FAA asks NTSB to review unmanned-aircraft ruling

March 10, 2014

The FAA, expressing concern about the "safe operation" of the nation’s airspace, has asked the National Transportation Safety Board to review a judge’s ruling that deals a blow to the agency’s efforts to regulate flights of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). 

The appeal of the case, in which the judge rejected a $10,000 fine levied by the FAA against an unmanned aircraft operator, "has the effect of staying the decision until the Board rules. 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," the FAA said in a March 7 news release.

The FAA, which is still developing its framework for unmanned aircraft regulation, appealed quickly after the administrative judge threw out the fine against Raphael Pirker, a photographer who flew a drone to acquire commercial aerial images in Virginia in October 2011. 

The ruling was issued by NTSB Administrative Law Judge Patrick G. Geraghty, who has been with the NTSB since 1975, is a former naval aviator, and holds airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates, according to his profile on the NTSB website.

According to news reports, Geraghty ruled that the FAA has no regulations applicable to flights of "model aircraft," and had no basis for sanctioning the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) flight. The ruling was seen making it more difficult for the FAA to keep UAVs grounded as demand for their use grows.

AOPA reported March 4 that the FAA, on a Web page titled "Busting myths about the FAA and unmanned aircraft," maintains otherwise. 

"There are no shades of gray in FAA regulations. Anyone who wants to fly an aircraft—manned or unmanned—in U.S. airspace needs some level of FAA approval," it says.

The FAA also assessed the progress it was making—before the ruling—toward dealing with the burgeoning unmanned aircraft system phenomenon.

"In the 2012 FAA reauthorization legislation, Congress told the FAA to come up with a plan for 'safe integration' of UAS by September 30, 2015. Safe integration will be incremental. The agency is still developing regulations, policies and standards that will cover a wide variety of UAS users, and expects to publish a proposed rule for small UAS—under about 55 pounds—later this year. That proposed rule will likely include provisions for commercial operations."

As the public demand for various uses of unmanned aircraft has grown, AOPA has maintained that the aircraft be held to the same safety standards as manned aircraft with which they would share airspace, for everyone’s safety.