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: 4739

Comment by Andrew Rabbitt on October 10, 2013 at 11:30pm

What evidence do the FAA have that Mr Pirker was "on the job" when he was flying?  Did they squeeze an admission out of someone, find some invoices or have they found a copy of the contract in a UVA dumpster?

Comment by Andrew Rabbitt on October 10, 2013 at 11:36pm

Oh, and what evidence do the FAA have that the footage was taken by Mr Pirker's Ritewing Zephyr, or is this just an assumption too?

Comment by mP1 on October 10, 2013 at 11:54pm

@Brendan

What your saying may be true, but the document only lists one offence and quotes its section and text. Thats what they list and thats all that matters, everything else is heresay, what matters is whats written in black and white. 

Comment by BluSky1 on October 12, 2013 at 12:17pm

The USA Government shakes down little kids selling lemon aid at the PGA for its cut of the money. The policy of treating a "foam air plane" weigh in at 4LBS  the same as predator drone is not based on safety or logic. The current FAA policy is based on the greed of bureaucrats. 

Comment by Parke @ ParkeFlyer on October 15, 2013 at 3:47pm

What evidence do the FAA have that Mr Pirker was "on the job" when he was flying?

...and what evidence do the FAA have that the footage was taken by Mr Pirker's Ritewing Zephyr...

Andrew, I'm definitely not taking the FAA side on this, but at the time he posted a video of this flight, Trappy made it well known that this was a paying gig as well as the gear he was using. Even at the time, he got a fair amount of forum criticism, and his defense was that he was hired to do this and had proper clearances/permission (if I remember correctly). I don't think the FAA had to hunt for any evidence. I'm guessing that it was the video he posted and the comments he made about the video that caught the FAA's attention. I'm quite pleased Trappy has taken it upon himself to challenge the vagueness of all this, and I appreciate his efforts. One way or another, the outcome of this will be setting a precedent.  On the other hand, this can also be a lesson to others that if you want to avoid trouble, keep a low profile.

Comment by Andrew Rabbitt on October 15, 2013 at 5:32pm

Yes Parke, that may be the case, but Rule Number One for the defence team is don't do the prosecution's work for them.

Rule Two is to make sure they've done their job properly by seeking out any assumptions they are making in their claims, because assumptions != evidence.

Comment by HeliStorm on October 15, 2013 at 6:20pm
Unless there is a paper trail, just talking about being paid and posting video is not very damning evidence. I could easily pull someone else's footage, post it, and claim I was paid to fly my supposed mission. In the end, I could have done nothing, but said a lot in order to build a reputation, or something. This is likely NOT the case with Trappy, but a first year law student could tear the FAAs case apart without more solid evidence.

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