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Remote aircraft pilot fights $10,000 FAA fine, could change drone rules

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Raphael Pirker LeWeb flickr
Raphael Pirker LeWeb flickr

Earlier this year, the Federal Aviation Administration sought to penalize a commercial drone operator with a massive fine. It ordered Raphael Pirker to pay $10,000 for an October 17th, 2011 incident during which it says Pirker operated his aircraft — in this case a 4.5-pound Ritewing Zephyr-powered glider — "in a careless or reckless manner" that put nearby lives and private property in danger. He had been hired to obtain aerial photos and video of the University of Virginia campus for a company called Lewis Communications, and the FAA found numerous faults with Pirker's attempts to capture that footage. Known as "Trappy" within flyer circles, Pirker has captured similar video of New York City, San Francisco, and other cities in the past.

Obviously he was operating without a pilot's certificate, but the problems extend beyond that. The FAA says Pirker operated the styrofoam "drone" at extremely low altitudes. He flew it through a tunnel with moving cars below. He came too close to a UVA statue, railway tracks, and civilians. At one point, Pirker's flying even caused a nearby individual "to take immediate evasive maneuvers so as to avoid being struck" by the model plane. (Pirker maintains this was his spotter on the commercial project.)

The FAA insists Pirker put people (and property) at serious risk

Faced with such a significant punishment, Pirker is now taking the FAA head on. First, he's asserting that there are no federal regulations that govern the operation of model planes. But more than that, his appeal before the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) could ultimately result in the agency's 2007 ban on commercial drones being invalidated. His lawyer says this is a reasonable path because the FAA failed to hold any notice-and-comment rulemaking period before issuing the ban — a necessity when its rules may significantly impact the public. Since that never happened, the massive fine can't be enforced, Pirker's attorney maintains.

"There is no enforceable federal regulation concerning the operation of a model airplane," says attorney Brendan Schulman, speaking to Wired. Pirker also takes issue with the FAA's reasoning behind the 2007 guidelines. The ban, along with the FAA's other drone guidelines was established with safety as the chief concern. Yet hobbyists — who may well be using the same aircraft — aren't subject to the ban. Asks Pirker, "How come the flight is less dangerous if you’re not receiving any compensation for it?" The FAA eventually hopes to have a concrete set of new guidelines covering the commercial drone industry (which supporters say could prove enormously profitable), but Wired says those aren't expected until sometime in 2015 at the earliest. Civilian drone operators must adhere to some policies, however. An unknown New York pilot likely violated those earlier this month when a drone crash landed on the streets of Manhattan. Another of Raphael "Trappy" Pirker's videos is below.