In a ruling that could have far-reaching implications in regards to the commercial use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), a judge has dismissed a $10,000 civil penalty levied by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) against Raphael Pirker for commercially operating a model aircraft.
In October 2011, Pirker was paid to fly a RiteWingRC-manufactured Zephry II glider aircraft, which the FAA deemed a UAS, on the University of Virginia's campus to record video and take photographs. Pirker did not obtain authorization from the FAA, and once the agency became aware of the operation, it issued the fine in April 2012 under the premise that the model aircraft guidelines (below 400 feet, 3 miles from an airport, away from populated areas) do not apply to UAS.
However, in his decision, Administrative Law Judge Patrick Geraghty of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) notes that the FAA has made a clear distinction between an aircraft and a model aircraft in its policy notices. Based upon the agency's regulatory history, Geraghty asserts that the FAA has excluded model aircraft from its regulatory and statutory definitions.
In addition, Geraghty argues that Advisory Circular 91-57, entitled Model Aircraft Operating Standards, encourages only voluntary compliance for model aircraft operators. As such, the judge contends that Pirker's operation is not subject to FAA regulatory oversight.
Geraghty goes on to write that UAS are not classified within the FAA's federal aviation regulations and that when a model aircraft is used for business purposes, it is considered a UAS. Notably, he contends that the FAA's prohibition of UAS use without special airworthiness certificates is based upon a February 2007 policy statement that is not binding upon the general public.
He concludes that at the time Pirker operated the glider, there was no enforceable rule or regulation regarding model aircraft or for classifying such aircraft as UAS. The FAA is appealing Geraghty's ruling to the full NTSB board and notes that this action stays the decision until the board makes a judgment.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a nonprofit organization devoted to advancing the unmanned systems and robotics community, is concerned about what the ruling means for safety.
‘We are reviewing the decision very carefully, and we have also been in touch with the FAA to discuss its implications and the agency's response,’ comments Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the AUVSI. ‘Our paramount concern is safety.
‘We must ensure the commercial use of UAS takes place in a safe and responsible manner, whenever commercial use occurs,’ he adds. ‘The decision also underscores the immediate need for a regulatory framework for small UAS.’