Historical perspective: Radio-controlled model aircraft in the US (left and center) and German As-292 surveillance drones (right) from the 1930s

Frequently Asked Questions

Why does the SAO Safety Code address all small airborne objects? Arenít drones the real issue?
Drones and unmanned aircraft are in the news, but inexpensive and sophisticated electronics have changed how all airborne objects can be utilized. Toy model airplanes that weigh just a few ounces can now be flown using live first-person video from the "cockpit", hobby rockets of yesteryear carry high-definition cameras, and even kites can be remotely controlled and used for surveillance. All of these airborne objects can potentially present similar hazards if they are used recklessly or flown in inappropriate locations. And they are becoming increasingly difficult to categorize; for every definition, there is a hybrid that blurs the lines and bends the rules. For these reasons, all small airborne objects are treated similarly by the SAO Safety Code.

The SAO Safety Code is only one page. How can it address complicated safety issues?
The safety code provides a concise framework that is designed to inform more detailed policies at individual institutions. The code requires that each participating institution appoint a designated authority to develop specific guidelines for SAOs on its property as well as oversee the effective implementation of these guidelines. For model aircraft, the guidelines must conform to community-based standards from a nationwide organization such as the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), or similar organization created by the academic community.

There are already safety codes for model aircraft, rockets, and kites. Why do we need another safety code?
Several national organizations and even individuals have developed safety codes for a wide range of airborne contrivances including model aircraft (AMA), unmanned aircraft (AUVSI), model rockets (NAR), and kites (Jim Powers). These safety codes are extremely useful, but they are written from the perspective of airspace users rather than landowners. Contrary to historical precedent and landmark court decisions, many of these existing codes assume that landowners have no particular right to use the outdoor spaces on their property or to exclude disagreeable activities. New technologies, especially miniature drones with high-resolution cameras, are bringing the issue of property rights back into the national debate. The SAO Safety Code conforms to the long-standing precedent that landowners control the near-ground space on their property. This structured interpretation of airspace has substantial benefits for public safety, national security, privacy protection, and regulatory efficiency.

How was the safety code developed?
The SAO Safety Code was written by a dedicated group of researchers, educators, and administrators from major colleges and universities in the United States. Most of the language was taken directly from FAA regulations (14 CFR), federal aviation statutes (49 USC), the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (PL112-95), and Supreme Court decisions pertaining to airspace, privacy, and landowner rights. There are some notable discrepancies among these various sources of information, particularly between FAA interpretations and landmark court decisions. For example, the FAA appears to be granting the owners of small private airports control over all outdoor airspace, right down to the grass, within 78 square miles around their facilities. An FAA official in Washington even told one of our institutions that tossing a paper airplane outdoors, if done for research, would require a Certificate of Authorization from the agency. Institutions will need to make their own decisions, at their own risk, when interpreting complex and sometimes conflicting laws and regulations. The SAO Safety Code is only intended as a guide to promote safety. It cannot guarantee compliance with all federal, state, and local laws.

How can my institution adopt the SAO Safety Code?
The safety code is designed to be implemented at the institutional level by the administration or official policy-making body. In practice, the code can be adopted by a division, department, or research station that has control over the users of SAOs within its domain. Implementation consists of designating an institutional authority to develop specific SAO Guidelines, review significant SAO activity under its purview, and ensure compliance. When used in name, the SAO Safety Code should be adopted in its entirety.

What if I want to use SAOs on private or public lands that do not belong to my institution?
The SAO Safety Code only applies to property owned by the institution that adopts the code. While the code is not intended to inform activities outside of this narrow domain, it could potentially be used as a minimum safety policy for institutional employees working in an official capacity elsewhere.

Why is the SAO Safety Code subject to a copyright?
The copyright is intended to preserve the integrity of the SAO Safety Code by ensuring that different versions are not developed and circulated under the same name. Any significant updates to the SAO Safety Code will be posted on this site and prior versions will be made available in an associated archive.


Photo credits: 1) www.modelairplanenews.com, Frank Gudaitis 2) ibid. 3) defense-and-freedom.blogspot.com