Before all of us went crazy with quadrotors and self stabilizing flying robots, a cadre of enthusiasts paved the way for widespread acceptance of remote control models. Many current drone pilots remember growing up with memories of seeing people flying custom built miniature airplanes – not just reproductions, but aerobatics and other competitions.
Those people started an organization that, in the early days, organized meetings and published a magazine, and later helped represent modelers and RC enthusiasts to local towns, communities and governments. That organization is the Academy of Model Aeronautics, or the AMA, and we owe a great debt to them.
When drones, quadcopters, and other multirotors started gaining popularity, they quickly came into conflict with what termed the ‘old guard’ RC flying community. People who spend months and years meticulously gluing, carving, and building their beautiful flying machines, and are, understandably, very cautious with them. Now these new kids with their plastic electric flying toys were showing up and not obeying the well established rules and behaviours the RC enthusiasts had built up over decades of model building and flying. These drone were flown anywhere, anytime, and required almost no skill. Just plug it in and it was in the air. It was grating!
Eventually, the drone pilots and the AMA started talking to each other, and realized everyone was on the same side. All it took was an understanding that enthusiasts and builders want to have fun and be safe. It soon came clear is there was a common cause for both the AMA and the new drone community. The public, the press, and the government were all forming their own ideas about what our hobby was about, and the ‘risks’ they saw with it, and in our eyes… it didn’t match with what we all knew.
But by the time drones came on the scene, the AMA, had grown to 140,000 members, with a strong voice in state and federal government. It quickly became apparent that new laws were coming that would define legal operation of drones, particularly in public areas. This was a departure from how the AMA had been operating – since most RC operators flew at RC fields or other special areas. Drone pilots were flying wherever they wanted – and the public was reacting. It became clear federal government would need to set guidelines for legal and safe operation of drones. The fear was whatever they came up with would result in a ‘ban’ on drones, or put such restrictions on them they could no longer be enjoyed as the casual (or for some, not so casual) activity they are today.
Long standing arrangements between the AMA and the Federal Aviation Administration (the FAA) set the groundwork for defining the laws around model aircraft that the drone community could build on. Without these foundations, the recent decisions by the FAA could have gone in a very different direction.
With the AMA’s help, the new FAA guidelines for UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) operation take into account all aspects of our hobby, and give them a good balance. On the one side is the strong (and getting stronger) commercial drone business. Companies are investing tens of thousands of dollars in high end aerial drone systems, and the FAA acknowledges that these businesses need strong guidelines defining what is legal and what is not. But in addition, the new definitions hold up the 2012 agreements (that the AMA negotiated) that except model aircraft from the commercial rules. They define what a ‘model aircraft’ is, and thereby make it easy to determine if the commercial rules apply. Without the AMA’s hard work in establishing a storng voice in the community, getting the FAA’s ear, and and setting up a baseline to work from, we’d never be at this point.
So support the AMA. A membership brings benefits (not the least of which is liability insurance), but also supports an organization that we should be proud of, and has done a lot of work to make our hobby safe, fun, and accepted.