors. There are five days of competition and thousands of dollars in prizes to model aircraft pilots in a variety of categories.
  • The YouTube show "Flite Test" has drawn an audience of over 85,000 subscribers, thanks to its professionally-produced, creative episodes concerning all aspects of model aircraft design and operation. The show has at various times been spons ored by hobby companies, appears to receive YouTube advertising revenue, and is funded by viewers themselves (who buy products sold by the show).
From the motion,
If the FAA’s implicit interpretation of model aircraft regulation were correct, none of these businesses would be legal. Today’s sophisticated variety of model aircraft may bear little resemblance to the industry in 1981, but it is beyond dispute that model aircraft have for decades been operated for business and commercial purposes without any suggestion that an operator’s "commercial" or "business" purpose would result in regulation under the FARs -- let alone an outright ban.


  1. How silly:
    To the extent that the 2007 Notice may be viewed as an interpretative rule that, somehow, treats FARs as directly applicable to model aircraft, that interpretation must be rejected as erroneous because it conflicts with so many of the regulations.

    The conflict is perhaps best highlighted by 14 C.F.R. § 91.1(c) which governs the applicability of Part 91 Subpart A regulations, including Section 91.13 which Mr . Pirker is alleged to have violated. It reads, in pertinent part, “This part applies to each person on board an aircraft being operated under this part, unless otherwise specified.” 14 C.F.R. § 91.1 (emphasi s added). This provision confirms that none of the regulations in Part 91 Subpart A apply at all to Mr. Pirker, who was never, nor could ever be, “on board” his model aircraft.

    Some of these conflicts are irreconcilable and would leave operators with no ability to comply. For example, under 14 C. F.R. § 91.119 concerning minimum safe altitudes, “no person may operate an aircraft below” certain altitudes except for takeoff or landing. Over non-congested areas, the minimum is 500 feet AGL. However, in Advisory Circular AC-91-57, which constitutes the only FAA guidance concerning the altitude of model aircraft flight, model aircraft operators are instructed: “Do not fly model aircraft higher than 400 feet above the surface.” If “model aircraft” were interchangeable with “aircraft” for purposes of existing FARs, they could never be flown at all because they must, according to FAA guidance, fly below 400 feet while also flying above 500 feet.

  2. Here's coverage of a related story on slashdot. Matt Waite founder of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Drone Journalism Lab got a cease-and-desist letter from the FAA for using a drone for news gathering. He's documenting his efforts to get a COA on github.

  3. Seems like a bit of common sense is prevailing in the Pirker case: Pirker Decision.

    AUVSI has a cautious statement: "We are reviewing the decision very carefully and we have also been in touch with the FAA to discuss its implications and the agency’s response. Our paramount concern is safety. We must ensure the commercial use of UAS takes place in a safe and responsible manner, whenever commercial use occurs. The decision also underscores the immediate need for a regulatory framework for small UAS."

    See also coverage on Make and DIY Drones (FAA appeal)