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The NTSB Just Made a Big Ruling Regarding Drones

"It's a huge win for the FAA ... "

(TheBlaze/AP) -- The government has the power to hold drone operators accountable when they operate the remote-control aircraft recklessly, a federal safety board ruled Tuesday in a setback to small drone operators chafing under Federal Aviation Administration restrictions.

The decision comes from a Federal Aviation Administration appeal to a ruling about a $10,000 fine for Raphael Pirker, an aerial photographer, who the FAA claims was operating his Ritewing Zephyr in a "reckless" manner on the University of Virginia campus in 2011.

Raphel Pirker --- Image source: Team Black Sheep The FAA initially fined Raphael Pirker $10,000 for flying his remotely-piloted glider around the University of Virginia campus, and Tuesday's NTSB ruling is an appeal decision to send the case back to the initial NTSB judge (Image source: Team Black Sheep)

An administrative law judge with the National Transportation Safety Board, which hears appeals of Federal Aviation Administration enforcement actions, sided with Pirker earlier this year, saying the FAA hasn't issued any regulations specifically for drones and therefore can't determine their use.

But the FAA appealed the decision to the four-member safety board, which said Tuesday that the small drone is a type of aircraft that falls under existing rules and sent the case back to the judge to decide if it was operated recklessly.

"An 'aircraft' is any 'device' 'used for flight in the air,' this definition includes any aircraft, manned or unmanned, large or small," the board said. The board sent the case back to the judge to decide if Pirker's drone was operated recklessly.

FAA officials had no immediate comment, but Kenneth Quinn, a former FAA general counsel, said the ruling is good for the regulatory agency, strengthening the FAA's position as the agency tries to cope with a surge in use of unmanned aircraft, some weighing no more than a few pounds and available for purchase on the Internet and in hobby shops for as little as a few hundred dollars.

"It's a huge win for the FAA, and signals it's not going to be the Wild West for drones, but a careful, orderly, safe introduction of unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system," Quinn said.

More than a million small drone aircraft have been sold worldwide in the past few years, and a growing number of them are turning up in U.S. skies near airports and airliners, posing a risk of collision. Reports of drone sightings near other planes, helicopters and airfields are reaching the government almost daily — a sharp increase from just two years ago when such reports were still unusual.

But Pirker's attorney, Brendan Schulman, said the NTSB ruling "is narrowly limited to whether unmanned aircraft systems are subject to a single aviation safety regulation concerning reckless operation."

"The more significant question of whether the safe operation of drones for business purposes is prohibited by any law was not addressed in the decision," he said. Several cases challenging the FAA's ban on commercial drone operations are pending in federal district court in Washington.

Commercial drone industry partners were elated to hear the ruling in March, when the NTSB judge initially rebuffed the FAA's efforts to fine Pirker. At the time, Schulman told TheBlaze the growing unrest among industry specialists and the court's ruling would likely speed up the FAA's process to put permanent laws in place.

“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 in March.

“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.

The FAA has barred commercial operators from using drones, with the exception of two oil companies operating in Alaska and seven aerial photography companies associated with the movie and television industry. Even those exceptions have come with extensive restrictions, including that a requirement that the operators of the remote control aircraft have an FAA-issued pilot's license the same as manned aircraft pilots.

drone dji Personal drones have become so popular Amazon has dedicated a specific section of their website to selling the quadcopter aircrafts (Image source: DJI)

A wide array of industries as varied as real estate agents, farmers and major league sport teams are clamoring to use small drones. Congress directed the FAA to safely integrate drones of all sizes into U.S. skies by the fall of 2015, but it is clear the agency won't meet that deadline.

Congress also directed the FAA to first issue regulations permitting widespread commercial use of small drones, usually defined as weighing less than 55 pounds. Agency officials have indicated they expect to propose regulations for small drones before the end of the year. However, it may be months to years before those rules are made final.

Meanwhile, the agency is poised to issue a series of special permits to a wide array of for companies that applied for exemptions to the commercial ban similar to the exemptions granted to the film industry. More than 120 companies have applied for special permits.

Among those close to being granted are permits to monitor and spray crops, inspect smokestacks and natural gas flares, and to inspect pipelines and power lines.

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Follow Elizabeth Kreft (@elizabethakreft) on Twitter

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