FAA rules - whats the difference in a RC model Plane and a Drone?

This story about TMZ begs the question. Hobbyists have flown RC model Planes for at least three or more decades without any hassles from the FAA.

What’s the threshold from a RC model Plane to a Drone? When does it require FAA approval?

What kind of range does a RC model Plane have? Is it only line of sight?

I’m guessing hobbyists will eventually want to fly drones too? Would there be any restrictions on who can fly one?

Very interesting question. I don’t have the answer, but I thought about it for a moment and I’m not sure there is a bright-line answer.

Possible differences I can think of that could be used:

  1. Line of sight. It’s an RC model plane (or RC model helicopter, etc.) if, under normal operations, you must be able to physically see it in order to control it. This would mean that drones that have onboard cameras that transmit to a base station and display on a computer or where you can download a software control application for autonomous flight might be legally considered UAV’s. It could also have to do with actual usage, nature notwithstanding - e.g. a unit that can be controlled without line of sight as in #1 but where the operator does not allow the unit to get beyond line of sight might be considered as an RC model plane as long as it stays in line of sight.

  2. Some combination of weight or dimensions (height, width, length). E.g. if it weighs more than five pounds it’s legally a UAV

  3. Fuel capacity - e.g. “it’s an RC model plane if its onboard fuel/battery capacity lasts less than 1 hour, else it’s a UAV”

  4. Purpose of use - it’s an RC model plane if you’re using it for fun, but if you use it for a practical purpose such as scouting or patrolling an area (e.g. launch a drone to check out the traffic up ahead on the highway) or transporting a payload then it’s a UAV.

  5. RC model planes are already illegal - it’s just that the FAA generally doesn’t consider busting people who fly dinky toys to be a priority.

Poking around on google, it seems that the difference isn’t all that clear, though generally most folks seem to think the difference is that a hobby RC aircraft is always within line of sight and is always under pilot control, unlike a drone which can fly by itself and isn’t always within line of sight of its controller.

There is a bill currently in the House that attempts to clarify the difference between model aircraft and drones. This is what it says:

Good to see that they ruled out paper airplanes and well-thrown toasters.

I can’t help but think that they’re about to start running into the same situation the “assault-type gun” rules are having… plus, somebody is going to want to have a 1/N scale model of the type of big UAVs they’re using to launch missile attacks, if they’re not already available, and those are going to freak people right the fuck out.

It’s a gray area. I dabble in R/C airplanes occasionally when I get bored with my other hobbies.

It is already illegal to operate an unmanned aircraft of any kind for commercial use without a license (e.g. a realtor using an R/C helicopter to take photographs of a neighborhood from the air), but currently recreational use is not restricted.

For a long time, the FAA pretty much overlooked recreational model aircraft operators. Current FAA rules say that you can operate model aircraft for recreational purposes without restriction, as long as you do not interfere with full-scale air traffic, but do not clearly define boundaries for what is considered a “model aircraft”. For most of this time, technological limitations prevented anyone from really pushing the boundaries of what you could do in the scope of “recreational use”. But in the past ten or fifteen years or so, model airplanes have gotten more serious. People are now building 100-pound aircraft powered by real jet engines than can reach 300 mph. It is quite possible that these will be subject to some kind of regulation as the FAA creates comprehensive rules for “drone” aircraft. I think the FAA is actively working on deciding where to draw the line. While larger models have always existed, the speed, capability and relatively low price of the newest generation of technology has changed the equation. These FAA regulations may apply even to people who fly their models using a conventional radio control / transmitter setup, and keep them in the vicinity of an established flying site. The hobby community is still waiting to see what the FAA comes up with. The last proposal I saw proposed allowing hobby vehicles with a maximum speed of less than 100 mph, maximum weight of 55 pounds, as long as they were operated always within visual range of the operator and no higher than 400 ft AGL.

For reference, 400 ft AGL is not very high at all, and you can buy an electric R/C plane off the shelf for $299 that will do 100 mph after about $150 of modifications.

Separately, there are already hobbyists that operate “drones” by any reasonable definition. The term in the hobby is “FPV” (First Person View) - you install a camera and a transmitter on your aircraft and pilot it from a first-person perspective using a monitor on the ground. The radios on these operate by line-of-sight, but the range is far beyond visual range. You can find plenty of videos on Youtube just searching for “fpv radio control” or variations thereof. Operation of these for recreational purposes is currently unrestricted in the US. This may also change.

Incidentally, as I stated, commercial use of these things is heavily restricted. In the case of TMZ, the boundary is pretty clear - they are a commercial organization and would not be allowed to operate an unmanned aircraft of any type.

