Drones Legal in US, Judge Rules
Ruling effectively invalidates FAA's ban on the use of commercial drones. The FAA can appeal the decision.
By Robotics Trends Staff - Filed Mar 07, 2014

Commercial drones, for now, are legal in U.S. skies.

Judge Patrick Geraghty of the National Transportation Safety Board ruled that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has no authority over small unmanned aircrafts. Geraghty dismissed a $10,000 reckless flying fine levied by the FAA against Swiss drone operator Raphael Pirker, who used a camera drone to film at the University of Virginia.

The ruling effectively invalidates the FAA’s 2007 ban on the use of commercial drones.

“At the time of respondent’s model aircraft operation ... there was no enforceable FAA rule or FAR Regulation application to model aircraft or for classifying model aircraft as an UAS,” Geraghty writes in the decision (pdf).

The FAA is reviewing the decision and had no further comment. The agency can appeal the decision to the full National Transportation Safety Board as well as a federal judge.

Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington, told NBC News the FAA will either file an appeal or work quickly to update its regulations. “It does mean that if you have this kind of aircraft [the FAA] is not going to [be in] a position to fine you,” he said. “I don’t think it’s time to let a thousand drones fly, it’s time to watch and see how the FAA reacts.”

Implications for U.S. Drone Market

Drone use has been taking off abroad, and many U.S.-based drone manufacturers have been frustrated with the FAA’s stance. “This has very significant implications for companies that have been eager to proceed with commercial applications for UAS technologies,” says Brendan Schulman, Pirker’s lawyer.

Schulman continues, “I view the decision as a victory for technology. For seven years our federal government has told business people and entrepreneurs that they must stop using drones for commercial purposes, and I think that’s had a very negative effect on this really exciting emerging high-tech industry.”

This ruling paves the way for companies, including RBR 50 company Amazon, to use drones to deliver goods commercially across the U.S. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos says he will offer 30-minute drop-offs with the Amazon Prime Air service.

However, companies may still come up against regulations that prohibit any aircraft to fly autonomously, without anyone at the controls

“The tone has shifted,” and the issue “is finally starting to get the attention it deserves at the highest levels of the FAA,” says Ben Gielow, general counsel of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). Allowing small drones in some industries “would release a pressure valve” for pent-up industry frustrations, he said.

Michael Toscano, president & CEO of the AUVSI, released the following statement: “We are reviewing the decision very carefully and we have also been in touch with the FAA to discuss its implications and the agency’s response. Our paramount concern is safety. We must ensure the commercial use of UAS takes place in a safe and responsible manner, whenever commercial use occurs. The decision also underscores the immediate need for a regulatory framework for small UAS.”

Efforts to Ban Drones

FAA officials have long taken the position that since it regulates access to the national airspace, it therefore has the power to regulate drones. “There are no shades of gray in FAA regulations,” the agency says on its website. “Anyone who wants to fly an aircraft - manned or unmanned - in U.S. airspace needs some level of FAA approval.”

FAA officials have been working for a decade on regulations to give commercial drones access to the national airspace without endangering manned aircraft and the public. Fed up with the agency’s slow progress, Congress passed legislation in 2012 directing the FAA to safely integrate drones of all sizes into U.S. skies by September 2015. However, it’s clear the agency won’t meet that deadline.

Regulations that would permit greater use of drones weighing less than 55 pounds have been repeatedly delayed, and are not expected to be proposed until November. It takes at least months, and often years, before proposed regulations are made final.

Pirker is the first and only person the FAA has ever attempted to fine for operating a commercial drone.

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