The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) reports that close calls between conventional aircraft and unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS” or “drones”) have increased during 2014 to more than 40 per month over earlier reports of 10 such incidents in the months of March and April. Some of these incidents have occurred in the busy airspace surrounding Los Angeles, California, Washington, D.C., and John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. Some of these conflicts have arisen because untrained operators of recreational drones are unaware of FAA’s guidelines governing such use. Those guidelines ask, among other things, that “hobby” drones stay away from civil aviation, below 400 feet AGL, and at least 5 miles from airports. However, as FAA prepares to release its highly anticipated Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for small unmanned aircraft systems, the focus is not on hobbyists, but on commercial operators.
Aviation and aerospace attorney Paul Fraidenburgh was quoted in “Pirker v. Huerta Ruling Clears the Way to UAS Integration” published in Avionics Magazine on November 25, 2014. The full article is available here: http://www.aviationtoday.com/av/commercial/Pirker-v-Huerta-Ruling-Clears-the-Way-to-UAS-Integration_83611.html#.VHUKG53Tncv
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.
“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).”
A problem with the regulatory philosophy towards unmanned aircraft systems is quickly coming into view. While foreign and domestic governments are investing time and money developing strict standards for commercial drone use, the more pressing threat of recreational use has largely escaped the regulatory spotlight.
While many members of the growing community of developers, manufacturers and operators of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (“UAS”) have expressed enthusiasm at the National Transportation Safety Board Administrative Decision in the Pirker case, Administrator v. Pirker, NTSB Docket CP-217, July 18, 2013, their reaction should be tempered by the law of unintended consequences. The outcome of the administrative action, which the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has since appealed, acknowledges not only the FAA regulation that is certain to arise as a result of the Congressional mandate contained in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Pub. L. 112-95, § 334 (“FMRA”), but also opens the door to unrestricted local regulation.
Specifically, Pirker’s argument is based on the assumption that the UAS at issue is a “five-pound radio-controlled model airplane constructed of styrofoam [sic],” Motion to Dismiss, p. 1. He does not cite, or even refer to, any operant statutory or regulatory definition of “model aircraft.” On that basis, Pirker alleges that his operation of the “model airplane” cannot be regulated because FAA has “fallen far behind its own schedule, as well the scheduled mandated by Congress,” Motion to Dismiss, p. 1, for enacting regulations. Pirker again fails to refer the Court to the full extent of the Congressional mandate in FMRA which effectively disposes of his fundamental argument.
The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has appealed a recent National Transportation Safety Board administrative decision, Administrator v. Pirker, NTSB Docket CP-217, July 18, 2013, in which Administrative Law Judge Patrick Geraghty ruled that FAA had no regulatory authority when it fined the operator of an Unmanned Aircraft System (“UAS”) (otherwise known as “drone”) used for commercial photography, for operating a UAS at an altitude below that approved for commercial manned aircraft. It would do well for developers, manufacturers and operators of UAS to listen carefully to FAA’s views because the decision, while preliminary, and subject to appeal through many levels of the Federal Court system, has opened the proverbial Pandora’s Box in the relationship of manned and unmanned aircraft and their joint, or separate regulatory frameworks.
First, it is important for the UAS community to recognize that, while Administrative Law Judge Geraghty found an absence of regulatory authority in the FAA, the Opinion did not acknowledge the seminal issue of “the federal government’s pervasive regulation of aircraft, airspace and aviation safety,” see, Montalvo v. Spirit Airlines, 508 F.3d 464, 472-74 (9th Cir. 2007). That pervasive control arises under the Federal Aviation Act, 49 U.S.C. § 40101 in which Congress expressly granted to the Secretary of Transportation, through his/her designee, the FAA, the tasks of, among other things, “controlling the use of the navigable airspace and regulating civil and military operations in that airspace in the interest of the safety and efficiency of both . . .,” 49 U.S.C. § 40101(d)(4), as well as “encouraging and developing civil aeronautics, including new aviation technology.” 49 U.S.C. § 40101(d)(3). That express assignment of responsibility alone gives FAA “skin in the game.”
FAA’s response more specifically addresses what it believes to be misapprehensions about the extent of its power and authority.