Judge: FAA Can't Fine Drone Pilot for "Reckless" Flying


Even as Amazon announces its intentions to launch delivery drones, beer companies try to send brews aloft, and aerial photographers plunk down credit cards to buy their very own quadcopter from Chris Anderson, the bottom of every article about the brave new drone-tastic world just over the horizon had a sentence like this:

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has said that it will issue regulations for the use of commercial drones in 2015.

Last month, the FAA announced that it might consider some early approvals on a case-by-case basis and there were other signs the agency's control of drones was slipping. But a new administrative court ruling casts doubt on whether such rule and permissions from the body that regulates all things airborne would even be binding:

Raphael Pirker, who had been docked $10,000 by the Federal Aviation Administration for using a drone to shoot a promotional video, won an appeal yesterday of the fine for reckless flying. The judge in the dispute dismissed the first-ever such fine, saying the FAA has no authority over small unmanned aircraft….

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.

The FAA can (and likely will) appeal the ruling, but this leaves big commercial players and mom-and-pop drone shops alike in an even greater state of legal limbo in the meantime.