November 20, 2014

The NTSB overturns successful appeal and rules that UAVs and their operators fall under the jurisdiction of the FAA

Controversy originally surrounded the exploits of Raphael Pirker with a film he posted in November 2010 of an FPV (first person view) RC’s flight around New York, which included encircling the statue of Liberty. Many felt his actions were irresponsible, while others questioned the legality of such exploits. A year later and what was originally a hobby had turned into a business and the then 26-year-old Austrian, who now lives in Asia, created an aerial promotional video for the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. It was at this point that the FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) slapped Pirker with a US$10,000 fine for failing to obtain permission to operate a Ritewing Zephyr equipped with a camera, a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), for commercial purposes. The complaint also included reference to a certain level of irresponsibility shown by Pirker who caused someone on a sidewalk “to take immediate evasive maneuvers so as to avoid being struck.” The FAA also said the UAV came within 100 feet of a heliport and flew through a tunnel where there were moving vehicles. It was difficult to tell whether the violation was based on the lack of permission, full stop, or the FAA finding a means by which operators of such ‘aircraft’ could be forced to fly them with an expected level of public safety and common sense in mind. Pirker appealed the fine to a US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) administrative law judge, Patrick Geraghty, who upheld the appeal on the basis that the Ritewing Zephyr didn’t qualify as an “aircraft” under the FAA’s jurisdiction. Geraghty made it abundantly clear that allowing the FAA to fine Pirker would mean that the “operator” of “a paper aircraft” or “a toy balsa wood glider” would thus become subject to FAA regulatory provisions. However the FAA appealed to the NTSB who, on Tuesday of this week, upheld the original decision of the FAA, asking this time that Geraghty no longer rule on the question of whether the UAV could be classed as an aircraft, and instead to concentrate solely on whether Pirker had acted carelessly or recklessly. What the ruling has confirmed is that UAVs, or ‘drones’ as they are becoming known as, are classed by the NTSB as aircraft: “In summary, the plain language of the statutory and regulatory definitions is clear: an ‘aircraft’ is any device used for flight in the air”. How this will affect Amazon and various other commercial operators who are exploring the idea of ‘aerial’ package delivery is yet to be understood.



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