Drones are everywhere – flying in TV ads, helping film the latest Hollywood blockbusters, inspecting bridges and pipelines, and, of course, they’re a hot topic in Washington. As policymakers work to manage this technology, they should be careful not to put a longstanding, educational and family oriented hobby at risk. 

Hobbyists have flown model aircraft – sometimes referred to as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) – since well before manned aviation. And with over 100 years of experience comes a long history of safe and responsible flying. In 1936, twenty-two years before the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was created, the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) first began developing its community-based safety and flight training programs. Today, these safety guidelines have evolved to accommodate new technologies, new modeling disciplines, and a diverse community of more than 176,000 members that safely enjoy this fun, educational hobby from 6 to 96 years old. 

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In the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Congress recognized the effectiveness of this community-based approach and prohibited the FAA from creating “any rule or regulation” to manage this community. By no means, did Congress intend to give hobbyists a free pass. Instead, it left risk mitigation and the development of appropriate safety guidelines for the operation of model aircraft devices to community-based organizations, like AMA. 

We strongly support protecting individual privacy and prosecuting intentionally careless and reckless behavior. But it’s also important for policymakers to understand that banning or placing further restrictions on the hobbyist community, which has been flying safely for 80 years, is not the way to prevent instances of irresponsible flying.  

Through AMA’s years of experience, we’ve found that education – not regulation – is the best and most effective way to manage the recreational community. Our robust safety programs, implemented throughout our 2,400 clubs in the United States, hold AMA members accountable to a high standard of safety, responsibility and privacy. They are the reason for our longstanding and stellar safety record. 

Still, we recognize that newcomers to the hobby might not yet be involved in an AMA club. To help educate more recreational flyers, AMA co-founded the Know Before You Fly campaign along with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the Small UAV Coalition and in partnership with the FAA. Together, we’re working with manufacturers to include in their packaging information about where to fly, where not to fly and how to operate UAS responsibly. We want these safety guidelines to be the first thing consumers read when they’re getting ready to fly. 

For many of these recreational users, flying model aircraft is more than a hobby. It’s a stepping stone to promising careers. Many famous aviators, including astronauts Neil Armstrong, Robert "Hoot" Gibson, aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan and pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, were influenced by model aircraft at a young age.  

In support of this, AMA and our thousands of clubs are involved in numerous science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) projects throughout the country. Our members understand model aviation is fertile ground for the innovations that will one day be the future of this technology. We must be careful to protect this hobby if the U.S. is to remain the leader in the industry. 

As interest in drones continues, Washington policymakers are rightly focused on how to ensure safe airspace for everyone. AMA and its members are also committed to maintaining safety and we have a time-proven, community-based system that works.  

Congress should hear out the advice and concerns of our community and together, we can work towards a brighter future for all flyers. We look forward to working with policymakers who want to protect our hobby and learn from our safety model.

Mathewson is the executive director of the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), the nation’s largest organization representing those who fly model aircraft for recreation and educational purposes.