NTSB Upholds FAA Drone Authority


image: FPV

The FAA does have the authority to apply its rule prohibiting careless and reckless flight to the operators of unmanned aircraft, the NTSB said on Tuesday. The safety board offered the opinion (PDF) in its review of the case of Raphael Pirker, who was fined $10,000 by the FAA for allegedly operating an unmanned aircraft in a “careless or reckless manner” in 2011. An NTSB administrative law judge haddismissed the fine in March, agreeing with Pirker that the drone was essentially a model aircraft and not subject to the FAA rule. The FAA appealed to the safety board. The board said it’s now up to an administrative law judge to review the evidence and decide whether or not Pirker is guilty of a violation.

The case has been closely watched in the proliferating community of drone users and advocates who are eager to use the aircraft for aerial photography, farm inspections and other commercial uses. The FAA says Pirker, who was being paid to provide aerial photographs and video, piloted the unmanned aircraft — a Ritewing Zephyr — in a series of maneuvers around the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Virginia, at altitudes from 10 feet AGL to 1,500 feet AGL, including flight “directly towards an individual standing on a . . . sidewalk causing the individual to take immediate evasive maneuvers … through a . . . tunnel containing moving vehicles … under a crane … [and] within approximately 100 feet of an active heliport.” A video that purports to be from the disputed flight is posted on YouTube.

In a statement released Tuesday, the FAA said it is “pleased” with the NTSB decision. “The FAA believes Mr. Pirker operated a UAS in a careless or reckless manner, and that the proposed civil penalty should stand,” the FAA said. “The agency looks forward to a factual determination by the Administrative Law Judge on the ‘careless or reckless’ nature of the operation in question.” A corrected version of the FAA statement, released later on Tuesday, deletes the “pleased” remark, and instead notes that the FAA “has a responsibilityto protect the safety of the American people in the air and on the ground.”

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International also responded to the NTSB decision. “Safety is an important consideration in the integration of UAS into the National Airspace System,” AUVSI said in a statement. “However, the ruling still leaves unanswered important questions about whether the FAA can prohibit commercial operations in the absence of UAS rules. The FAA needs to immediately move forward with its small UAS rulemaking to provide clarity for all users of the technology.”