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Drone pilot wins legal tussle with FAA

An administrative law judge struck down a $10,000 fine levied by the US Federal Aviation Administration against a man who flew a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in 2011 for commercial purposes.

Raphael Pirker flew a Ritewing Zephyr “powered glider” over the University of Virginia near Charlottesville for the purpose of shooting video and photographs for compensation, according to FAA documents.

The Zephyr weighs 2.5kg, has a wingspan of 1.4m and costs $130, according to documents.

The FAA determined the aircraft qualified as an “unmanned aircraft system” (UAS), and levied the fine.

It said the flight violated federal regulations requiring UAS have a special airworthiness certificated, says the decision.

Pirker filed a motion to dismiss the fine on grounds that his Zephyr is a model aircraft, not a UAS.

On 6 March, an administrative law judge with the US National Transportation Safety Board ruled in Pirker's favor.

In his decision, Patrick Geraghty delves into the legal uses of the terms “aircraft” and “model aircraft” by the FAA.

To conclude that a “model aircraft” and its operator are subject to the same regulatory requirements as an “aircraft” and its operator would lead to the conclusion that the term “aircraft” encompasses all types of flying devises, including “paper aircraft, or a toy balsa wood glider,” says the NTSB.

“The reasonable inference is that [the] FAA intended to distinguish and exclude model aircraft from [the] definitions of "aircraft," writes the NTSB.

In 2007 the FAA published a UAS-related notice saying model aircraft used for business purposes are subject to airworthiness certification.

But the NTSB finds the notice does not establish jurisdiction over model aircraft operation.

Also, the notice did not meet requirements for “valid legislative rulemaking”, partly because the FAA did not issue a notice of proposed rulemaking, the NTSB says.

The FAA says in a statement it will appeal.

“The agency is concerned that this decision could impact the safe operation of the national airspace system and the safety of people and property on the ground,” says the FAA.

The FAA is required by the FAA Reauthorisation Act of 2012 to integrate UAS into US airspace by September 2015.

Though the small UAS rule was expected to be published years ago, progress has been slow.

The FAA recently announced it will release its proposed rule in November 2014, to be followed by a period of public comments and then possible revision.

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