FAA Settles $1.9M Civil Penalty Case on ‘Unauthorized’ Drone Ops

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has announced a comprehensive settlement agreement with SkyPan International Inc., a Chicago-based drone photography company that the agency hit with a $1.9 million civil penalty in 2015 for “unauthorized” drone operations.

According to an announcement released today by the agency, the agreement resolves enforcement cases that alleged the company operated unmanned aircraft system (UAS) in congested airspace over New York City and Chicago, as well as violated airspace regulations and aircraft operating rules. The agency says the civil penalty was the largest it had ever proposed against a UAS operator.

Under the terms of the agreement, SkyPan will pay a $200,000 civil penalty. In addition, the company is also agreeing to pay an additional $150,000 if it violates federal regulations in the next year, as well as $150,000 more if it fails to comply with the terms of the settlement agreement.

“In exchange, the FAA makes no finding of violation,” SkyPan says in a statement.

SkyPan says although it is “neither admitting nor contesting the allegations that these commercial operations were contrary to FAA regulations,” the company “wishes to resolve this matter without any further expense or delay of business.”

Back in October 2015, the FAA alleged that between March 21, 2012, and Dec. 15, 2014, SkyPan conducted 65 unauthorized operations in some of the country’s most congested airspace and heavily populated cities. Of those, 43 flights were in highly restricted New York Class B airspace without SkyPan’s having received air traffic control clearance, the FAA said. The agency had further alleged that on all 65 flights, the drones lacked an airworthiness certificate and effective registration and that SkyPan did not have a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization for the operations.

Also under the new settlement, the FAA says SkyPan is agreeing to work with the agency to release three public service announcements in the next 12 months to support the FAA’s public outreach campaigns that encourage drone operators to learn and comply with UAS regulations. To that end, SkySpan says it is pleased to join the FAA to promote compliance.

SkyPan maintains that its flights were conducted two years before the FAA’s rules for commercial UAS went into effect in August 2016, and all but a few were conducted before the FAA began to issue exemptions to authorize commercial UAS operations in September 2014 under the Section 333 process. In addition, SkyPan says it has never had an accident and never “compromised citizens’ privacy or security.” The company says it even obtained a Section 333 exemption for commercial drone operations in 2015.

SkyPan, noting the “exciting time for the nascent UAS industry,” urges drone stakeholders to “work collaboratively with the FAA to achieve our common goal of balancing commerce and innovation with safety.”

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