If you wanted to recreationally fly an R/C plane over a supermodel’s house and take pictures of her sunbathing naked in the backyard, that’s okay - from the FAA’s perspective - as long as you don’t try to sell the images.

Finally - if you do a lot of reading on the subject, you will find plenty of people talking about the “AMA rules”. The AMA is the Academy for Model Aeronautics. They are a private organization that’s essentially a radio control hobby club. They operate flying fields, sell insurance, etc. The AMA rules are simply their recommendations and have no legal force whatsoever (other than potentially as limitations on the insurance policy you buy from them).

What? There’s plenty of commercial companies offering video shooting services from remote controlled copters and planes. TMZ could as well, they’d just have to apply for a license.

No. Those companies are operating illegally and can be shut down (and heavily fined) if the FAA cares to do so.

The FAA is currently only granting licenses for commercial operation of unmanned aircraft for research and development purposes (in these cases, the drone is classified an experimental aircraft).


This will change, perhaps in the next year or so. But that is the present situation. I do not know the history of the ban on commercial UAS activity - my limited understanding is that it was always prohibited but not something the FAA cared to enforce until relatively recently.

I’ve hinted to my wife that a RV flight simulator would be a welcome Christmas present. Phoenix comes with a real radio controller that can be used with real RV planes. I thought I’d spend the winter practicing on the sim then this spring get a trainer RV plane.

Just hope any new legislation doesn’t kill the hobby just as I’m jumping into it. RV planes are getting ridiculously big. I knew kids in high school that flew RV planes and they were pretty small back then.

is there currently any law unambiguously giving the FAA jurisdiction over remote controlled helicopters?

Commercial video RC operators, if questioned would argue they are not flying unmanned aircraft and that the FAA has no jurisdiction and I’m sure they’d take it to court to protect their livelihoods. Is there currently any precedent on this?

Yes, there is law, and precedent. It is really not up for debate. The FAA has shut down commercial R/C operators.


The FAA is the government agency that regulates aviation - and if it flies, it’s aviation, correct?

The FAA might not currently have rules on some things but there’s no question in my mind that if regulation of something that flies is needed they’re the ones to do the job.

Could you provide a cite for that? I happen to know a local dude who advertises just that sort of photography and I was thinking of doing it myself.

It doesn’t seem reasonable to have different rules for r/c planes depending on whether they are being flown for fun or profit. The flight pattern could be identical.


UAS = unmanned aircraft system
NAS = national airspace system (i.e. the air over the continental US)

Speak to these guys:

They seem to believe it’s legal to do commercial RC photography, Absolutes cite gives one example of the FAA shutting people down who were too high profile (or maybe just flew too high?).

The RCAPA is fully aware of the law.


Again, I have not followed this situation especially carefully, but I am a licensed (full-scale) pilot and an occasional R/C pilot, so I do keep up with the news.

I think what happened is that, as R/C airplanes became cheaper and more capable, people began using them for commercial aerial photography without ever considering that their use of a hobby item they bought off the shelf could be subject to FAA regulations. The FAA ignored this for some time and allowed the industry to grow mostly without comment, but ultimately two things happened:

  1. The volume of commercial UAS use grew enough that it became hard for them to overlook.
  2. The demand for full-scale unmanned/autonomous aircraft, that unquestionably need to be subject to FAA regulation because they operate alongside normal aircraft, became large enough that the FAA had to respond (e.g. your local TV stations want to operate an unarmed Predator drone instead of a helicopter, to save money).

The FAA thus began the process of working on integrating unmanned aircraft into the US airspace system. As part of this process, they chose to more strictly and definitively enforce the existing law that allowed unmanned “hobby” aircraft only, thus shutting down a booming business of professional R/C photographers (much to the photographers’ surprise). You need to check the date on things you read online carefully - the FAA “crackdown” came relatively recently (2008/2009ish? or maybe even more recently than that).

One big difference is that RC aircraft are regulated to below 400 ft and away from populated areas and air traffic. But for unmanned systems, they are not planning to have any special airspace, they plan to integrate them into the same airspace that everyone else flies in.

So you could say that a drone is defined as an unmanned aircraft that operates above 400ft, out of visual range, and may interact with other air traffic. Or probably any one of the three.

The FAA hasn’t really figured out all the rules and regulations that need to go into it. One rule they do have in place already is that drones have to be able to “Detect Sense and Avoid” other aircraft. So far no equipment has been certified for use to do that. The only drones in flight in the US right now are done so through an experimental certification.

yes and their position is not that commercial operation is illegal, it’s that the current legal situation for commercial rc flight is ambiguous and unclear. It’s open to being challenged in court and until it’s been settled its not true to say that commercial RC flight is illegal as you claimed in post #9.