The FAA on May 16 announced changes to operating rules for recreational drones, including a requirement that hobbyists obtain prior authorization from the agency before flying their aircraft in controlled airspace near airports.

The changes, specified by Congress in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, replace a provision of 2012 reauthorization legislation known as the Special Rule for Model Aircraft, which prohibited the FAA from regulating recreational drones. President Donald Trump signed the new act into law in October.

Previously, hobbyists were only required to notify an airport operator or air traffic control tower (ATC) before flying within 5 miles of an airport. Until further notice, the FAA said, ATC facilities no longer will accept requests to fly recreational drones in controlled airspace. Instead, the agency has granted temporary airspace authorizations to fly at 193 “fixed sites” in controlled airspace associated with model aircraft clubs.

In the future, hobbyists will be able to request authorization to fly in controlled airspace near airports through the FAA’s Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC), which now is available to commercial drone operators.

Through the LAANC system, operators request authorizations using smartphone applications offered by FAA-designated unmanned aircraft system (UAS) service suppliers. The apps match flight plans with airspace grids on FAA UAS Facility Maps that depict pre-approved areas and altitudes where a drone can safely fly, then convey authorization or denial to the requester.

“The FAA is upgrading LAANC to allow recreational flyers to use the system. For now, however, recreational flyers who want to operate in controlled airspace may only do so at the fixed sites,” according to the announcement. The FAA is listing fixed sites on-line, and also depicting them as blue dots of UAS Facility Maps.

Another new provision in the 2018 legislation requires drone hobbyists to pass an aeronautical knowledge and safety test, something commercial operators must do under the FAA’s Part 107 regulation.

Hobbyists must retain proof of passing the test and make it available to the FAA or law enforcement officers upon request. The agency said it is currently developing a training module for the requirement.

Bill Carey,