The administration cited recent "reckless use of unmanned model aircraft near airports and involving large crowds of people" in its announcement of the policy shift, which comes as federal officials are trying to determine how to regulate private unmanned aircraft in American airspace.
Effective immediately, the aviation administration says model-aircraft operators flying within five miles of an airport must ask the airport and its control tower for permission to fly, according to its notice.
The administration, citing preexisting law, issued a list of do's and don'ts for model-aircraft users that says pilots must always be in eyesight of their aircraft, which require certification if they're larger than 55 pounds and which can't be used for commercial purposes, such as for photography.
Despite citing concerns over the use of small drones near crowds in a news release, the agency's notice did not issue guidelines explicitly banning the practice.
Brendan Schulman, a New York-based attorney specializing in drone law, said he was troubled by the Federal Aviation Administration's restrictions on model aircraft near airports, which came without public comment.
Previously, pilots of model aircraft or small drones were encouraged to contact the authorities only if they planned to fly within three miles of an airport, Schulman said; now, that contact is mandatory, and the safety bubble has been expanded to five miles.
"That's unprecedented and completely new," Schulman said, adding: "People should be concerned that a significant recreational activity has now been deemed unlawful and subject to penalty in the absence of any public input or comment into what the rules should be."
The agency said it would welcome public comment on its guidelines for 30 days.