Judge's ruling may open skies to more commercial drones

Washington - A judge's decision to overturn the first fine against a drone operator may lead to more commercial unmanned-aircraft flights in the United States before rules are written to govern their use.

Judge Patrick Geraghty of the National Transportation Safety Board, which decides appeals of enforcement actions by the Federal Aviation Administration, Thursday dismissed the agency's $10,000 fine against Raph ael Pirker for reckless flying. The FAA has no authority over small unmanned aircraft, Geraghty ruled.

"This has very significant implications for companies that have been eager to proceed with commercial applications for UAS technologies," Brendan Schulman, Pirker's lawyer, said in an interview.

The decision is a setback for the FAA, which has held that U.S. commercial drone flights are prohibited until it writes rules governing their use. "We are reviewing the decision," the agency said in an emailed statement. It has the option to appeal.

At the time of Pirker's flight to shoot a promotional video over the University of Virginia in Charlottesville on Oct. 17, 2011, "there was no enforceable FAA rule" on the type of model aircraft he used, Geraghty said in his decision.

The FAA argued that Pirker's flight, with a plane made with a foam wing and weighing less than 5 pounds, was "careless and reckless," putting it under the agency's authority to enforce flying safety.

Pirker flew under bridges, near statues and over pedestrians, as documented on video he shot that day.

The decision counters the FAA's assertion, most recently made in an update posted on its website Feb. 26, that there are "no shades of gray in FAA regulations. Anyone who wants to fly an aircraft - manned or unmanned - in U.S. airspace needs some level of FAA approval."

Even before the ruling, the FAA was struggling to police the commercial use of drones.

Drones have been used to film scenes in the movie "The Wolf of Wall Street" and sporting events for ESPN. They've inspected oilfield equipment, mapped land and photographed homes for real estate marketing, say industry officials.

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