Earlier today, in a landmark decision for the unmanned aircraft systems industry, the National Transportation Safety Board reversed the Administrative Law Judge Patrick Geraghty’s order in the Pirker case and held that unmanned aircraft systems fall squarely within the definition of “aircraft” under the Federal Aviation Regulations.  This is the most significant legal opinion issued to date on the issue of drones in the United States. 

In a twelve page opinion reversing the ALJ’s March 7, 2014 decisional order, the NTSB stated:
“This case calls upon us to ascertain a clear, reasonable definition of ‘aircraft’ for purposes of the prohibition on careless and reckless operation in 14 C.F.R. § 91.13(a). We must look no further than the clear, unambiguous plain language of 49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(6) and 14 C.F.R. § 1.1: an ‘aircraft’ is any ‘device’ ‘used for flight in the air.’ This definition includes any aircraft, manned or unmanned, large or small. The prohibition on careless and reckless operation in § 91.13(a) applies with respect to the operation of any ‘aircraft’ other than those subject to parts 101 and 103. We therefore remand to the law judge for a full factual hearing to determine whether respondent operated the aircraft ‘in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another,’ contrary to § 91.13(a).”
The Federal Aviation Administration’s success on appeal comes as no surprise to most members of the UAS industry, many of whom have already tacitly recognized the FAA’s jurisdiction over unmanned aircraft by specifically requesting regulatory exemptions to conduct commercial UAS operations under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.
 


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In a rare showing of unanimity between airport operator and noise impacted community, on September 30, 2014 the Board of Supervisors of Orange County, California (“Board”) approved the extension, for an additional 15 years, of a long-standing set of noise restrictions on the operation of John Wayne Airport (“Airport”), of which the Board is also the operator.  Those restrictions include: (1) limitation on the number of the noisiest aircraft that can operate at the Airport; (2) limitation on the number of passengers that can use the Airport annually; (3) limitation on the number of aircraft loading bridges; and, perhaps most important, (4) limitation on the hours of aircraft operation (10:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. on weekdays and 8:00 a.m. on Sundays).   

The restrictions were originally imposed in settlement of a lawsuit in 1986, between the Board, the neighboring City of Newport Beach and two environmental organizations, the Airport Working Group of Orange County, Inc. and Stop Polluting Our Newport.  The obvious question is whether similar restrictions might be achieved at other airports today. The not so obvious answer is that such a resolution is far more difficult now, but not impossible.
 


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In a landmark decision for the UAS (aka drone) industry and for the aviation industry as a whole, the Federal Aviation Administration announced today that it has granted 6 petitions for regulatory exemptions to operate unmanned aircraft systems for commercial filming operations.  The exemptions will allow the 6 petitioners to operate unmanned aircraft systems for

Two environmental organizations have again taken the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) to task for failing in its mandatory duty to determine whether greenhouse gases from aircraft engines cause or contribute to air pollution that may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare (“Endangerment Finding”), and, if so, to propose and adopt standards to limit those emissions.  See Clean Air Act (“CAA”), 42 U.S.C. § 7571(a)(2)(A) (also referred to as “Section 231”).  

Earth Justice and Friends of the Earth originally petitioned EPA in 2007, pursuant to CAA Section 231, which directs EPA to study air pollutants from aircraft “to determine (A) the extent to which such emissions affect air quality in air quality control regions throughout the United States, and (B) the technological feasibility of controlling such emissions.”  Section 231(a)(1).  Under subsections (a)(2) and (3), if EPA finds that emissions from aircraft and aircraft engines cause or contribute to “air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare,” it “shall” propose and issue standards to control such emissions.  In 2010, EPA had still not responded to their 2007 Petition.  
 


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Two significant pieces of legislation proposing to limit and/or control the use of unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS” or “drone”) were passed by the California Legislature last week and now await the signature of Governor Jerry Brown.  

The first of the two bills, AB 1327 by Jeff Gorell, places certain limits on the use of drones, both by the government and private parties. For example, it bans any weaponization of drones unless specifically authorized by federal law. It also extends existing privacy and wiretapping/electronic eavesdropping protections to the private use of drones but does not prohibit their use in situations where privacy concerns are not likely to be significant, such as those circumstances consistent with the “core mission” of non-law enforcement public agencies like fire or oil spill detection. One can expect the inevitable round of litigation to flesh out the limits of such circumstances and situations where privacy concerns are not likely to be significant. 
 


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On June 25, 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) published in the Federal Register, 79 Fed.Reg. 36172, its “Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft” (“Interpretation”) established by Congress in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Pub.L. 112-95, § 336 (“FMRA”).  Despite its name, FAA’s interpretation goes far beyond mere definitional clarification.  It is, instead, the first step in establishing FAA’s preemptive authority over Unmanned Aircraft Systems (“UAS”) as “aircraft” utilizing the National Airspace System (“NAS”), even where the operator of an UAS chooses to denominate it a “model aircraft.” 

As a first step in asserting its regulatory authority, FAA takes the position that Congress’ rule in the FMRA is nothing new, but, instead, relies heavily on the long standing statutory and regulatory definition of model aircraft as “aircraft,” i.e., mechanisms that are “invented, used or designed to navigate or fly in the air,” 49 U.S.C. § 40102; 14 C.F.R. § 1.1.  FAA also applies its own 2007 guidelines regarding UAS operating in the NAS, which recognizes that UAS fall within the statutory and regulatory definition of “aircraft” as “devices that are used or intended to be used for flight in the air with no onboard pilot.”  72 Fed.Reg. 6689 (February 13, 2007). 

FAA’s Interpretation, however, goes far beyond the simple inclusion of “model aircraft” in the category of “aircraft.”  The Interpretation expands even further upon FMRA’s three part test defining a “model aircraft” as an “unmanned aircraft” that is: “(1) capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere; (2) flown within the visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft; and (3) flown for hobby or recreational purposes.”  FMRA, § 336(d). 
 
With regard to FMRA’s second factor, the requirement that the model aircraft stay within the “visual line of sight” of the user, FAA interprets that requirement consistent with FMRA, § 336(c)(2) to mean that: (1) the aircraft must be visible at all times to the operator; (2) that the operator must use his or her own natural vision (including corrective lenses) and not goggles or other vision enhancing devices; and (3) people other than the operator may not be used to maintain the line of sight.  In other words, to maintain the identity as a “model aircraft,” the aircraft cannot be “remotely controlled” from a location other than that at which it is being flown.

The third factor, the definition of what constitutes “hobby or recreational use” is perhaps the thornier. 
 


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