An unmanned aircraft is subject to enforcement of regulations prohibiting reckless operation of aircraft, the NTSB said Nov. 18 in a decision sending the case of photographer Raphael Pirker back to an administrative law judge.
The FAA had fined Pirker $10,000 for allegedly flying a Ritewing Zephyr radio-controlled airplane recklessly over the University of Virginia campus in 2011. Administrative Law Judge Patrick G. Geraghty ruled against the FAA in March, arguing that no enforceable federal aviation regulations cover model aircraft. The FAA appealed the judge’s decision; the recent NTSB order remands the case to the administrative law judge, who must now determine whether the operation was careless or reckless.
“The FAA believes Mr. Pirker operated a UAS [unmanned aircraft system] in a careless or reckless manner, and that the proposed civil penalty should stand,” the agency said in a press release. “The agency looks forward to a factual determination by the Administrative Law Judge on the ‘careless or reckless’ nature of the operation in question.”
According to the FAA’s complaint, Pirker operated the unmanned aircraft “directly towards an individual standing on a … sidewalk causing the individual to take immediate evasive maneuvers so as to avoid being struck by [the] aircraft,” “through a … tunnel containing moving vehicles,” “under a crane,” “below tree top level over a tree lined walkway,” “under an elevated pedestrian walkway,” and “within approximately 100 feet of an active heliport,” and was being compensated for providing aerial photographs and video.
The lack of regulations for unmanned aircraft has led to widespread confusion regarding the FAA’s authority over model aircraft and unmanned aircraft systems operations. The FAA reasserted its enforcement authority over model aircraft in June in an interpretation of provisions of the 2012 FAA reauthorization, stating that “if a model aircraft operator endangers the safety of the National Airspace System, the FAA has the authority to take enforcement action against those operators for those safety violations.”