Drone Operator Fined After Almost Hitting NYC Pedestrian

Two weeks after a judge overturned the first U.S. fine for recklessly flying a drone, the government tested its authority again by citing the operator of an unmanned helicopter that crash-landed 20 feet from a pedestrian in New York City.

The Federal Aviation Administration fined David Zablidowsky $2,200 for a September incident in which he flew a quad-copter drone off a building on East 38th Street in Manhattan. The FAA said Zablidowsky didn’t get permission from air-traffic controllers to fly the drone, which hit two high-rises before crashing near Grand Central Terminal.

“Your operation of the aircraft endangered the safety of the national airspace system,” the FAA told Zablidowsky in a March 20 letter released yesterday.

The FAA has struggled to police the burgeoning use of drones that anyone can buy online or at hobby shops. With the exception of hobbyists, the agency doesn’t allow drone flights unless it has granted a special permit, which wasn’t done in this case. Two messages left on a telephone number listed for a David Zablidowsky in Brooklyn weren’t returned.

The FAA’s authority over drones has been in question since a U.S. administrative law judge March 6 dismissed a $10,000 penalty against another operator. In that case, Raphael Pirker was using a small foam aircraft equipped with a camera to film a promotional video over the University of Virginia in Charlottesville on Oct. 17, 2011.

The administrative law judge determined that because the FAA hasn’t written explicit rules governing drones, the agency didn’t have regulatory authority over Pirker’s aircraft. The decision, under appeal by the FAA, hasn’t taken effect. The agency has said it plans to issue rules by the end of the year.

Videoed Crash

The FAA has been ordered by Congress to begin integrating unmanned flights into the skies by 2015. In the absence of regulations, the agency hasn’t allowed commercial flights in the U.S.

The action against Zablidowsky, who can appeal the fine, is the FAA’s first attempt to penalize a drone operator who wasn’t flying for hire.

Zablidowsky was tracked down because he videoed the Sept. 30, 2013, flight on the quad-copter and could be seen preparing the device for takeoff from a balcony, according to a story by WABC-TV in New York at the time. The device, along with a small camera, were taken by the pedestrian it almost hit, according to the TV station.

The copter can be seen hovering over the city and flying into the side of buildings in the video.

Safety Code

Zablidowsky was accused by the FAA of flying in restricted airspace without obtaining permission from controllers and operating the drone in a “careless or reckless manner.”

The airspace designation above that part of New York is the same as for flights using nearby airports, including LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy, according to the FAA.

The agency expects to issue rules by the end of the year allowing unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms) to fly commercially.

While the rules haven’t been finished, an industry group recommended that such small-drone flights be restricted to unpopulated areas, according to Ben Gielow, general counsel of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an Arlington, Virginia-based trade group.

Texas Challenge

The FAA doesn’t prohibit hobbyists from flying unmanned aircraft. The Academy of Model Aeronautics, the largest group representing such hobbyists in the U.S., urges members not to operate in areas within 25 feet of other people, according to its safety code.

The FAA’s restrictions on unmanned flight are also being challenged by a Texas volunteer group that searches for missing people.

The Texas EquuSearch Mounted Search and Recovery Team sued the FAA April 21 after the agency ordered it to stop using drones without permission. The group is represented by New York lawyer Brendan Schulman, who also is Pirker’s attorney.

The group would have been allowed to continue its flights if it had gotten an FAA authorization through a law-enforcement agency, the agency said in an e-mailed statement.

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