Aerial photographers, surveyors and filmmakers who want to fly small drones in U.S. airspace are able to rejoice after a judge dealt a setback to efforts by federal regulators to rein in use of the unmanned aircraft.
Raphael Pirker, who had been docked $10,000 by the Federal Aviation Administration for using a drone to shoot a promotional video, won dismissal yesterday of the fine for reckless flying. An administrative law judge determined the FAA had no authority over small unmanned aircraft when it imposed the first-ever such fine on a drone operator. The FAA today appealed the decision.
Patrick Egan, who had run an aerial photography business until the FAA said such operations weren’t allowed in 2007, said his e-mail box was filled with applause by people who want to use small unmanned planes and copters. Pirker’s victory is a setback for the FAA, which holds that commercial drone flights are prohibited until it writes rules governing their use.
“Thousands of people are going to be out flying,” Egan, who is an editor at the drone-news website sUASNEWS.com, said in an interview. “I’m going out flying today. I’m going to go nuts with a big smile on my face.”
The FAA’s appeal stays the ruling, the agency said in an e-mailed statement. It said “the agency is concerned that this decision could impact the safe operation of the national airspace system and the safety of people and property on the ground.”
The agency may also have the power to issue emergency regulations restricting commercial uses of small unmanned aircraft if it determines that a flood of unregulated drone flights poses a safety risk.
Proposed regulations allowing flights of drones weighing less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms), which have been delayed for more than three years, aren’t due until November.
World sales of unmanned aircraft, including those used by the military, are expected to total $89 billion this year through 2023, which would make it one of the fastest growing segments of the aviation industry, according to Fairfax, Virginia-based consultant Teal Group.
Patrick Geraghty, the administrative law judge for the National Transportation Safety Board who decided on the appeal, said that at the time of Pirker’s flight to shoot a promotional video over the University of Virginia in Charlottesville on Oct. 17, 2011, “there was no enforceable FAA rule” on the type of model aircraft he used.
If he accepted the FAA’s argument, it would mean that “a flight in the air of a paper aircraft, or a toy balsa wood glider, could subject the operator to” FAA’s penalties, Geraghty wrote in his decision.
“This has very significant implications for companies that have been eager to proceed with commercial applications for UAS technologies,” Brendan Schulman, Pirker’s lawyer, said in an interview.
The FAA argued that Pirker’s flight, with a plane made with a foam wing and weighing less than 5 pounds, was “careless and reckless,” putting it under the agency’s authority to enforce flying safety.
Pirker flew under bridges, near statues and over pedestrians, as documented on video he shot that day.
The decision counters the FAA’s assertion, most recently made in an update posted on its website Feb. 26, that there are “no shades of gray in FAA regulations. Anyone who wants to fly an aircraft -- manned or unmanned -- in U.S. airspace needs some level of FAA approval.”
Even before the ruling, the FAA was struggling to police the commercial use of drones that anyone can purchase online or at hobby shops.
Drones have been used to film scenes in the Martin Scorsese-directed movie “The Wolf of Wall Street” and sporting events for Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN. They’ve inspected oilfield equipment, mapped agricultural land and photographed homes and neighborhoods for real estate marketing, according to industry officials, company websites and videos on the Internet.
While the FAA hasn’t issued any permits for commercial drone use outside the Arctic, the agency said in a Feb. 10 statement that it will consider them on a case-by-case basis.
Congress in 2012 ordered the FAA to craft rules to safely integrate drones into U.S. skies by 2015. The agency doesn’t expect to allow all drone operations by then and will instead phase them into the system over a longer period, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told a Senate hearing Jan. 15.
While flying a model aircraft “solely for hobby or recreational reasons” doesn’t require approval, hobbyists must operate according to 1981 guidelines, such as staying away from populated areas, the agency has said.
Pirker didn’t qualify as a hobbyist, the FAA argued.
Geraghty found the guidelines can’t be enforced, at least for people piloting a “model” plane.
Michael Toscano, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said in an e-mailed statement the ruling underscores the group’s calls for swifter action by FAA to write regulations governing drones.
The agency has the authority to allow limited commercial drone flights already for low-risk operations over farms or surveying power lines, Toscano said March 5 at a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee session in Washington.
Toscano’s association is an Arlington, Virginia-based trade group representing unmanned aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing Co. and Textron Inc.
The Air Line Pilots Association, a union representing more than 50,000 flight crew members in North America, is concerned the ruling may lead to an increase in unmanned aircraft fights that threaten safety, Sean Cassidy, the group’s national safety chairman, said in an interview.
“I don’t envy the folks over at FAA right now having to contend with this,” Cassidy said.