FAA To UAS Industry: We'll Keep Enforcing

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If the UAS industry thought the FAA might be about to relax its stance toward enforcement actions against illegal drone operations, the FAA on Tuesday removed any doubt. The FAA’s Jim Williams, who heads the agency’s unmanned aircraft integration office, told several hundred attendees at the AVUSI show in Orlando that the agency will continue to pursue enforcement against operators flying UAVs without the required certificates of authorization. But, Williams said, the agency has and will continue to pursue a progressive approach to enforcement, rather than seeking civil penalties against UAS operators as the first step.

In an hour-long presentation and question-and-answer session to an audience mostly composed of UAS industry professionals, Williams showed a video of recent case in Virginia where a quadcopter went out of control and crashed into a crowd, causing minor injuries. In support of the need for regulation, Williams claimed that the Bull Run, Va., incident was by no means an isolated occurrence.

He also reviewed what he called a near collision between an airliner and an unidentified UAV near Tallahassee in March. However, details of that incident remain sketchy and neither the type of UAV involved nor the operator have been identified. Nonetheless, said Williams, these incidents indicate that unauthorized and uncontrolled flight of UAVs represent serious risk to manned aircraft and people and property on the ground.

Currently, the FAA exercises no authority over remotely piloted aircraft—including RC aircraft—operated recreationally below 400 feet AGL. However, it prohibits the commercial use of such aircraft at any altitude without a so-called COA or certificate of authorization, which are approved on a case-by-case basis. The FAA has pursued actions against UAV operators ignoring this prohibition, including one much-discussed enforcement action in which it was slapped down by an NTSB administrative law judge. The Pirker case has become a cause célèbre among would-be UAV operators who are ready to launch commercial photo, film and survey operations.

After he flew a drone without approval—recklessly and carelessly, the FAA claimed—the agency sought to fine Raphael Pirker $10,000. But an administrative law judge threw the case out, ruling that the FAA had no authority over small, unmanned aircraft. The FAA has appealed the decision, but Williams insists that the FAA has the authority to regulate all UAVs from the surface upward. He said media coverage of the Pirker case has given the public the misimpression that the FAA lacks regulatory authority.

During a wide-ranging discussion, Williams was asked when the agency will issue regulations for operation of so-called small UAVs, under 55 pounds. Under congressional mandate, those rules were supposed to be in place by next year, but Williams said the NPRM won’t appear until the end of this year and will be at least another 18 months after that before final rules are in place.

“Most people are interested in operating within the rules,” Williams said, while conceding that at least some of the UAV operators counseled or advised about illegal operations by the FAA simply have no knowledge of the FARs at all. Currently, operators are allowed to request specific waivers (COAs) for defined operations and Williams said the FAA has been talking directly to the film industry and pipeline and power inspection interests about specific waivers or rules for their operations. When asked if the agency if would streamline the COA process, Williams said it has no plans to do so. “It’s an interim process. Ultimately, we want to have a rule you can comply with so you won’t need a COA,” he said.