Rich Hanson is the government and regulatory affairs specialist for the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA). The AMA is the world’s largest model aviation association with a membership in excess of 175,000.
Third Law Sports spoke to Rich about the rules and regulations surrounding drone racing.
Third Law Sports: When and where did you hear about drone racing? Have you attended many races yourself?
Rich: Absolutely, we’re trying to support this new aspect of the hobby. Just two weekends ago I officiated at the Hawaii State Championship for FPV Racing but I first heard about the sport a little under two years ago. I officiated the first world championships in Sacramento last summer. It was shortly before this that we first got wind of it.
Flying FPV, as opposed to FPV racing of course, has been around for quite some time. I was first introduced to that back in the 1990s.
Third Law Sports: Has AMA changed any guidelines or rules because of drone racing?
Rich: We have some basic rules about flying FPV in general; these have been in place for five or six years now. In terms of the racing side of things what we look at primarily is the safety aspect.
This comes in a variety of forms from the protecting of bystanders and where to place the starting gates and the like. The actual race procedures themselves are more fluid, and like any other new activity there are several different ideas and debates at play. For now we try to stay out of this. We leave it to those involved first hand with the passion, energy and enthusiasm to flesh these out and determine which is best course of action.
We’re primarily concerned with risk assessment and that all the potential dangers have been evaluated and taken care of.
Third Law Sports: Who does the AMA work with to help make sure all FPV pilots are registered and the competitions are fair?
Rich: The FAA, our aviation authority, has got involved from the standpoint of safety and they’ve asked us to shepherd this new activity. This is first from a safety standpoint (Know Before You Fly education website) and then down the line, bringing it all together and coming to a consensus of the rules and methodology for conducting the races.
We aim to bring the leaders in the field together to standardise the rules in order to regulate this throughout the country, so local, regional and national competitions maintain the same rule set. We’ve been working with both Chris Thomas and the MultiGP team in addition to Scot Refsland, in addition to numerous smaller, locally aimed groups to achieve this goal.
Third Law Sports: Is there any legislation we should be aware of that might be coming in the near future that will impact drone racing?
Rich: The US Congress is currently working on a new FAA reauthorisation bill but what’s been proposed so far is focused more on drone legislation, that is the bigger issue and general recreational use. FPV Racing is specific enough that I don’t believe these rules will have much effect on the sport itself.
One proposal which could affect them has been that recreational fliers should have to take a knowledge test. This of course has the potential to affect drone racing pilots but we don’t believe it will get passed, nor that it’s necessary.
The format would be in the form of an online multiple choice test, and is unlikely to be too formidable.
One alternative we’ve suggested is that if there has to be a test, then let the AMA create and administer it as we have a superior knowledge base on what and who needs to be tested rather than just making it a blanket test.
Third Law Sports: Any advice for pilots and organisations out there for working with local authorities to fly safely and without being hassled?
Rich: As far as drone racing is concerned it’s very low altitude so as far as air space issues are concerned, these are almost insignificant.
The biggest safety concern is of course about protecting bystanders. The main advice that we have is setting up the course effectively. This includes netting and the positioning of gates, whilst there’s also the potential for protective gear such as headsets and eye protection. Those participating are naturally more at risk but you still want to make sure that they’re in the best position they can be to effectively participate in the hobby.
The FAA is pretty receptive to the risk based approach that they want people to take, and the most important thing is being able to demonstrate to them that this has been accomplished.
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The Academy of Model Aeronautics is deeply involved in the growth and proper use of drones. They recently analyzed the FAA list of “drone sightings” from the last half of 2015 to the end of March 31st and discovered that only 3.3% of sightings could be considered a “close call”.
But the FAA spokesman stated “The use of the phrase ‘close calls’ is simply part of a news headline; there is no regulatory definition of ‘close call.'”
Other good bits from the analysis include this report: “DAL1086 MD90 reported a large bird or drone 2 miles east of LGA.”