If 2014 could be metaphored (yes, that’s a new made-up word) as a huge bowling tournament, then the drone industry saw its shares of strikes and gutters as judicial boards and courts granted some victories and not a few losses for UAV pilots in the court system. Highlights include:
FAA vs. Raphael Pirker
Commercial drone videographer Raphael Pirker became one of the first targets of the FAA’s ambiguous policies regarding UAV flight after the agency dropped a $10,000 fine on the Swiss-Austrian drone videographer for flying a camera-laden drone over the University of Virginia in 2011. Pirker took the FAA to court and a federal judge overturned the ruling, leading to yet another appeal by the agency.
Documents obtained by Motherboard.com revealed that Pirker had violated no regulations. “Whether there’s actually a regulation making commercial drones illegal is the question that has been debated for months in a landmark, precedent-setting court case that has, at least temporarily, opened the skies for commercial drone operators,” the report stated.
In November, the National Transportation Safety Board issued an opinion and order essentially granting that the FAA regulations (such as they are) apply to smaller UAVs. This opinion gave the FAA a hunting license to enforce penalties against commercial drone pilots who they deem are “flying recklessly.” As for Pirker, the NTSB order remanded his case back to Administrative Law Judge Patrick Geraghty to “collect evidence and determine whether or not Pirker was, in fact, flying recklessly.”
Pirker grew so frustrated with the U.S. legal system that he moved to Hong Kong last year and now can fly his drones without fear of government harassment.
FAA vs. Texas EquuSearch
If you’ve noticed a trend in which the FAA harasses drone pilots without actually citing a specific regulation within its legal hodge-podge of rules (some contradictory), you are correct. Just ask Texas EquuSearch.
The non-profit organization, volunteer group deploys drones for search-and-rescue operations and has aided law enforcement and families in finding lost people. In February, the FAA sent a “cease-and-desist” e-mail to Equus, effectively halting their SAR efforts in the midst of a search for a missing Louisiana man
“I cannot understand the controversy going on about the use of drone aircraft for searching for lost children, dementia victims and the victims of foul play,” Liberty County (Texas) Sheriff’s Capt. Ken DeFoor stated in an interview with the Houston Chronicle. “To me, it’s illogical and it makes no sense,” he added.
Equus filed a lawsuit against the FAA and a federal appeals court judge ruled against the agency in July stating: “The email at issue is not a formal cease-and-desist letter representing the agency’s final conclusion that an entity has violated the law. The [FAA] employee did not represent the consummation of the agency’s decision making process, nor did it give rise to any legal consequences.”
The group immediately resumed using UAVs in a missing-person’s case in Livingston, Texas. As Motherboard.com’s Jason Koebler wrote: “[The] decision shouldn’t be too surprising—in its own argument in the case, the FAA said that pilots should ignore its orders because they aren’t actually orders in a roundabout attempt to get the case thrown out in order to keep drones in legal limbo.”
State of New York vs. Wilkins Mendoza and Remy Castro
Drone pilots flew through victorious legal skies in October after New York City’s District Attorney’s Office dropped charges against two UAV pilots accused of flying their DJI Phantom 2 too close to a police helicopter near the George Washington Bridge.
Wilkins Mendoza and Remy Castro faced felony reckless endangerment charges after being arrested in July. However, Castro told New York’s EyeWitness News 7 that initial reports were completely backwards and added he had video evidence to back up his version of the events.
“No way we threatened the helicopter. The helicopter came toward us, we were in our fly zone this little space here flying back and forth .. He’s the one getting close to us so we got nervous,” Castro said.
Although the duo still face federal charges, Castro’s attorney Michael Kushner said the FAA charges are administrative and not criminal. “It’s an FAA proceeding to determine whether or not air space was violated based upon the officer’s statements that it was,” he said. “We commend the DA’s office for actually taking the affirmative steps to dismiss the case.”
Jason is a longstanding contributor to DroneLife with an avid interest in all things tech. He focuses on anti-drone technologies and the public safety sector; police, fire, and search and rescue.
Beginning his career as a journalist in 1996, Jason has since written and edited thousands of engaging news articles, blog posts, press releases and online content.
Subscribe to DroneLife here.