Motorized Paper Airplanes Are Drones, According To FAA

Get high like paper, make laws about drones

Is a paper airplane a drone? For the Federal Aviation Administration, responsible for regulating America’s skies, this is no longer an idle question. The commercial use of drones is currently prohibited in the United States, unless an operator receives an exemption from the FAA that allows them to fly their drone.

Peter Sachs, a lawyer and drone advocate, requested an exemption to fly a paper airplane with an attached engine for commercial purposes. His goal was to find out if, given the opportunity, would the agency extend its jurisdiction to include paper planes? According to the FAA, if the paper airplane has an attached motor and its operator has filed the appropriate paperwork, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

According to the exemption, Sachs is free to fly a Tailor Toys PowerUp 3.0, which is a smart-phone controlled propeller that attaches to a paper airplane. The drone retails for about $50, and can fly up to 180 feet in distance with a total unencumbered flight time of around 10 minutes. Here is what it looks like in flight:

When we first covered the PowerUp 3.0, we perhaps prematurely labeled it “one of the purest “just a toy” drones out there.” Sachs’ petition requests the authorization of this drone to “conduct aerial photography and videography.” There are cameras small enough and light enough to fit on the paper plane, so this usage is technically possible if extremely unlikely.

In the introduction to the FAA’s Certificate of Authorization for this drone use, it curiously says that “The FAA has determined that good cause exists for not publishing a summary of the petition in the Federal Register because the requested exemption would not set a precedent.” This is as close as the letter comes to acknowledging that it is super weird for the government to regulate paper planes. That doesn’t stop the FAA from spelling out 31 additional restrictions. Some highlights:

  • “Operations authorized by this grant of exemption are limited to the Tailor Toys PowerUp 3.0 when weighing less than 55 pounds including payload.” Reminder: this is a paper airplane with an engine attached.
  • “The [drone] may not be operated at a speed exceeding 87 knots (100 miles per hour).” This is, again, a paper airplane with a top speed of under 12 mph.
  • “The [drone] must be operated at an altitude of no more than 400 feet above ground level.” This paper airplane with an engine has a maximum range of 180 feet.

Contacted via Twitter, Peter Sachs expressed a genuine sense of incredulity that the FAA even granted the exemption, because it shows they’re choosing to treat a paper airplane like any other drone instead of the handmade flying toy that it is. A comparison with three other certificate authorizations also published on August 26th reveals the “requested exemption would not set a precedent” language to be standard, as well as the 31 additional restrictions. This likely means that the FAA attaches these restrictions to every application for an exemption involving a drone under 55 pounds–even if the drone in question is just a souped-up paper airplane.

Says Sachs:

Did the FAA mean to define paper airplanes as aircraft? Reached by email, FAA spokesperson Les Dorr said “If you look at the exemption documents, Mr. Sachs submitted a valid petition for exemption, and we granted the requested relief.” Pressed if the FAA will treat every paper airplane with a motor attached as a drone, Dorr replied “Every petition for a Section 333 exemption is reviewed individually and considered on its own merits.”


Kelsey D. Atherton

Kelsey D. Athertonis a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work on drones, lethal AI, and nuclear weapons has appeared in Slate, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere.