Following a court ruling, Texas EquuSearch, a volunteer organization that searches for missing persons, is planning to continue using unmanned aerial systems (UAS) after having received a warning from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to stop doing so.
The Houston Chronicle reports that the Texas-based group had sued the FAA after the agency sent an order several months ago for the organization to stop using UAS in their search missions.
The lawsuit was then dismissed in a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., because the court was reportedly not able to properly assess the case because the FAA’s order was not an official final ruling.
According to the Houston Chronicle report, Texas EquuSearch has found 300 missing persons, as well as the remains of 180, and gives UAS credit for 11 of the finds. Because of the agency’s order, however, the organization has had to deny some requests for searches, the report says.
The FAA has since released a statement regarding the issue:
The court’s decision in favor of the FAA regarding the Texas Equusearch matter has no bearing on the FAA's authority to regulate UAS. The FAA remains legally responsible for the safety of the national airspace system. This authority is designed to protect users of the airspace, as well as people and property on the ground.
The agency approves emergency Certificates of Authorization (COAs) for natural disaster relief, search and rescue operations and other urgent circumstances, sometimes in a matter of hours. We are not aware that any government entity with an existing COA has applied for an emergency naming Texas EquuSearch as its contractor.
The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit granted the FAA’s motion to dismiss Texas Equusearch’s case against the FAA. Texas Equusearch had filed a petition for review with the court asserting that an FAA inspector had wrongly ordered it in an email correspondence for it to cease and desist search and rescue operations using its UAS.
The court found that the FAA’s inspector’s email to Texas Equusearch was “not a formal cease-and-desist letter representing the agency’s final conclusion … sufficient to constitute final agency action” for purposes of review in the courts of appeals.
The court found that “given the absence of any identified legal consequences flowing from the challenged email, this case falls within the usual rule that this court lacks authority to review a claim where an agency merely expresses its view of what the law requires of a party, even if that view is adverse to the party.”
A flight that is not for hobby or recreation requires a certified aircraft, a licensed pilot and operating approval. To date, two operations have met these criteria, and authorization was limited to the Arctic. The FAA is continuing to review applications from UAS operators as they are received.
Read the full Houston Chronicle report here.