NTSB Review Panel Finds FAA Rules Apply to Drones

A four-member review panel at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reversed and remanded a decision made by an NTSB administrative law judge in the case Huerta v. Pirker, a landmark case dealing with the commercial use of drones and the FAA’s jurisdiction over them.

The Pirker case began in October 2011 when Raphael Pirker was remotely operating an unmanned aircraft to take pictures and videos of the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, VA.   As a result, Pirker was cited by the FAA and fined $10,000 for operating the unmanned aircraft “in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another”.   Pirker appealed, and on March 6, 2014, an NTSB administrative law held that:  

  1. none of the existing federal statutory or regulatory definitions of ‘aircraft’ applies to unmanned aircraft or model airplanes;
  2. existing FAA jurisdiction does not apply to enforcement against model aircraft or drone flight;
  3. current FAA regulations do not apply to model airplanes or unmanned aircraft  flight; and
  4. at the time of the flight, there was no enforceable rule or regulation to enforce against the operator.

Pirker’s fine was dismissed and the initial ruling was viewed as a victory for drone enthusiasts. The FAA immediately appealed the decision, and the NTSB review board issued its decision on November 17, 2014.

The review board rejected the ALJ’s interpretation that the unmanned vehicle was a model aircraft, and therefore excluded from FAA oversight. The review board found that the definition of ‘aircraft’ in the existing statutes and regulations was so clear as to leave no room for another interpretation. The review board also pointed out those existing definitions had no differentiation between manned and unmanned aircraft. The board’s conclusion was that “an aircraft is any device that is used for flight”.

Building on the interpretation of the definition of the word ‘aircraft’ as it relates to unmanned vehicles, the review board also determined that FAA regulations concerning the safe operation of aircraft did apply to the machine and operator in question.

The case will now be sent back to the administrative law judge for reexamination based on the findings of the review board. The main issue that will be addressed is whether Pirker violated  14 CFR §91.13, which states “ (a) Aircraft operations for the purpose of air navigation. No person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another”.

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