The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has proposed what it says is its largest civil penalty against an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) operator for endangering the safety of national airspace.
The FAA’s $1.9 million civil penalty is against SkyPan International Inc., an aerial photography company in Chicago. Between March 21, 2012, and Dec. 15, 2014, the agency alleges, SkyPan conducted 65 unauthorized operations in some of the country’s most congested airspace and heavily populated cities – thus violating airspace regulations and various operating rules. These operations were illegal and not without risk, according to the FAA.
The FAA alleges that these flights, which involved aerial photography, took place over locations in New York City and Chicago.
Of these, 43 flights were in highly restricted New York Class B airspace without SkyPan’s having received air traffic control clearance, the FAA says, adding that the aircraft was not equipped with a two-way radio, a transponder or altitude-reporting equipment. (The FAA defines Class B airspace as “generally airspace from the surface to 10,000 feet [mean sea level] surrounding the nation’s busiest airports in terms of airport operations or passenger enplanements.”)
The FAA further alleges that on all 65 flights, the aircraft lacked an airworthiness certificate and effective registration and that SkyPan did not have a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization for the operations.
SkyPan operated the aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger lives or property, the FAA alleges. The company has 30 days after receiving the FAA’s enforcement letter to respond to the agency.
Interestingly, according to the FAA’s publicly released Section 333 exemptions for commercial drone operations, SkyPan International received the FAA OK to fly on April 17, 2015 – roughly three years after the FAA alleges the company’s unauthorized operations began. The exemption is for “conduct[ing] inspections of unimproved or vacant properties for the construction industry, developers and property owners.”
“Flying unmanned aircraft in violation of the Federal Aviation regulations is illegal and can be dangerous,” states Michael Huerta, FAA administrator. “We have the safest airspace in the world, and everyone who uses it must understand and observe our comprehensive set of rules and regulations.”
SkyPan, in the FAQ section of its website, brings up the issue of FAA regulation: “What if you can’t use SkyPan robots due to wind or high altitudes where there are FAA restrictions & safety issues like in Midtown Manhattan?”
The company says in its response, “SkyPan’s roots began in 1988 when we developed the systems for rigging fullscale manned helicopters with panoramic film cameras. Today we use improved digital systems, especially in NYC and other major cities. We’ve worked with the same experienced pilots for 20+ years who fly nonturbine aircraft in preapproved locations & elevations. Many projects are produced using only fullscale coverage.”
Last summer, SkyPan was one of several organizations that filed lawsuits against the FAA in opposition to the agency’s Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. In the June 2014 interpretation, the agency said, among other things, that it would take enforcement action against unauthorized commercial UAS operators.
Via Twitter, Brendan Schulman – DJI’s vice president of policy and legal affairs – brings up a matter concerning SkyPan’s penalty: “[The] FAA generally can only impose civil penalties up to $50,000. Above that, the matter must be filed as lawsuit by DOJ in federal court.” (This is explained in an FAA document found here.)