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Federal Judge Rules Commercial Drones are Completely Legal

By March 7, 2014 10 Comments

On October 17th, 2011, Raphael Pirker was hired to fly a drone over the University of Virginia campus to obtain aerial photos and videos for a company called Lewis Communications. The Federal Aviation Administration did not take kindly to his flying without a pilot’s certificate and fined him $10,000 for what they said was “careless and reckless behavior”.

Pirker, who is known as “Trappy” within the drone community, flew a 4.5-pound Ritewing Zephyr-powered glider at extremely low altitudes as he maneuvered the craft through tunnels with moving cars below. He also flew the drone near railroad tracks and civilians – one of who had to dodge out of the way to avoid being struck. But despite all of this, Pirker refused to pay the fine and hired a lawyer instead.

Pirker’s lawyer, Brendan Schulman, claimed that the FAA has never regulated model aircrafts and hasn’t followed the necessary protocol to make an official regulation against them. The FAA has repeatedly claimed that flying drones for commercial purposes is illegal, but apparently they were wrong.

A judge with the National Transportation Safety Board has ruled that there are no laws against flying a drone commercially and that the FAA has never undertaken the required public notice to make an official regulation. This not only means “Trappy” doesn’t have to pay the fine, it also allows people to do whatever they want with drones and charge money for it. All the companies that have been harassed by the FAA for flying drones also have nothing to worry about – at least for now.

The FAA could potentially establish an emergency ruling to outlaw commercial drones but it’s unclear how long that could take. The FAA has also kept quiet regarding the decision and hasn’t indicated how they plan to regulate unmanned aircrafts in American skies.

The drone age is upon us and it’s no-holds-barred.


Ivan Barajas

Author Ivan Barajas

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Join the discussion 10 Comments

  • Speaking (or in this case, writing) as a Private Pilot; the court is absolutely correct. There are absolutely no regulations or laws (FAA laws are called, “FAR”‘s) with regards to radio controlled models or aircraft. Since this drone was flying at the same altitude as any other radio controlled model, I believe it falls within those guidelines. That being said, I’m not sure about the invasion of privacy this offers. That, is whole nother kettle of fish!

  • Peter Fanelli says:

    The NTSB has judges? I didn’t know the NTSB was a court.

    • Ivan B. says:

      The Administrative Law Judges conduct formal hearings and issue initial decisions on appeals by airmen filed with the Safety Board. The NTSB serves as the “court of appeals” for any airman, mechanic or mariner whenever certificate action is taken by the Federal Aviation Administration or the U.S. Coast Guard Commandant, or when civil penalties are assessed by the FAA.

  • John Cushard says:

    Wow, it has come at last, the door has opened to force the government to step in and legislate drones. Well be careful what you ask for, my bet is private citizens who enjoy radio controlled flight, will pay the price. I see new laws demanding licenses for operating and new guidelines covering all aspects of radio control. The end result will be corporations will be the only ones flying. the home built R/C plane will be outlawed or subject to government inspection and rejection, much like home built airplanes.
    Having said that I find Mr. Prinker’s actions irresponsible, failure to maintain a safe altitude, flying in a way as to distract drivers, endangering the public. If this man were to have thrown bricks into crowds he would be in jail but he chose to fly a device weighing more than most bricks in a way that forced people to duck for cover.
    There has always been rules for radio controlled flight set up by the AMA, American Modeler Association. Modelers have always self governed in this respect but now you have invited the FAA…..all I can do is watch a beloved hobby go away because of a reckless individual..

  • mike says:

    he almost hit someone? what a jerk. a law-abiding jerk, but a jerk nonetheless

  • Steve says:


  • 26 says:

    Amazon wins. Newegg, your death will be swift.

  • Mark says:

    This was just a test case. Another judge could rule the exact opposite. IMO the FAA will regroup and formulate formal rules which will be codified into the Code of Federal Regulations. I do think both recreational and commercial drones should be exempt under a certain size, range, and payload.

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