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Friday, January 30, 2015

FAA settles drone case

After a multi-year fight over its $10,000 civil penalty against a drone pilot, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) settled with Raphael Pirker for $1,100 in connection with his operation of an unmanned aircraft system (“UAS,” sometimes called “unmanned aerial vehicles” or “drones”) in October 2011.

The settlement ends a battle between Pirker and the federal agency charged with keeping skies safe. The FAA had originally fined Pirker, a videographer hired to provide aerial photographs and video of the University of Virginia’s campus, for allegedly flying his Ritewing Zephyr in a careless or reckless manner near people, property, and an active heliport. Interestingly, the FAA did not explicitly penalize Pirker for his commercial use of a UAS, but rather for the manner in which he operated the drone. Pirker appealed the civil penalty to a National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) administrative law judge (“ALJ”), who (somewhat surprisingly) overturned the civil penalty on March 6, 2014, and determined the FAA had no regulatory authority to enforce flight safety regulations against drone operators because drones are not “aircraft.” The FAA then appealed to the full NTSB, which reversed the ALJ’s opinion on November 17, 2014, sending the case back for further consideration. The NTSB also affirmatively stated the FAA’s authority was broad enough to permit its regulation of UAS.