In a blow to drone operators, today the National Transportation Safety Board announced its opinion and order in the Pirker case finding FAA regulations apply to drones and other model aircraft and further declaring that the FAA may pursue enforcement actions against drone operators for reckless operation.
The case made its way to the NTSB after an administrative law jude dismissed the FAA’s order requiring Mr. Pirker to pay a civil penalty of $10,000 for allegedly operating an unmanned aircraft in a careless or reckless manner. In the earlier decision, the judge compared Pirker’s unmanned aircraft to a model aircraft, and found the FAA had not enacted an enforceable regulation regarding such aircraft. Today, the NTSB remanded the case to the administrative law judge to collect evidence and issue a finding concerning whether Pirker’s operation of his unmanned aircraft over the campus of the University of Virginia in 2011 was careless or reckless.
The NTSB specifically rejected the administrative law judge’s characterization of Mr. Pirker’s aircraft, stating that the FAA’s
“definitions are clear on their face. Even if we were to accept the law judge’s characterization of respondent’s aircraft, allegedly used at altitudes up to 1,500 feet AGL for commercial purposes, as a “model aircraft,” the definitions on their face do not exclude even a “model aircraft” from the meaning of “aircraft.” Furthermore, the definitions draw no distinction between whether a device is manned or unmanned. An aircraft is “any” “device” that is “used for flight.” We acknowledge the definitions are as broad as they are clear, but they are clear nonetheless.”
In summary, those drone operators who believe FAA regulations do not apply to them are now, as a matter of law, wrong. Drone operators can be fined for reckless operation, and they are now on notice of that fact.
Brendan Schulman, Pirker’s lawyer and an attorney at Kramer, Levin, Naftalis & Frankel says that he is reviewing the options for the next step in the Pirker case. ”While we disagree with the decision, today’s NTSB ruling in the Pirker case is narrowly limited to whether unmanned aircraft systems are subject to an aviation safety regulation concerning reckless operation, an issue that the NTSB has said requires further factual investigation before a penalty is imposed.” Schulman said, “The more significant question of whether the safe operation of drones for business purposes is prohibited by any law was not addressed in the decision, and is currently pending before the D.C. Circuit in other cases being handled by Kramer Levin.”