Is FPV Legal?

The short answer—yes. Operating recreational unmanned aircraft (model aircraft) using First-Person View (FPV) is legal. The more relevant question may be, “Will it remain legal?”

AFSC ReportCurrently there are no laws or regulations prohibiting the operation of model aircraft using FPV technology, however, in light of some of the anomalous activity displayed on YouTube and several reports of unsafe FPV operations, the appropriateness of FPV has been questioned by many regulators and government officials.

During the past three years, there have been numerous incidences where full-scale pilots have reported sighting unmanned aircraft in proximity to manned aircraft and at heights well above the normal operating altitude for model aircraft. Because the sightings are generally beyond the visual line of sight range for most model aircraft, the use of FPV or other automated flight technology is suspected.

Some of the activity occurring is just plain foolishness, but much of it is caused by an honest misunderstanding of the basic safety tenants for operating in the National Airspace System (NAS). All pilots operating under visual flight conditions are required to see and avoid other aircraft and obstacles on the ground. For the pilots of radio-controlled aircraft, this means maintaining visual contact with your aircraft and the airspace around it. You must know its location and orientation in relationship to other aircraft to effectively maneuver your aircraft away from and avoid creating a collision hazard with other aircraft in the airspace.

It’s not enough to merely avoid manned aircraft. Model aircraft must remain “well clear” of manned aircraft so that the pilot of the manned aircraft does not perceive the possibility of a collision. Model aircraft operating under the provisions of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (Public Law 112-95, Sec. 336) must be “operated in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to any manned aircraft.” AMA’s guidance for “See and Avoid” can be found in AMA document #540-D.

The assumption here is that the model aircraft is being flown in airspace where there’s a possibility of encountering other aircraft. But, what if the model aircraft is being flown where there is a near impossibility of encountering another aircraft or at a substantially low altitude, perhaps even below the height of the surrounding obstacles? Would the FPV pilot be required to maintain continuous visual contact with the model aircraft, or could he or she fly around a tree or behind an obstacle momentarily losing sight of the model?

Because we’re working within conceptual guidelines, there is some room for situational awareness and personal judgment. There may be room for slight latitude in such situations; however, a model aircraft pilot must always be aware of his or her surroundings and the aircraft’s operating environment, and he or she must never endanger persons or property. Pilots must be able to justify any deviation from established safety guidelines and are always held accountable for their actions.

FPV enthusiasts must also be cognizant that FPV is under extensive scrutiny by regulators and legislators. The future of the activity depends on the willingness of the FPV/sUAS community to act in a safe, responsible, community-friendly manner.

The AMA recognizes that FPV is a growing segment of the aeromodeling activity and this innovative technology has captured the imagination and interest of members and nonmembers alike. The AMA has a long history of embracing new technologies and providing appropriate safety guidelines to allow new aeromodeling activities to transpire in a safe and responsible manner.

The AMA has embraced FPV and in 2008 began developing new guidelines for this activity. During the past five years, AMA’s Advanced Flight Systems Committee has monitored the activity and progressively updated the safety guidelines as the technology’s developed and as the interests of the community evolved. The current guidelines for FPV and the use of automated flight systems can be found in documents #550 and #560 in the documents section of the AMA website.

It’s important that those who share our love for this hobby are well informed and participate in advocating for the rights and privileges of the aeromodeling community. Timely updates regarding regulatory actions and UAS legislation are available at www.modelaircraft.org. They can also be found on Facebook by “Liking” ‘Facebook.com/AMAGov’ and on Twitter at <Twitter.com/AMAGov.>

Rich Hanson
AMA Government and Regulatory Affairs

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4 Responses to Is FPV Legal?

  1. “All pilots operating under visual flight conditions are required to see and avoid other aircraft and obstacles on the ground. For the pilots of radio-controlled aircraft, this means maintaining visual contact with your aircraft. You must know its location and orientation to effectively maneuver your aircraft away from and avoid creating a collision hazard with other aircraft in the airspace.”

    Absolutely NOT true. If the AMA ever expects to be able to speak for FPVers with any legitimacy,this is something they absolutely must understand. Seeing your model has absolutely nothing to do with see and avoid. The way see and avoid is practiced by every responsible FPVer out there is by maintaining visual and auditory awareness of the AIRSPACE AROUND YOUR AIRCRAFT. Whether you can see your aircraft or not is irrelevant, since your video feed tells you far more precisely where it is in the sky than direct visual contact, which with the vagaries of depth perception can be highly deceptive. My own flights average about 2 miles from my ground station, and even though my plane is far out of sight, I know exactly what area of the sky it is in at all times. From there it is a simple process of being aware of my surroundings and listening for approaching full scale aircraft. When I hear one I look up from my video screen (harder to do with goggles, but possible, especially with a spotter), check where it is and make sure it is nowhere near my plane, and if it is I will descend if necessary. That plus being aware at what altitude full scale traffic usually flies in that area and always staying below that is all that is necessary to effectively see and avoid when flying FPV, even beyond visual line of sight as currently defined by the AMA.

    If the AMA is truly interested in representing the interests of FPVers, it will begin moving away from its current focus on visual line of sight as being the distance which you can see and determine the orientation of your aircraft, to a concept of safe operating range being the distance at which you can maintain visual and auditory awareness of the airspace surrounding your craft. That is a far more useful and effective measure of air-to-air safety.

    Rich I believe you were in the room at the DARC conference last October when the representative from ASTM advocated precisely this approach. It would greatly benefit the AMA to consider it.

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    • Patrick, You’re right. I should have been more clear. You not only need to maintain visual contact with your aircraft and the airspace around it. You must know its location and orientation in relationship to other aircraft to effectively maneuver your aircraft away from and avoid creating a collision hazard with other aircraft in the airspace. (See the correction above.)

      Seeing your model has everything to do with knowing its relationship and proximity to other aircraft. Though AMA provides guidance as to how radio-controlled aircraft accomplish ‘See & Avoid’, the safety tenant is conceptualized and supported by the entire aeronautical community and is a requirement for operating within the national airspace. Relying strictly on a fallible electronic video feed and audio cues to assure safe FPV operations within the NAS is going to be a very tough sell to this community and the FAA.

      To date, in the absence of any validated means of ‘Sensing & Avoiding’ other aircraft, every certificate of authorization and/or special airworthiness certificate granted by the FAA mandates remaining within visual line of sight and maintaining visual contact with the UAS.

      If FPV is to survive, we must take a responsible approach and perhaps even a conservative approach to safety.

      Rich Hanson
      AMA Government and Regulatory Affairs

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  2. Rich,
    You mention that “….Relying strictly on a fallible electronic video feed and audio cues to assure safe FPV operations within the NAS is going to be a very tough sell to this community and the FAA….” How is this any different than a failable electronic R/C link?

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    • Your right, it’s not… Yet another reason why AMA’s safety guidelines require MA pilots to keep their aircraft within visual sight; to not overfly unprotected persons, moving vehicles and susceptible property; and to remain well clear of manned aircraft.

      Rich Hanson
      AMA Government and Regulatory Affairs

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