FAA Chief Counsel Issues Legal Interpretation Making it Easier for Students to Fly UAS

On May 4, 2016, the FAA Chief Counsel issued an interpretative memorandum concerning the educational use of UAS.  Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 allows for the recreational use of UAS without prior FAA Authorization provided that the UAS is not more than 55 pounds, flown for hobby or recreational use, and operated in a manner that does not interfere with manned aircraft.  However, if an operation is a commercial operation, prior FAA approval in the form an exemption granted under Section 333 must be obtained.  As clarified by the FAA in its previously issued Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft (79 Fed. Reg. 36172, 36174 (June 25, 2014)), commercial operations not only include flights for hire, but also “flights in furtherance of a business or incidental to a person’s business.”  The FAA Chief Counsel issued his May 4th interpretation in response to inquiries from educational institutions about whether the operation of UAS at educational institutions, including operations that are part of a student’s coursework, require prior FAA authorization or are permitted under Section 336.  The interpretation clarifies that: (i) a person may operate a UAS for hobby or recreation under Section 336 at an educational institution or community-sponsored event provided that either the person is not compensated or, if compensation is received, it is not related to the operation of the UAS; (ii) a student may operate a UAS under Section 336, provided such operation is in furtherance of his or her aviation-related education; and (iii) faculty may assist students operating UAS without obtaining an exemption, provided the student maintains control over the aircraft.  In making this determination, the FAA stated that even though a student who learns to operate a UAS at an accredited educational institution may proceed into an aviation-related job where he or she will be compensated, the link between the coursework and the job was too attenuated to move the operation of the UAS by the student into the realm of commercial operations requiring an exemption under Section 333.