NTSB Overturns Judge's Ruling in Pirker UAV Case

Board finds that drones are indeed aircraft too.

Commercial Drone

Commercial Drone

In the end, it came down to what the definition of an "aircraft" is. In a landmark legal decision that will have a far-reaching impact on the FAA's ability to crack down on those accused of operating UAVs recklessly, the National Transportation Safety Board today overturned a judge's earlier ruling that small remote-operated aircraft aren't subject to the Federal Aviation Regulations.

NTSB law judge Patrick Geraghty last March ruled that the FAA lacked the broad authority to penalize UAV operators under the FARs, a position the agency strongly refuted. The contentious issue arose in the case of Raphael Pirker, a videographer who was fined $10,000 by the FAA for flying his remote-controlled aircraft to film promotional videos for the University of Virginia Medical Center. The FAA argued that Pirker's flights were careless and reckless because he flew close to people on the ground.

In deciding the issue, the NTSB noted the case "calls upon us to ascertain a clear, reasonable definition of 'aircraft' for purposes of the prohibition on careless and reckless operation. We must look no further than the clear, unambiguous plain language that an 'aircraft' is any 'device' used for flight in the air." The NTSB concluded that this encompassed "any aircraft, manned or unmanned, large or small."

The decision allows the case to move forward on the question of whether Pirker's commercial flights were indeed careless and reckless. But for now the broader issue is settled: a UAV, in eyes of the federal government, is an aircraft just like any other.

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