Agence France-Presse in Washington and Danny Lee
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is to appeal after a judge threw out a fine against Hong Kong-based Raphael Pirker for operating a drone while filming a commercial in 2011.
Pirker was fined US$10,000 and the court decision could open up the United States’ skies to more unmanned-aircraft flights.
The FAA had fined Pirker, known in drone circles as “Trappy”, in 2011 after he flew a small drone over the University of Virginia, shooting video to be used in an advertisement for its medical school.
The agency alleged that Pirker – who now runs a drone business in Hong Kong – had operated a drone without a pilot’s licence and in a “careless or reckless manner” in violation of a ban on using drones for money-making purposes.
But in a ruling on Thursday, a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) judge granted Pirker’s request for the civil penalty to be dismissed, saying the FAA lacked the legal authority to regulate small drones.
In a statement confirming it would appeal to the full NTSB, the FAA said: “The agency is concerned that this decision could impact the safe operation of the national airspace system and the safety of people and property on the ground.”
Enthusiasts of the unmanned aircraft are closely following Pirker’s case, which they say could shape the development of small drones for civilian use – for instance in newsgathering or for wildlife protection.
“It basically [found] us right on all accounts, except for one, that the FAA doesn’t have the authority to regulate the airspace. The judge has not gone into that at all, but it is a huge win for us and the industry,” Pirker told theSunday Morning Post.
“I was very relieved, but I kind of expected it. [The] FAA has not followed the proper procedure to put laws in place that would prohibit this kind of flying,” he said.
Pirker’s lawyer, Brendan Schulman, said the case would have far-reaching consequences for the controversial but fast-growing drone industry.
“Various companies have been held back for seven years as a result of the FAA’s purported ban on the commercial use of drone technology,” he said.
In the run-up to Christmas last year, online retailer Amazon said it was looking into the use of drones to deliver packages.
Later, a brewer in Minnesota posted a YouTube video of a drone delivering a case of lager to a fishing hut on an icebound lake.
Campaigners for civil liberties have voiced concerns, however, that drones fitted with cameras or other surveillance gear could be used to infringe on individuals’ right to privacy.
Pending the formulation of a clear set of regulations, the FAA has advised that drones, like model aircraft, be flown no higher than 400 feet (122 metres) above the ground and away from populated areas.