So it looks like commercial drones are actually completely legal. For now.
A federal judge ruled Thursday that the FAA has not actually made any legally binding rules banning commercial drones from the skies, ergo, the FAA’s $10,000 fine of 29-year-old Raphael Pirker for operating a commercial aircraft is void.
Some background: Pirker is the first and only person the FAA has ever attempted to fine for operating a commercial aircraft after he used a drone to film a commercial at the University of Virginia. Pirker lawyered up and took the case to court last October to point out some glaring flaws in the FAA’s logic.
For one thing, it turns out there has never actually been a legally binding law on the books banning commercial aircraft. The FAA’s ban comes down to a 2007 policy notice, which the FAA never made official with a notice-and-comment period before declaring the ban. What that means is that even though this is a ban that would affect the public, the public was never invited to the discussions that led to the ban.
But more importantly, Pirker and his lawyer pointed out the fact that the FAA’s ban doesn’t extend to model aircraft flown by hobbyists.
As Pirker and his lawyer pointed out, how is the flight less dangerous when you’re not receiving compensation for it?
Taken to its logical conclusion, that would mean that anything sent flying through the air could be considered illegal aircraft, resulting in the “risible argument that a flight through the air of, e.g. a paper aircraft, or a toy balsa wood glider, could subject the ‘operator’ to the regulatory provisions of FAA Part 91, Section 91.13.”
The FAA argued in October that Pirker was fined not just for flying a commercial drone, but for doing so recklessly. The agency contended that Pirker flew the device at dangerously low altitudes, flying the drone through a tunnel with cars driving directly below it. The FAA also argued that Pirker nearly struck an individual who had to “take immediate evasive maneuvers so as to avoid being struck.” Pirker argued that that person was actually his spotter.
Nevertheless, Judge Patrick Geraghty ruled that the FAA had no standing in the case, and that because model aircraft are not held to the same standards as commercial aircraft, the latter can’t be subject to fines and legal action.
The FAA could attempt to establish an emergency rule, or it could appeal and the case could go to the U.S. Court of Appeals.