From Wired:

Drone Pilot Fights for Right to Profit in the Unmanned Skies

In June 30, 1956, two airliners flying over the Grand Canyon collided. All 128 passengers and crew aboard the planes perished. It was the first U.S. air disaster with more than 100 fatalities. The accident made clear that the nation’s burgeoning air-travel industry needed better safety oversight. Citing the “tragic losses of human life,” President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed legislation creating the Federal Aviation Administration in 1958.

Six decades and a zillion regulations later, the agency that supervises everything from air-worthiness to passenger gadget use has taken legal action for the first time against an on-ground pilot — an operator of a styrofoam, 4.5-pound Ritewing Zephyr-powered glider. The $10,000 levy (.pdf) invokes the same code section that governs the conduct of actual airline-passenger pilots, charging modelerRaphael Pirker with illegally operating a drone for commercial purposes and flying it “in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.”

Pirker is fighting the citation (.pdf) before the National Transportation Safety Board, challenging the FAA’s assertion that it has the power to supervise the use of unmanned drones. If Pirker prevails, the FAA’s 2007 ban on the commercial use of unmanned drones — a thriving overseas business — may be nullified.

Pirker’s legal battle throws a spotlight on a commercial drone scene in the United States operating in a grey area. The FAA has issued dozens of cease-and-desist letters to operators of commercial model aircraft, forcing some companies to shut down. Others, however, are performing their aerial filming and crop and real estate surveying businesses underground — or sometimes right in the open.

The agency is working on a set of regulations for the budding industry, but those rules won’t be unveiled until as early as 2015. Meanwhile, uncertainty reigns.

Pirker’s lawyer maintains that the 2007 ban on commercial drones is invalid because the FAA failed to hold public hearings before issuing the rule. “There is no enforceable federal regulation concerning the operation of a model airplane,” says the attorney, Brendan Schulman of New York.

The term drone — appropriated from the military’s unmanned aerial vehicles — is relatively new, but model air-planing has a long history. Just 20 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, the nation’s first National Aeromodeling Championships were held in 1923. The American Academy of Model Aeronautics, of Muncie, Indiana, boasts some 170,000 members today.

“The first time you fly one of these things, you’re whole body thinks it’s flying,” says Pirker, who runs TBS Avionics, a Hong Kong-based drone parts supplier.

Pirker, 28, has captured dramatic footage over Rio De Janeiro, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Statue of Liberty, among dozens of other famous and not-so-famous locations.

His FAA legal troubles began when he was on the job for the public relations firm Lewis Communications in 2011. His assignment: Capture images over the University of Virginia. The resulting video takes viewers on a wild ride, and the FAA’s citation says that it amounts to a series of violations — flying too low over vehicles, buildings, people, streets and structures, and even aiming the craft at a person.

Read the rest here (I'm quoted)

That was his spotter, Pirker says.

Views: 4756

Comment by John Hestness on October 9, 2013 at 1:53pm

Well I think the FAA is slow, wrong, and a poster child for bureaucracy, but that doesn't make Trappy right. With that said, I think I am glad that somebody competent (as opposed to hacks crashing into buildings) is stirring the pot to get some action on the rule making.

Comment by LanMark on October 9, 2013 at 2:04pm

It will be interesting to see what the FAA says at the Kansas UAV conference next week.. if anything.   They have a speaker role in the agenda.  We will see.

Most of the violations are really safety issue and not the commercial operation issue...  but then again that seems like it would fall under a different agency for reckless endangerment.

Comment by Josh Potter on October 9, 2013 at 2:39pm

Trappy shouldn't have done it for money.  The FAA would have a much weaker case if he was doing it as a "hobby".

Comment by mP1 on October 9, 2013 at 5:49pm

If flying planes and copters is basically completely illegal, why do they allow them to be sold in the US ?

Comment by HeliStorm on October 9, 2013 at 6:01pm
One question I have yet to see answered anywhere is, who was the ultimate customer? I realize he was flying for Lewis Communications, which is a PR firm, but who
were they working for? Themselves? UVA? Some unknown third party? The reason asked is, a lot of how safe or unsafe this was,in my mind, depends on who knew what about the flights. If UVA set it up, they should have been able to provide a relative amount of safety on THEIR campus. Most particularly, they could have temporarily shut down the helipad. But, they COULD have also shutdown streets, public areas, and even assumed a certain level of liability for their structures.
Comment by HeliStorm on October 9, 2013 at 6:04pm
If they did this without the blessing of the university, then there are problems.
Comment by mP1 on October 9, 2013 at 6:23pm

@Darrel, @Guy

I will have to re-read the allegations against trappy but i cant recall mention that he was doing it for commercial purposes. All the mentions seem to be the result of transcribing the various landmarks that he passed. This is why i stated my original reply as they seem to be writing like flying models is a new thing and in their opinion is dangerous even to statues and trees.

Comment by W. Joe Taylor on October 9, 2013 at 8:31pm

Check out the other post on this started by Gary Mortimer.  It is still listed under TOP CONTENT on the right side of this page.  You are all asking the same questions again. Also, the motion to dismiss covers all the allegations and is a complete class on this subject.  An incredible read, for sure.   See it at:

Comment by W. Joe Taylor on October 9, 2013 at 8:41pm

Thanks Chris for posting this and the links to the Wired article by David Kravets.  I also saw the link he had there to the motion to dismiss. 

Comment by Gary Mortimer on October 10, 2013 at 12:37am

Asking the same questions again and again is exactly the problem with the issue over there. Its like the problem is constantly being invented. 

This case is really straightforward, there is another on the cards not involving Trappy that had the NTSB straight on the phone to lots of folks.It has highlighted a chain of difficult points involving training and liability.

From the outside the American regulatory setup is quite bewildering. The CAA asked UK model flyers what they thought would be sensible rules to start and we got them shortly afterwards I don't think it took more than 18 months. That was back in 2007. Some folks moan and complain that its expensive and restrictive but the more than 200 licenced companies must be managing to earn a crust despite it. Some folks are flying BLOS now as well and over time the size of aircraft being allowed to be flown will increase. All as the CAA gathers data on real world commercial ops.

The USA is adopting a get them all flying at once attitude. From hummingbird to global hawk all the while not gathering data. DHS has a minimum of 1000 flight hours demonstrated on type before allow anything into its test site program for RAPS aircraft, getting there from the small business stand is going to be expensive. The two approved commercial types had the benefit of a war or two and military deep pockets to fund them. Not a very level playing field is it.

Trappy did well not just to pay the fine and throw everyone else under the bus but its a high risk strategy, he will either be a hero or villain after this case. With the shutdown, another thing very hard to understand from outside, who knows when it will happen. 


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