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.
 


Continue Reading Pirker Reversed: NTSB Confirms FAA Has Jurisdiction Over Drones

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 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. 
 


Continue Reading Recent Developments in California Drone Law

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. 
 


Continue Reading FAA Weighs in on the Regulation of “Model Aircraft”

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.

 
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) finalized two reports last week that shed some light on the perils of recreational drone use.  The first report describes a near collision of a passenger plane with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) near Perth Airport in Western Australia.  While approaching the airport for landing, the crew “sighted a bright strobe light directly in front of the aircraft,” reports the ATSB.  The UAV tracked towards the aircraft and the pilot was forced to take evasive action, dodging the UAV by about 20 meters.  The ATSB has been unable to locate or identify the operator of the UAV, which was flying in restricted airspace at the time of the incident.
 
The second report describes another near collision with a recreational drone just three days later in the airspace over Newcastle, the second most populated city in the Australian state of New South Wales.  In that incident, the crew of a rescue helicopter spotted a UAV hovering over Hunter Stadium during an Australian football match.  The UAV tracked towards the helicopter as the helicopter began its descent.  The ATSB’s report was supplemented with a comment by Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), which explained that the UAV appeared to be a “first person view” vehicle that was transmitting a live video feed back to its operator.  In other words, the operator was watching the game.  Neither the venue nor the official broadcaster took or authorized any aerial footage of the game.  CASA noted that over 90% of complaints received about UAVs relate to incidents caused by first person view drones.
 
Though these reports come from halfway around the world, they highlight a flaw in the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) approach to the use of drones in American airspace.  The FAA subjects commercial drone users to strict regulations arising from traditional “aircraft used in commerce” standards while applying the more liberal “model aircraft” standards to recreational drone users.  (See 14 C.F.R. § 91.119 [requiring aircraft used in commerce to stay at 500 feet or more in altitude above rural areas and 1,000 feet above urban areas].)  The FAA staunchly defended this system in its appeal of the Pirker case, in which the FAA seeks to overturn the decision of an administrative law judge who ruled the FAA had no regulatory authority when it fined the operator of a drone used for commercial photography.  So does it make sense for the FAA to take a hard stance towards commercial drones and a more liberal stance towards recreational drone users?
 
Probably not.  Here’s why:


Continue Reading Commercial vs. Recreational Drones: Are Existing Regulations Backwards?

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. 
 


Continue Reading Decision in Pirker Case Invokes Specter of Local Regulation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems