- Raphael Pirker remotely piloted a model plane for commercial purposes
- The FAA said he needed to get authorization beforehand
- But federal administrative judge sides with pilot, dumps fine
- FAA appealed, saying it fears the decision could impact safety
Fearing that flocks of unmanned aircraft might soon traverse U.S. skies, the Federal Aviation Administration on Friday quickly appealed a judge's ruling that the agency does not have the authority to regulate commercial drones.
The case involves Raphael Pirker, a drone enthusiast fined $10,000 by the FAA for using his 56-inch foam glider to take promotional videos of the University of Virginia Medical Center.
The FAA said Pirker's flight ran afoul of its strict rules governing the commercial use of drones.
On Friday, less than 24 hours after losing its case, the FAA said it was appealing the decision by Patrick Geraghty, an administrative law judge with the National Transportation Safety Board.
"The agency is concerned that this decision could impact ... the safety of people and property on the ground," the FAA said in a statement.
Geraghty said FAA regulations approved for manned aircraft did not apply to unmanned aircraft any more than they applied to paper airplanes or balsa wood planes.
Pirker's attorney, Brendan Schulman, called it "a tremendously significant decision for model aircraft and commercial drone operators."
"As a general matter, the decision finds that the FAA's 2007 policy statement banning the commercial use of model aircraft is not enforceable. It would appear to me to have a very significant impact on other operators," Schulman said.
But the decision confounded the FAA, which as recently as last week had publicized its restrictions on commercial use of drones.
In a press release headlined "Busting Myths about the FAA and Unmanned Aircraft," it stressed that UAS enthusiasts could not use drones for commercial purposes.
"A commercial flight requires a certified aircraft, a licensed pilot and operating approval. To date, only one operation has met these criteria, using Insitu's ScanEagle, and authorization was limited to the Arctic," the FAA's Busting Myths release said.
"There are no shades of gray in FAA regulations," the FAA continued. "Anyone who wants to fly an aircraft-manned or unmanned-in U.S. airspace needs some level of FAA approval."
The flight that got Pirker in trouble occurred October 17, 2011, when he remotely piloted a $130 RiteWing Zephyr II aircraft at the campus medical center.
The FAA investigated, and the following April it proposed a $10,000 civil penalty, saying that Pirker operated the plane "in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another."
Pirker operated the aircraft within about 50 feet of numerous individuals, about 20 feet of a crowded street, and within approximately 100 feet of an active heliport at UVA, the FAA alleged. One person had to take "evasive measures" to avoid being struck by the aircraft, the agency said.
Pirker appealed the case to the NTSB, where the case went before Geraghty. The FAA is appealing the matter to the full safety board.