Game of Drones: UAV Entertainment and the FAA

With unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) (also called drones) anticipated to become a multi-billion dollar industry in a few years, many are betting that drone gaming will explode as the next big thing in competitive entertainment. It is not hard to see why: with the aid of first-person view (FPV) headsets and camera-mounted drones, drone gaming allows otherwise gravity-bound users to experience flight at exhilarating speeds—sometimes up to 100 mph. Despite their undeniable appeal and popularity, competitive drone gaming may stay grounded until Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidelines and regulations are more favorable. Nevertheless, there are a number of ways that drone manufacturers and drone gaming organizers can facilitate legal drone gaming competitions that may avoid the need of going through an FAA approval process—this post explores a few considerations.

When certain criteria are satisfied, a model drone flight does not require FAA approval. In fact, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, prohibits the FAA from promulgating any rule or regulation for “model aircrafts” when such criteria are met. First, the aircraft must be flow strictly for hobby or recreational use. Second, the aircraft must be flown within visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft. Other criteria include: (i) that the aircraft be no more than 55 pounds unless certified by a community-based organization (e.g., model aircraft club); (ii) that operation of the aircraft be in accordance with community-based guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization; and (iii) that the operator gives notice to airport operators and airport air traffic control towers for operations within 5 miles of an airport. Further guidance for the model aircraft rules was proposed in the FAA’s Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft.

Embrace “Hybrid” FPV Headsets

Under the FAA’s proposed interpretation, use of typical FPV headsets during drone flights that replace a drone operator’s line of sight of the drone with a digitized first-person view is prohibited. On the other hand, drone operators are likely able to use FPV headsets that merely supplement (as opposed to replace) the drone operator’s line of sight, especially if the drone operators can simultaneously see the drone with his or her own natural vision and the digitized view.

Avoid Advertising on Drones, Drone Videos, Etc.

According to the FAA, any drone flights for a “commercial” purpose—including flights that are in furtherance of a business or incidental to a person’s business—cannot be performed without prior FAA approval. As such, to avoid the FAA’s purview, competition organizers (as well as drone operators) should avoid advertisements at drone gaming competitions, including brand marketing on the drones themselves and augmenting live or replay videos of the drone flights with advertisements.

Offer No Monetary Prizes

One of the examples provided by the FAA as flights that fail the “hobby or recreation” criteria is receiving money for demonstrating aerobatics with a drone. As such, organizers should avoid giving out monetary prizes to drone gaming competitors. Priceless competition trophies and medals may be acceptable.

Until the FAA revises its interpretation or issues new drone guidelines or regulations, it is anyone’s guess as to how regulation of the growing world of drone gaming by the FAA will develop.