Raphael Pirker, a videographer who was fined $10,000 by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) in 2011 for for illegally operating the his five-pound drone for commercial purposes and operating it in a “wreckless manner,” just settled with the FAA for $1,100. Pirker’s original case was dismissed by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) with the National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) last March. The ALJ ruled this past March that Mr. Pirker’s plastic-foam drone was a model aircraft and was not subject to FAA rules for manned aircraft, which directly cast doubt on the FAA’s authority to regulate drones. However, the full NTSB board in November overturned the ALJ’s decision on appeal by the FAA, ruling that drones are aircraft and subject to aviation laws, affirming the FAA’s regulatory power over the devices.
In settling the first FAA drone enforcement case, Pirker issued a lengthy statement stating: “We are pleased that the case ignited an important international conversation about the civilian use of drones, the appropriate level of governmental regulation concerning this new technology, and even spurred the regulators to open new paths to the approval of certain commercial drone operations. The decision to settle the case was not an easy one, but the length of time that would be needed to pursue further proceedings and appeals, and the FAA’s new reliance on a statute that post-dates Raphael’s flight, have diminished the utility of the case to assist the commercial drone industry in its regulatory struggle.”
Meanwhile, five separate bills are currently before the Virginia General Assembly that would restrict the use of drones in Virginia, including two that would let localities prohibit even hobbyists from flying small unmanned aircraft. As reported by Craig Zirpolo of Capital News Service, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a nonprofit advocacy group with more than 7,000 members, worries that outright bans on the use of drones by individuals could stifle the personal liberties of pilots. The group also fears that such bans could prevent businesses from flying model aircraft if the FAA opens the door to commercial use of drones. Virginia already restricts the use of drones by government and law enforcement agencies. In 2013, the General Assembly passed a two-year moratorium regulating government drones, making Virginia the first state to do so.
Now that the drawn out legal battle over the FAA’s regulatory power over drones has settled, we are forced to wait for the FAA to issue its long-awaited rules governing the commercial use of drones, which the FAA is required to complete in September 2015. Don’t hold your breath that it will meet this congressional mandate.