Drone pilot and FAA settle for $1,100 in key commercial use case

Raphael Pirker, who is probably the world’s most famous drone pilot, has reached a deal with the Federal Aviation Agency, which had sought to impose a $10,000 fine on Pirker for using an unmanned aircraft to take pictures for the University of Virginia in 2011.

Pirker issued a statement through his company, Team BlackSheep, that described the settlement, which will require Pirker to pay $1,100 but does not admit any regulatory violation, as “favorable”:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”We are pleased that the case ignited an important international conversation about the civilian use of drones, the appropriate level of governmental regulation concerning this new technology, and even spurred the regulators to open new paths to the approval of certain commercial drone operations.”[/blockquote]

The case, which began in 2013, quickly took on national significance as a test of the FAA’s power to regulate unmanned aircraft at a time when consumer drones are exploding in popularity among hobbyists and when a wide variety of industries are clamoring to use them.

The FAA chose to fine Pirker because he was using his drone for a commercial purpose (photography), which the agency claims is forbidden without a special waiver.

Pirker, however, argued that the FAA’s rules on commercial use are beyond the agency’s legal authority since the agency had failed to pass formal rules. A number of high profile media outlets, including the New York Times, filed legal briefs supporting Pirker before the National Transport Safety Board, claiming the ban violated their first amendment right for news gathering.

Pirker initially won a key ruling last year before an administrative law judge who agreed with his legal position, but the Board later overturned the ruling in a way that side-stepped the question of whether the FAA overstepped its authority.

Pirker’s lawyer Brendan Schulman, who specializes in drone law, has argued that the most appropriate way to regulate drones is through “micro-regulations” that would ensure safety, but not impose burdens like those required for plane or helicopter pilots.

Meanwhile, the FAA’s foot-dragging on drone rules, which some attribute to pressure from pilots, is a source of frustration to U.S. companies, which fear they will lose out to competitors in places like Canada and France, where commercial drone use is flourishing.

Here’s a copy of the settlement:

Pirker settlement

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Board says FAA has power over drones, can impose $10K fine

In a setback for consumer drone advocates, the National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday supported the FAA’s authority to impose a $10,000 fine on Raphael Pirker, a photographer who had taken pictures from the air over the University of Virginia.