Update (22 April 2014): Texas EquuSearch and Gene Robinson filed suit against the FAA yesterday for prohibiting them from flying their search-and-rescue drones.
Gene Robinson of Wimberly, Texas, is a licensed pilot and also flies radio-controlled model airplanes—not an unusual combination. About a decade ago, he realized that a model aircraft outfitted to take aerial photos could be enormously useful in locating people who have gone missing—perhaps because they’ve been abducted or maybe just because they are very young and have wandered off into the woods alone. His efforts have paid valuable dividends over the years—helping find the remains of nearly a dozen people. But since late February his search-and-rescue model airplanes have been grounded: That’s when the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration notified him in writing that what he has been doing is illegal.
Since 2007, the FAA has maintained that model airplanes, no matter how small, cannot be flown for commercial purposes until the agency puts regulations in place to accommodate them. But thousands of people fly radio-controlled (RC) model airplanes as a hobby, and what Robinson has been doing with his 2-kilogram, electrically powered, foam-and-plastic planes is really no different. “This is a double standard we’ve had to deal with for almost seven years,” says Robinson.
Ostensibly, the FAA’s concern is safety. But Robinson is more careful than most RC modelers, following strict procedural guidelines and taking care always to coordinate his flights with the local authorities on the scene. So it’s difficult to argue that his flights are more dangerous than what goes on every weekend at RC modeling sites throughout the United States, which can include flights of huge models that weigh 10 times as much as Robinson’s planes; aerial stunts of nitromethane-fueled model helicopters; and the low-altitude, 500-kilometer-per-hour passes in front of spectators of model jets powered by miniature turbine engines.
The FAA’s objection here is that Robinson is violating its ban on commercial drone flights. But Robinson (and others flying drones for disaster assistance) takes no money from the families seeking their lost loved ones, and he has created a not-for-profit organization, RP Search Services, to demonstrate that he is not running a money-making operation. He works closely with Texas EquuSearch, another not-for-profit organization that originally enlisted volunteers on horseback to find people who had gone missing in the wilderness and now helps direct volunteer searchers who have many different kinds of skills and specialty equipment to contribute to the effort.
Since 2006, aerial photos taken with Robinson’s models have helped EquuSearch volunteers to avoid hazards on the ground as they comb the wilderness. And his images have been instrumental in locating the remains of 11 people who were killed or succumbed to the elements while missing, helping to bring closure to their distraught families.
FAA officials have long been aware of Robinson model airplane flights and have expressed their displeasure to him verbally at various times since 2007, when the FAA first established its ban on the commercial use of model airplanes. But it was only this past February that an official stated the FAA’s position in writing, telling Robinson in an email message to “stop immediately. That is an illegal operation regardless if it is below 400ft AGL [above ground level], VLOS [visual line of sight] or doing volunteer SAR [search and rescue].”
At that point, Robinson and Tim Miller, founder of Texas EquuSearch, approached Brendan Schulman, a special counsel with the law firm Kramer, Levin, Naftalis & Frankel, who offered pro bono help. Schulman, an RC modeler himself, had recently succeeded in getting a favorable court ruling for Raphael Pirker, another RC modeler the FAA held to be violating its regulations. “It is incomprehensible that the FAA would for decades raise no issue with respect to recreational operation of these devices but prohibit and deem ‘illegal’ the exact same use for the purpose of saving the lives of missing children,” Schulman wrote on 17 March to the FAA chief counsel in a lengthy argument on behalf of his clients.
Schulman’s letter asks the FAA to reverse its position within 30 days. “I wanted to give them time to think it over,” says Schulman. “On the other hand, there are people every week who need help.” In the meantime, Schulman has advised Robinson not to fly his models on any more search-and-rescue missions. “We’ve made the painful decision to hold off on some searches,” says Robinson. “We’re gritting our teeth.”
Even if the FAA refuses to change its position in the near term, it’s possible that when it finally does issue its long-awaited rules for “small unmanned aerial systems,” things could change. The new rules might well make it legal for volunteers like Robinson to use camera- or sensor-equipped model airplanes in searches for people who have gone missing.
The burgeoning interest in small drones and the plummeting cost of sophisticated sensors and autopilots surely favors such an evolution, and indeed, no one doubts that unmanned aircraft could be a big help in disaster situations. “There’s a huge cadre of people that are willing to volunteer their time, skills, and equipment to all this,” says Robinson. But the FAA’s small-drone regulations, whenever they do issue, could also eliminate such public participation in missing-persons cases.
If the rules place a higher regulatory burden on the manufacturers of the model planes or the people flying them when the activity they are engaged in is not just a casual hobby, this avenue for RC pilots or drone enthusiasts to contribute to their communities could be cut off. Municipalities that can afford to buy certified drone aircraft from Boeing or the like and to keep professional drone pilots on their payroll might fare okay. But the Wimberly, Texases, of the world probably won’t be so lucky.
David Schneider is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His beat focuses on computing, and he contributes frequently to Spectrum's Hands On column. He holds a bachelor's degree in geology from Yale, a master's in engineering from UC Berkeley, and a doctorate in geology from Columbia.