The Federal Aviation Administration lost its attempt to fine a drone pilot Thursday for flying his remotely controlled plane around the University of Virginia campus — and the news has set the commercial drone community abuzz.
"I was elated to see it -- it's very refreshing to see a judge uphold what we already knew; that the FAA was simply trying to apply rules that didn't exist to stop small business growth and technology from moving forward," said Mike Fortin, CEO of Cinedrones.
Fortin's Orlando-based company specializes in aerial videography with drone technology, but the FAA's decision to restrict commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles in the U.S. has forced the company to find projects overseas or to work without pay.
Raphael Pirker, the unmanned aerial vehicle pilot charged in the FAA's case — and somewhat of a figurehead in the remote-pilot community — was slapped with fines by the FAA in October. The federal agency attempted to classify Pirker's Ritewing Zephyr powered glider as an Unmanned Aerial System, and said Pirker flew the aircraft in a "reckless and careless" fashion over the University of Virginia grounds. Aero-News reported:
"The (FAA) charged that the 'pilot' operated the aircraft with a camera aboard that sent real-time video to the ground; that the flight was performed for compensation; and that he operated the aircraft at altitudes of approximately 10 feet to approximately 400 feet over the University of Virginia in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another."
But National Transportation and Safety Administration Law Judge Patrick Geraghty ruled in favor of Pirker and — it would seem — the entire UAV commercial industry, stating there was — and still is — no real FAA rule against what Pirker did.
"At the time of Respondent's model aircraft operation, as alleged herein, there was no enforceable FAA rule or FAR Regulation applicable to model aircraft or for classifying a model aircraft as a UAS," the court documents state.
Pirker was represented in court by his attorney Brendan Schulman, a 20-year veteran of the remote-pilot community.
Brandon Horgeshimer, of Pneumatic Drone Cinema, learns how to fly a remote-piloted aircraft. Many commercial drone representatives have said they are happy to hear about the court decision, and hopes it will mean commercial UAV operations will soon be completely open for business (Photo courtesy of CineDrones).
"For seven years, developers and entrepreneurs have been told they are prohibited from undertaking any commercial use of a drone, even though the same technology has been used in movies and other commercial applications for decades," Schulman told TheBlaze.
"I think that policy position from the FAA has been a source of great anxiety, great frustration, because those people have great ideas, great business models, and the ban on commercial use has thwarted those people from developing really great and innovative technologies here ... and as a result other countries are actually ahead of the United States on what I believe is the next era of aviation history," he said.
Two years ago, Congress pushed the FAA to speed up its process when it passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, directing the agency to release guidelines for commercial drones within a year and to have a plan for commercial drones to begin flying “no later than September 30, 2015,” Politico reported.
Schulman thinks the Pirker decision will likely speed up the FAA's process to get regulations in place, but not all UAV operators were excited to see the ruling.
"Although very interesting and thorough, this new ruling complicates the interpretation of the current set of FAA rules and regulations," Joseph Bok, Aero Telemetry CEO, told TheBlaze. "The ruling is good news for commercial UAV operators, but I don't believe that any of us in the UAV manufacturing community are going to be able to go out and start flying tomorrow. There is still a certification process by which we, as operators, have to follow to be allowed to fly our drones in US Airspace."
"I believe the FAA's response to this ruling will be to make it a priority to 're-write' their outdated AC's [advisory circulars] and include enforceability to its new rules and regulations regarding SUAS [small unmanned aircraft systems] and their integration into U.S. airspace.
But Fortin said he was happy to hear a judge "slapped down" the FAA's request to impose the ruling which he, along with many other commercial UAV operators, feels has put a "cage on their business models."
The FAA told TheBlaze the agency is reviewing the decision, and still has the ability to appeal. The NTSB told TheBlaze if the FAA does choose to appeal the decision the notice must be filed with the NTSB's Office of Administrative Law Judges "within 10 days of the service date of the law judge’s written decision."
Schulman's legal firm Kramer Levin has opened up the nation's first unmanned aircraft systems practice group, in an attempt to serve a growing number of commercial or private clients who are interested in this emerging UAV technology.
"Small businesses and high-tech start-ups that are manufacturing this equipment are being thwarted by the FAA and don't even have a say in the rule making processes, and I think that has been very frustrating," he said.
Schulman said Pirker is happy about the ruling but is unsure if his client plans to make any public statements about the case since he is currently overseas. We assume he's having a great time filming videos like this. Watch one of Pirker's Team Black Sheep videos here:
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