The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday sided with the Federal Aviation Administration in a case that questions whether federal aircraft regulations apply to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or "drones."
The Board referred back to an administrative law judge the case of Raphael Pirker, a UAV operator who the FAA claims violated federal aircraft rules by allegedly flying a UAV recklessly over the University of Virginia campus in 2011.
A judge originally dismissed FAA's order requiring Pirker to pay a civil penalty of $10,000 for the alleged violation, NTSB said. The dismissal was premised on the judge's findings that Pirker's UAV could be compared to a model aircraft, and that FAA has no enforceable laws regarding such aircraft.
The latest NTSB decision, however, challenges that ruling. According to the Board, FAA "may apply the regulation that prohibits operation of an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner to unmanned aircraft," but an administrative law judge will further decide if Pirker's operation of his UAV in 2011 was "reckless or careless."
The ruling signifies that FAA may now have the authority to impose civil penalties on UAV operators who are found to be flying "recklessly or carelessly."
In a statement, FAA said it "believes Mr. Pirker operated a UAS in a careless or reckless manner, and that the proposed civil penalty should stand. The agency looks forward to a factual determination by the Administrative Law Judge on the 'careless or reckless' nature of the operation in question."
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry group, said this week that despite the ruling, there are still deeper questions that need to be answered about whether UAV owners can operate their vehicles commercially.
It's a big question for sectors like agriculture, film and public safety, which are exploring UAV use for crop scouting, movie-making and missing person searches.
Currently, the FAA says it prohibits operation of UAS for commercial purposes, regardless of the operator's adherence to model aircraft rules.
According to an FAA fact sheet, personal recreation flights are allowed, provided the operator flies below 400 feet, 3 miles from an airport, and away from populated areas.
FAA says plans to integrate UAVs into commercial airspace are in the works, though rules for that type of operation have not been released.