Continuing our discussion about drones….
The regulation of unmanned aerial vehicles came to the attention of the National Transportation Safety Board after the Federal Aviation Administration levied a fine -- a $10,000 fine -- against a man who had made a video of the University of Virginia's campus using an unmanned plane. (The board handles appeals involving the FAA's reach.)
The problem wasn't so much the flight; it was the fact that the flight was not approved by the FAA. Remember, unmanned aerial vehicles cannot be used for commercial purposes without the FAA's blessing. Federal regulations allow the FAA to fine the operator of an aircraft for doing so "in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another." (14 C.F.R. § 91.13(a)) When the FAA got wind of the drone over the college campus, the agency issued the complaint and levied the fine.
The operator appealed; the district court dismissed the matter. The FAA appealed to the NTSB.
The central issue was whether the careless and reckless use regulation applies to his drone. The operator argued that the regulation only applies to aircraft, and his UAV was a model airplane, not an aircraft. Further, he argued, that aircraft are manned, that they sustain "one or more individuals in flight."
The operator, perhaps unwittingly, had opened a can of federally regulated worms. The appeal was decided in March 2014, and the NTSB's decision came down in November. Multiple stakeholders filed briefs in the matter.
While the board does not list the parties weighing in on the matter, it would make sense for advocates of UAV commercial and recreational use to support the operator's position. Safety advocates and commercial airlines may have supported the FAA.
At any rate, federal regulations define an aircraft as "a device that is used or intended to be used for flight in the air." In earlier cases, the FAA had dealt with model aircraft, ruling that they were not included in the government's definition of aircraft.
For the NTSB, though, the matter was clear. The UAV in question was certainly a device intended for flight, and nothing in the law said an aircraft had to be manned. The decision notes that the law was written when UAVs were only found in science fiction. Drones fly, therefore they are aircraft.
With this decision, then, the board essentially gave the FAA definitive authority to regulate the use of commercial drones.
And that will happen. In time.
Insurance Journal, "Delay in Drone Rules Jeopardizes Research, Competitiveness, Congress Told," Joan Lowy, Dec. 12, 2014
National Transportation Safety Board, Administrator v. Pirker, Opinion & Order, Nov. 18, 2014