The question has arisen from time-to-time, as to whether a customer who willingly engages the services of a drone operator, knowing that he or she does not hold a Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate, could be subject to federal legal action. The answer is a qualified “yes.”
This question has thus far centered around the meaning of “operate,” which is defined similarly in both the Code of Federal Regulations and the U.S. Code. Federal Aviation Regulation 14 CFR 1.1, defines “operate” as:
Operate, with respect to aircraft, means use, cause to use or authorize to use aircraft, for the purpose (except as provided in § 91.13 of this chapter) of air navigation including the piloting of aircraft, with or without the right of legal control (as owner, lessee, or otherwise).
Similarly, U.S. Code 49 U.S. Code § 40102 (a) (35) , defines “operate” and “operation” as:
“operate aircraft” and “operation of aircraft” mean using aircraft for the purposes of air navigation, including—
(A) the navigation of aircraft; and
(B) causing or authorizing the operation of aircraft with or without the right of legal control of the aircraft.
Note the phrases “cause to use” and “authorize to use” in the regulation, and the phrase “causing or authorizing” in the statute. That language indicates that the drafters contemplated scenarios where persons who are not actually piloting an aircraft may nonetheless be “operating” one if they cause or authorize it to be operated.
As an “operator,” logic dictates that they are subject to all regulatory and statutory requirements and restrictions that apply to the operation of aircraft. Indeed, case law supports this argument, as it has been the basis of at least one FAA enforcement action, the holding of which was subsequently affirmed by a Court of Appeals.