The U.S. government’s ability to regulate drones was upheld today by a federal safety board, which overturned a judge’s decision that aviation regulations don’t apply to small unmanned aircraft.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which decides appeals of aviation enforcement actions, found that laws restricting unsafe flight activity cover drones as well as traditional aircraft. The ruling is a victory for the Federal Aviation Administration, which has struggled to keep up with a surge in small drone flights.
The decision preempts a March 6 ruling that threw out the FAA’s $10,000 fine against Raphael Pirker, a Swiss citizen who flew a small plane over the University of Virginia to film a promotional video without the agency’s permission. The case, in which FAA charged the flight was “careless or reckless,” was the regulator’s first fine against a drone operator.
Language in U.S. regulations clearly defines drones as aircraft that are subject to the law, the four members of the NTSB said. “This definition includes any aircraft, manned or unmanned, large or small,” they said in the decision posted today on the board’s website.
Pirker’s case now goes back to the original judge to rule whether the flight violated FAA regulations, and there may be more appeals before the issue is settled.
Small helicopters and fixed-wing planes, which can be bought at hobby shops and online for less than $1,000 and require little training to fly, are testing the FAA’s ability to police the skies.
Drones have been spotted in increasing numbers by pilots flying near airports, including an unmanned aircraft that almost struck a US Airways plane over Florida in March, according to the FAA. US Airways is part of American Airlines Group Inc.
Judge Patrick Geraghty of the NTSB initially ruled “there was no enforceable FAA rule” on the type of model aircraft Pirker used flying over the Charlottesville, Virginia, campus on Oct. 17, 2011.
Pirker flew under bridges, near statues and over pedestrians, as documented on video he shot that day. His plane weighed less than 5 pounds (2.3 kilograms) and was made with a foam wing.
Geraghty ruled the FAA’s regulations didn’t apply to people piloting a “model” plane. The FAA and Congress have exempted from regulation drone flights that are “solely for hobby or recreational reasons.”
Even though commercial drone flights aren’t approved by FAA, they’ve been used to film scenes in the Martin Scorsese- directed movie “The Wolf of Wall Street” and sporting events for Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN. They’ve inspected oilfield equipment, mapped agricultural land and photographed homes and neighborhoods for real estate marketing, according to industry officials, company websites and videos on the Internet.
The University of Michigan canceled plans to deliver the game ball to its football field with a drone on Sept. 20 because the FAA said it wasn’t permitted. The agency later updated its order barring flights over large sporting events to make clear it considers drones to be a type of aircraft.
While the FAA hasn’t yet proposed rules governing commercial operations of small drones, in September it granted the first waivers allowing such flights for six movie-production companies seeking to mount cameras on small crafts.
The agency has also given permission for two oil companies to use drones in the Arctic regions of Alaska for inspections.
Proposed regulations governing commercial drones weighing less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms) are expected from the FAA before the end of the year.
Congress in 2012 ordered the FAA to craft rules to safely integrate drones into U.S. skies by 2015. The agency doesn’t expect to allow all drone operations by then and will instead phase them into the system over a longer period, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told a Senate hearing Jan. 15.
Drones are forecast to create 100,000 jobs and $82 billion in economic impact in the first 10 years after the FAA allows flights, according to a forecast by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an Arlington, Virginia-based trade group.