For the past ten years, Congress has attempted to establish a framework for how model aircraft and recreations flyers of unmanned aircraft should operate in the national airspace system. Through the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2012, Congress essentially instructed the FAA not to regulate hobbyists if they were operating under the guidelines of a national “community-based organization” (CBO) that had a safety code for recreational flying.
While the FAA acknowledged that the Academy of Model Aeronautics was a CBO for purposes of the statute, it was unclear what other organizations would qualify. In order to clear up some of this confusion, the Congress provided a statutory definition for CBO in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, while at the same time granting the FAA new authority to regulate hobbyists. The 2018 Reauthorization Act also stated that:
the Administrator shall publish an advisory circular within 180 days of the date of enactment of this section that identifies the criteria and process required for recognition of community-based organizations.
Now, over three years after this Congressional mandate passed, the FAA has finally released its long-awaited Advisory Circular (AC 91-57C) setting out the criteria for recognition of CBOs.
The AC sets out the process for applying to become a CBO and what information must be provided. The FAA estimates that it will take 90 days to process the applications. Once the FAA approves the application, it will issue a letter of recognition and will place the applicant on its list of approved CBOs.
As part of the approval process, the CBO must submit its “comprehensive safety guidelines” for review by the FAA. The AC sets out the topics which must be discussed in detail, including how to identify and mitigate risks, flight safety, aeronautical decision making, UAS maintenance and inspection, regulatory compliance, night operations, emergency procedures, and how the hobbyist should ascertain if he or she is medically fit to fly.
The AC, notes, however, that the guidelines need not discuss operations that are irrelevant to the CBO. For example, if a CBO is not engaged in a particular type of operation (e.g., FPV or turbine-powered flight), they would not be expected to develop safety guidelines related to that type of operation. However, an individual operating under a CBO’s safety guidelines may only engage in the types of operations addressed in those safety guidelines.
In addition to guidance on how to become a recognized CBO, the AC also addresses several other topics. The AC clarifies how a hobbyist can comply with the statutory requirements for hobbyist flying, including airspace and visual line of sight requirements, what constitutes recreational and educational purposes, reiterates the requirement that hobbyist aircraft be registered, and the requirement for completion of an aeronautical knowledge test.
There is also an interesting clarification in the AC with regard to the requirement that hobbyists fly under the guidance of a CBO. The AC tells hobbyists that if they are approached by an FAA Inspector or law enforcement, they should be prepared to state what safety code they are flying under, but that actual membership in the CBO is not required to comply with the law.
It is good to see that the FAA has finally been able to wrap up this AC, as the creation and recognition of CBOs has taken on additional importance since 2018. The CBO concept has already been incorporated into regulatory schemes which are currently being implemented. For example, the FAA’s Remote Identification rules require all unmanned aircraft, including hobby aircraft, to be equipped with a remote identification system. The only exception to this is for unmanned aircraft that are operated at an FAA-Recognized Identification Area (FRIA) established by a Community Based Organization for recreational flying.
Overall, the release of this AC is good news for everyone, and will hopefully put recreational flyers on a solid footing for compliance, with clearer rules for all concerned.