San Diego’s Undercover Drone Companies Fight the Feds

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A business owner in your neighborhood may be battling the FAA over his moneymaking device.

At least 15 San Diego area companies use drones to take photos or video footage or help develop the small unmanned systems that do so. You might not know this, but the FAA does. The companies have received formal nasty grams or phone calls from the federal aviation officials in recent years based on their work.

That’s because the FAA effectively banned commercial drone flights in 2007. But now the FAA’s policy is under fire and the San Diego companies are fighting back.

The FAA’s ban is an informal dictum against commercial drone use, not a law. In 2012, the agency fined aerial photographer Raphael Pirker $10,000 for flying a drone near the University of Virginia. Pirker refused to accept that punishment and appealed to the National Transportation Safety Board. An administrative law judge recently agreed with Pirker, ruling that the FAA can’t ban commercial drone flights without a formal law doing so.

More than a dozen media companies came out in support of Pirker on Monday. Organizations including The Associated Press and The New York Times Company argued in a brief that the FAA’s position violates the First Amendment.

Now an Encinitas-based attorney who represents the 15 drone companies in San Diego County has joined the fray.

Attorney Michael D. Curran, a small unmanned systems enthusiast who also has a pilot’s license, filed a supportive brief on Tuesday on behalf of more than two-dozen clients, some of whom live in other states.

You can read his filing here.

Curran doesn’t identify his clients in the filing and told Voice of San Diego they haven’t given him the OK to reveal their names. He would only say each is either involved with the manufacturing or development of drones, or in some form of aerial photography.

Those clients also have something else in common: They’ve all been threatened by the FAA, a tack Curran argues is without legal basis.

And they’ve lost money as a result.

“The general story of my clients like many of those across the country is they’ve been financially damaged,” Curran said. “Many of them invested thousands and thousands of dollars on a prototype only to be told by the FAA you can’t do it.”

Drone companies initially believed they’d only need to wait months for FAA rules that would allow them to press on with their investments but it’s now been seven years since the agency’s unofficial ban.

The FAA has said the situation should change soon. It expects to release guidelines by the end of the year but those are unlikely to be finalized until at least 2015.


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